Today, I’m sharing a blog post by interior designer Christa Pirl all about incorporating antiques into interior design. She is an interior designer in New York and also started Christa Pirl Furniture, a custom vintage, and antique restoration consultancy. This was followed by a custom fabric line, developed with her father, based on both traditional French and Japanese motifs.
SELLING ANTIQUES AND INTERIORS
By Christa Pirl
I was lucky enough to get my first job out of college in Hawaii. I worked on stunning vacation properties, but boy, was it a sourcing nightmare. Pretty much everything had to be shipped, took months and months to arrive, and items were often endlessly delayed due to dockworkers strikes in LA or Shanghai or who knows where. Needless to say, my boss liked to use the same few suppliers she knew would deliver.
After I left Hawaii, I continued to work the same way, as many designers do. It was easier to work with furniture suppliers that I had a relationship with and that had an easy-to-use catalog I could keep in the office. I ended up sourcing lots of furniture that looked the same from the comfort of my desk. And I had a continual, nagging feeling that I was missing out on sourcing really fantastic, unique pieces. And the thing is, I was raised by an antique collector and had an appreciation for antiques. I wondered how I ended up designing like this.
So I made a conscious decision to shop dusty antique stores and flea markets. What I found was an endless supply of things that were different and special. I was hooked. Hooked but feeling out of my depth after years of looking at new, contemporary furniture, I took the drastic step of going back to school to get my masters degree in furniture history from Sotheby’s. Armed with probably more knowledge than most designers ever need about carved Newport claw feet and the like, I felt ready to really make antique and vintage pieces a part of my design business. Over the past six years, I have been steadily selling more antique and vintage furniture and have been able to increase profits to boot.
Of course, not everyone has the luxury or desire to go back to school and study antiques in such depth. Nor is it necessary to. I hope to impart some useful knowledge to get you started down this path if you are so inclined.
A few basic tips to get us started
- Learn your stuff, some basic books will help you understand what you are looking at if it’s been a while since your school days. A few good ones:
Field Guide to American Antique Furniture
by Joseph T Butler
by Judith Miller
John Bly’s Antiques Masterclass
by John Bly
- Visit museums, auction houses, antique stores and flea markets on weekends. Books are great but seeing things in person is even better. Compare these pieces to repros; you will see the difference. And always look at price tags, you will learn the market too.
- Find a style or period that speaks to your design style and business branding. Use these pieces in projects regularly so clients see them as part of your aesthetic.
- Most designers don’t have time to visit endless estate sales or small country auctions. Develop relationships with dealers and let them know what you are looking for. They can do the dirty work and will happily sell to you with lower markups with the promise of quick sales and repeat business.
- Use the fantastic resources available online- Chairish, 1st Dibs, InCollect and The Highboy are all curated and easy to navigate which means less time online and less time stressing about the purchase. And if you know your stuff and want to dig the depths of the internet, there are lots of great non-curated sites like Tias or Ruby Lane.
One aspect that was tricky when I first started selling, was convincing clients of the very idea of having vintage and antique pieces in their homes. Of course, I had clients that already wanted this aspect in their projects, but I had many that never really thought about using antiques. While the use of antique and vintage is certainly on the rise, many people still perceive antiques as very expensive and vintage as old junk. Educating my clients was the first step in selling to them.
Some effective tactics I recommend are:
- Remind them they will never find their neighbors with the same piece!
- Spin a story when you show them an antique. Get them excited about a previous owner, the exotic land or thrilling time period the piece comes from.
- Remind them they are designing ‘green’ when they reuse furniture
- Show them how similar pricing can be by comparing the cost of a newly manufactured piece with something vintage
- Show them examples of restored pieces that are clean, tidy and smell fresh as a daisy so they don’t think you are trying to sell them grungy, old used furniture
Once I was able to get my clients on board, I regularly sold antique and vintage pieces to clients. At first, I loved sourcing pristine pieces from high-end dealers that looked fantastic and were an easy sell to my clients. However, I found by selling such high-end and fully restored antiques I really wasn’t doing any better financially than when I purchased new items for clients. I also spent huge amounts of time looking for just the right piece with the right fabric in the right finish. I was tempted to go back to catalog shopping.
Then it struck me. The best way to keep control of my time, the design and the profits was to select pieces that needed repair, refinishing or re-upholstery. This meant I was able to customize a piece specifically to a project and still use something with history and uniqueness. I didn’t have to worry about finding the perfect piece because I could make it perfect with a bit of tweaking. It was almost like creating a custom piece, but cut out much of the initial design work since the good bones of a piece was already there to work with. I was also able to keep much more of the profit by contracting directly with individual craftsmen and purchasing materials myself.
As I developed this side of my business and featured restored antiques and vintage pieces more regularly in my work, I found my clients asking me for antiques much more often. I also began gaining new clients who were looking for help restoring a piece they already owned or looking for a specific piece, and these relationships often developed into additional work. By selling antiques through my interiors business I set myself apart from many designers and offer an additional service that not only adds to my bottom line but also draws in new clients for larger projects.
Christa Pirl Bio
Raised in New York City and Norway by antique-obsessed furniture and wallpaper designers, Christa’s design education began early. Her hands-on childhood education was followed by one more formal, including a BFA in Interior Design from the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City and a Masters of Decorative Art History from the famed Sotheby’s Institute. Throughout her education, Christa gained expert and intimate knowledge of the furniture and interiors business, studied abroad in both London and Paris and experienced life behind the scenes at notable antique events such as the Armory Winter Antiques Show.
Upon graduation, Christa established Christa Pirl Interiors and worked on projects in cities around the world, including New York, Honolulu, Oslo, Auckland, St. Louis, and Park City. Christa creates eclectic, modern, livable interiors which incorporate singular antique and vintage pieces that speak clearly to her own highly evolved aesthetic, as well as meets her client’s needs and design desires.
If you want to connect with Nick May and The Chaise Lounge, please do so on our website at TheChaiseLounge.com where we talk the business of interior design.