Q&A: Tara Shaw on using antiques and vintage in a modern home

Oct 08, 2020

Tara Shaw’s design principles stem from 20 years selling antiques she acquires in France, Italy, Sweden and Belgium to major designers. In addition to her import business, she has a custom furniture line, Maison, and a licensed product line with Restoration Hardware. She lives in New Orleans. In her first book, Soul of the Home, Shaw helps readers select the best antiques and gives a modern take on how to use them. She also reveals some favorite treasure hunting spots

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, Marie Kondo, the Property Brothers or Amy Astley, editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Hello Tara and welcome. Everyone is taking a look around their homes these days and thinking of how to put some soul into it. Let's chat about how antiques and vintage pieces can add some warmth to a modern interior.

Hello from New Orleans! I’m Tara Shaw and I’m so happy to be here with Jura and the Washington Post readers.

For over twenty years I have been “guerilla antiquing” in France, Italy, Belgium and Sweden and selling antiques and vintage pieces in quantity coast to coast. It’s the treasure hunt for one-of-a-kind finds that has made my career so enjoyable.

I fortuitously fell into design in 2000 when my home and my warehouse made the cover of Veranda magazine. Jill Goodacre and Harry Connick Jr. contacted me and they were my first paying design clients! Then by word of mouth I was fortunate to work on many other homes.

I want to thank so many editors that have given me the opportunity to show my work: Veranda, Milieu, Elle Décor, House Beautiful and many international shelter magazines. I’ve also had several features on HGTV and we are now experimenting with IGTV weekly (@tarashawdesign). In 2013 I licensed a portion of my reproduction line, Tara Shaw Maison, with Restoration Hardware.

                  My first book, Soul of the Home, talks about decoding furniture periods to help the reader create an individual space that reads like their own biography, there’s a chapter on negotiating and my favorite sourcing in the US and Europe.

What is your best advice about bargaining for a better price? When is it okay to bargain? When is it inappropriate?

I love this question! My grandmother had a PhD in negotiating and I was her prodigy. When I'm in the markets, whether it's Europe or the US, I will always ask for their best price. If it's more than I want to spend, I will tell them what my budget is. It's really a conversation between two people and I think it's expected in the antique industry. I always want to be kind and polite and respect their boundaries.

Our living room is past due for repainting. Most of the furniture is navy tones and I’m in search of a creamy white that would work in a north-facing room. Alternatively, other color suggestions are welcome. Thank you!

I've been experimenting with so many whites and these are my favorites for a warm white: Benjamin Moore China White and also Linen White, which is #925.

Lately the all grey or all white kitchens have left me cold. What tips do you have for warming up the space where many of spend so much time. Soul of the Home.

I think since there is so much use of marble for countertops in the kitchen that I would probably start there. Fall in love with slabs that you would like to see daily for a long time. I would pull a warm color from the veining in the slab and build my kitchen around those tones. I'm with you on the white and grey and your kitchen should read like your biography. For cabinets, there are beautiful white oak veneers and wood veneers that will add warmth as well. The accents of antique cutting boards, confit (French or Italian old kitchen pots) up the ante for depth in the kitchen.

Specifically with traveling and acquiring antiques abroad? Is that business still continuing of buying and selling but on line instead of in person? Is there more stock available since perhaps people's lives are changing due to the pandemic?

I've talked to many antique dealers and their business continued throughout the pandemic. People are nesting and since they are spending more time at home, they are working on projects more than ever. With auction and online, the US has a wealth of resources in antiquity. I personally do not buy from photos because I am very hands-on in Europe and I cannot wait to return!

What tips do you have for those of us who love your look but may not be collecting expensive antiques?

Some of my favorite things and items for clients are not expensive. I think there are finds to be had on Ebay, auctions that are not well attended, local flea markets and antique shops. It's the joy of the hunt for me to find great value. But remember, when you find something that makes your heart go pitter-patter, pull the trigger!

I love the feeling your designs evoke. Seems you often have neutral upholstery - why is that?

Using neutral colors allows your "heroes" in the room to stand out. I like things that don't compete but compliment one another instead. You can always include pillows and accessories in color for accent. That way you can easily change them out for a whole new look.

Hi! We may be buying a house that has a family room AND a formal living room ( formal room in the front of the house). The formal living room is pretty open concept: opens straight up off the side of the foyer and then leads into the dining room without walls between either the foyer or the dining space. We really don't need a family room AND a formal living room. I'm trying to think of creative uses for the room that isn't just a living room/sitting area. If it were more closed off, I would make it my office/study room. It's too opened for that though. We also don't want it as a kids play area, since it's so visible and we don't want it messy. Any creative thoughts of what we could do with the space? We don't have the budget to wall it off.

I have a large living area and I anchored it minimally with a baby grand piano, large piece of art, a foyer table and a pair of chairs. I am still on page sixteen of Alfred Dunner's learning the piano book, but I love looking at that piano daily and I know, growing up with pianos in the house, you will one day learn to play it! This is just an idea to keep the room functional and fun without overcrowding.

If you only have a small budget, what kind of old piece and for what room gets the most bang for your buck?

The first antique I shopped for was a desk. It would have been a practical purchase for me so it was at the top of my list. I turned a corner at a market and spotted an armoire that made my heart skip a beat. I had a conversation in my head that said, "You came for a desk." But my heart said, "Take it home, you'll never regret it." I listened to my heart and pulled the trigger. That armoire anchored my living room and housed my TV and media. Years later it moved to my master bedroom and it now resides in my cabana for guests. So my suggestion is to follow your heart, purchase things you fall in love with and you will always find a place for them in your home.

So how do you feel about all the mid 20th century reproductions - aka brown furniture - that has flooded auction houses. You can get a dining room set or bed for peanuts. Is this stuff worth buying?

In auction houses, you can buy true 19th Century pieces at incredible prices. I believe in investing in true antiquity or blue-chip mid-century because of it's quality.

I am buying my first house--a rowhome in Philadelphia and am trying to figure out how to go about finding some vintage pieces to include, preferably pieces that don't break the bank. I've seen some on Etsy, but do you have any suggestions for other places to look? What's your approach for figuring out the right mix of styles/how much vintage to include while mixing in some modern?

Congratulations on your first home! I love the mix of vintage pieces with contemporary and antiquity to give your home a well-collected feel. I would look at sites like Chairish, Ebay and auction houses because in that search you can find a treasure. Design is experimental. You keep adding pieces until it's just right. Remember, these items don't have to stay in the same room for a lifetime. Just moving something into another room reinvents your space.

My mother has some antique china and glass decorative pieces that are not of interest to her and or any of the family members. What are the best ways to sell antiques in today's market conditions? How can you find a reputable dealer?

I would probably call my local auction house to see if they have any interest. If not, you can send photos to other auction houses that specialize in china and decorative pieces. Regarding being reputable, I would look for comments online from others that have used their services.

We’re getting ready to move into a new house and planning to paint several bedrooms before we get the furniture in. We want the master bedroom in shades of grey, and are looking for not-too-dark but rather pure blues and yellows (so not greyish blues, or orangey yellows) for the kids. A nice white that would work with all those for trim would be ideal. Any hints or pitfalls we should watch for?

I would go into my local paint store, whether Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams, etc., and talk with a paint specialist. I have my go-to person in New Orleans when I'm searching for the perfect grey, I just pick up the phone and explain the tones I'm looking for and have those samples delivered to the job site. By working with someone that is in the paint industry, they know the nuances of all the colors they carry. For whites, I have been using Benjamin Moore OC17, which is White Dove as a great bridge to many colors for trim. White Dove has a hint of grey in it, and could work perfectly as your trim color.

Is it a mistake to paint dark brown (not espresso... like a dark brown-brown) kitchen cabinets white? The hardwood floor in the kitchen is almost an exact shade of matching brown and it is just SO much brown. I want to brighten it up and create some contract. Is painting durable? We have kids and whatever I do, it needs to hold up. Also, I don't think I am up for the task of painting it myself. I'm hoping it won't cost an arm and a leg, but it IS a big kitchen with an island that would need the cabinets painted too. On a related note... got any good white paint color recommendations for cabinets?

Oh my gosh, I love this question! Yes, a sea of brown is easily lightened by painting ALL of your cabinetry, including the island. I would go to your local paint store and get recommendations on painters. They will know who is expensive and who is not and what their reputation is. I just painted my kitchen cabinets Benjamin Moore Linen White cut by 25%, meaning it is 75% strength of Linen White. I just did several kitchens in Benjamin Moore OC17 White Dove, and both of those are easy whites to work with. Talk to your paint representative and let them suggest about 4 test colors because paint looks very different depending on lighting. I have painted everything that didn't move for over two decades and I find that if it's prepped well and a quality paint is used, it is durable.

What kinds of things are people collecting these days in terms of antiques? What periods seem to be in demand?

I find people are gravitating toward clean lines to compliment contemporary furnishings. My go to dining chair is a Louis XVI straight or shield back chair. So Louis XVI, Directoire and Empire are always go-to's in lighting and furniture. Swedish furniture is really in demand because of its clean lines and soft-weathered finishes, which gives a home a sophisticated, relaxed vibe.

The pieces of the 1940s to 1960s are very much in demand right now. Do you consider these the antiques of tomorrow? And which designers do you think will appreciate in value?

I purchase pieces from these periods, especially if they are a well-known designer such as Eames, le Corbusier and Arnie Norell. I always try to stay with blue-chip names, even though they are not always expensive, for resale value.

My mother collected old (wooden) wicker furniture from the 40s and 50s. I have several pieces, but just don't have room in my home for them. Because they are "real" wicker, they can't really be outside in my Northern Michigan climate. Is there a way to restore them so that they *can* be used outside? If not, how would you suggest I find them a new home where they will be appreciated?

I'm concerned about putting those valuable pieces outside, unless it is a covered area. You could advertise them on Ebay or call auction houses in your area just to get a feel for the value.

Finally I can afford to invest in covering my 2 sliding glass doors plus 2 equivalent windows in my traditional living room. Currently there are those vertical blinds (horrors!) covered by sheers, kept because they control the light in the best way, but those blinds need to go. What would you put in their place - blinds of some sort or a fabric treatment?

I think fabric will always soften a room. I know you said you needed light control, so consider a lined drapery. There is an option of black-out fabric behind the drapery or you can go with just a nice thick lining. You've had blinds for quite a while and I believe the soft drapery will be a great change.

Thank you so much for your questions today. I want to thank Jura and The Washington Post readers for allowing me this opportunity to talk about the wonders of antiquity and design. Big hug, Tara

Thanks so much Tara. Next week tune in for designer Daun Curry who will answer your questions about how to design your dream bathroom, large or small. You can post your questions now right here. Bye for now.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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