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Arriving at a sprawling flea market on a crisp Saturday morning can be exciting. So many potential treasures might be hidden among the dusty piles of cast-off, second-hand goods.
Yet often it’s overwhelming, even for experts. With acres of furniture, art, accessories and more stretching out in front of you, where do you begin?
With a list, suggests New York interior designer Jenny Dina Kirschner, who rarely goes hunting for vintage items without one.
On a recent flea market visit, “we made a list of things we still needed. Accent tables, some specific chairs,” Kirschner says. You won’t always find what you seek, and you may find a few treasures you’d never imagined wanting. But having the list helps “avoid that insane feeling of arriving and, ‘Oh my God, what do I look for first?’,” she says.
So what DO designers like to look for first at a flea market?
For Los Angeles interior designer Jessica McClendon, founder of the design firm Glamour Nest, that depends where she is.
“When I shop on trips, I like to focus on items that are unique to the location. I found a Bavarian deer head carved out of wood when I was in Munich that is so interesting and unique to the Black Forest that I simply had to have it,” she says. “In Ireland, I zeroed in on textiles and antique bibles or prayer books.”
When shopping for vintage items closer to home, McClendon is always on the lookout for chairs.
“I have a full-fledged vintage chair fetish,” she says. “I find antique and vintage chairs so much more interesting and well-made than options found at retailers today. All they need is a little TLC!”
Kirschner agrees: She hunts for chairs that have an eye-catching shape but may be covered in worn or ugly fabric. “As a designer, I know I can revive that chair” by refinishing the wood and updating the upholstery, she says.
She’s open to just about any style; the key, she says, is making sure these second-hand chairs are striking and unusual.
If you’re not in the market for furniture, try hunting for art and accessories at estate sales or flea markets, says Jaclyn Joslin, an interior designer and founder of the retail store Coveted Home in Kansas City.
These items “bring life and character into a room that sometimes cannot be achieved with a new item,” Joslin says. She often uses vintage pottery and unique sculptures to add style and color to shelves, mantles and coffee tables.
Interior designer Caitlin Murray, founder and CEO of Black Lacquer Design in Los Angeles, also loves hunting for art. Her favorite finds are abstract portraits of women, and she’s had “a ton of luck finding interesting pieces at great prices,” she says. “I like to group vintage portraits together as a salon wall, or use just one as a focal point of the room to tie in other colors incorporated throughout the space.”
Smaller art and accessories can also be wonderful flea market finds.
Kirschner recently found a small enamel candy dish with a painted scene on it, and bought it for just a few dollars. She found an insignia on the back, searched online, and discovered that the piece was part of a series created in Europe decades ago by a family of artisans. She’s since hunted for more dishes from the same series, and they’ve become a treasured collection in her home.
If you’re not sure what type of accessories you’re looking for, consider focusing on one material.
“I’m a sucker for anything solid brass,” says Murray. “Some of my all-time favorite scores are a midcentury Mastercraft coffee table for $40, valued at $4,000, and a vintage, sculptural, 2-foot-tall giraffe for $25.”
You can also find eye-catching lamps and light fixtures at flea markets, but they might need rewiring.
“Ask the dealer if it’s been rewired recently. If not, do they know any history or background on it? It’s typically easy to have done, but it’s an added expense,” Kirschner says. If the light hasn’t been rewired recently, use that fact to bargain the price down.
No matter which items make your personal list for a flea-market hunt, these designers recommend buying vintage pieces that delight you. If the price is reasonable, says Kirschner, don’t hesitate: “If you want to think about it for an hour, there’s a chance it won’t be there when you get back.”