How to Score the Best Flea Market Finds *and* Make Them Work in Your Home
No home is complete without a vintage piece or two. Whether you’re updating thrift store finds or displaying a valuable vintage collectable, a flea market find can add a sense of history and old world character that a new piece just can’t. Unfortunately, not everyone has time to scour flea markets or knows how to find actual quality pieces in a sea of supposed treasures. If you’re feeling inspired to tackle a flea market and you want to add a sense of history and sentimentality to your space, it’s time to consult an expert. We chatted with interior designer and flea market pro Mikel Welch from Mikel Welch Designs to see how you can score cool vintage finds and still make them work with the rest of your more modern furniture. As a decorator for some huge celebs, Welch knows a thing or two about how to create an effortless mix of modern pieces with thoughtfully curated items, and he’s sharing some of his best tips with us.
What is your interior designer background? How did you get started? “When I was young, I busied myself with the construction of sofas and dining tables for imaginary houses. It was evident that I had a passion for design. However, it wasn’t until after I graduated from Morehouse College with a Business degree that I realized that passion. I opened up Dwell Interior Design Solutions in Atlanta at the age of 27, and I built my portfolio and clientele by offering free design services on Craigslist. After I relocated to New York, I worked with a few design firms and then decided to explore the world of television. I worked as a set designer for the Style Network and HGTV, and then in 2012, I auditioned and was cast as one of the designers on Design Star season 7. From there, my career took off. Now, I own my own company, Mikel Welch Designs, and am also the personal designer for Steve Harvey as well on-camera designer for the Steve Harvey show, where I’ve designed green rooms for amazing people such as First Lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Joan Rivers, Halle Berry and Tyler Perry.”
What’s been your best score in a flea market? “My best score was a mid-century record player I found at a local flea market, which I used for a condo in Chicago with a mid-century modern design style. This décor is characterized by clean lines, a creative yet cohesive mix of colors, a sculptural essence and a fusion of man-made materials such as teak wood and fiberglass. The record player fit this design perfectly, and it became the statement piece I geared the rest of the décor around. This record player was simply cleaned, gutted and transformed into a storage buffet that turned out to be the crowning glory of the space. For $60, I simply paired it with complementary furniture, lighting and artwork, and the space felt brand new.”
If you look for vintage pieces, how do you look for signs of authenticity? “Distinguishing the differences from an authentic vintage piece as opposed to a reproduction can be tricky, because it’s the minor details that will expose a piece’s authenticity. One way you can tell is by examining the furniture piece itself — you should look for signs of aging, such as water marks, worm holes and boards separating a bit at the seams. Wood expands and contracts with varying temperatures, so you’re sure to see some normal change in wood pieces over time. The hardware can be telltale as well, as aged glass hardware can develop a bit of a yellow-ish tint and metals can get rusted over. If it looks “old” looking, it is likely to be truly authentic. Some signs that tell you it’s a newer piece would be the obvious “new furniture” smell that says it was recently manufactured, no wear and tear on the drawer runner, or the color is too consistent. Also, if you look on its back and sides and it appears to have been refinished, then it is possible that it is a new piece designed to look older.”
How do you balance “buy what you love” with a consistent décor theme? “This definitely takes some willpower on the buyer’s part. The best thing to do is to keep the theme forefront in your mind and only buy what you love within that theme. You have to tell yourself that you love your theme so much that all other design styles are out the window. If it doesn’t fit in the theme, then you don’t love it anymore. This way, you can hone your design eye to scope out pieces that fit the theme and completely ignore other items you would buy otherwise.”
Do you have any tips on displaying a collection in a way that doesn’t look messy? “There are quite a few ways to accomplish displaying a collection in a fashionable manner without it looking cluttered. For example, when arranging a gallery wall, I cut out the pictures after tracing it on contractor’s paper. Considering the size, shape and spacing of each object, I play around with placement on the wall. Then use frog tape (something that won’t peel paint) and create a rectangle or square on the wall. Hang your pieces within that rectangle or square according to your drawing. This way your display is unique to the space and will still be in alignment, keeping it from looking cluttered. When displaying on shelves and cabinetry, pair them by size, pattern or color, and put a little bit of space between each object to give it a nice impact. If you are grouping objects on coffee or end tables, group them in odd numbers. Even numbers look too symmetrical and may distort the idea you’re going for. Grouping in odd numbers gives them contrast and the illusion of symmetry, which gives the display harmony and balance.”
What are some of your favorite go-to hacks for giving furniture new life? “One of my go-to hacks is simply refurbishing an old desk or dresser and giving it a fresh coat of paint and new hardware. They’re easy to find and restore, and create a functional and beautiful centerpiece to any room. I found this antique dresser at the Salvation Army and transformed it into a trendy, current piece with a fresh coat of paint, new hardware and fashionable accessories. The result is an upscale, refined desk — for $60.”
What tips do you have for mixing flea market finds with more modern pieces? “When mixing flea market finds with modern pieces, choose objects that complement each other but are unique in their own right, and mix and match them in unexpected ways. When I designed Steve Harvey’s office, I wanted the space to feel masculine and luxurious, but I also wanted to add statement pieces to the space to give it character. I purchased an antler sculpture at a high-end store, but I needed a little help to make it stand out. When I was hard-pressed to find a quality frame for the sculpture, I took to the thrift store. A $20 hand carved mirror did the trick, and I simply removed the mirror and placed the antler sculpture in the center. Now these two pieces have worked flawlessly together to create one unique, cohesive design.”
What three accessories do you advise collecting that will make a room instantly pop? “Mirrors are one of my top go-to accessory items. They’re easy to find, inexpensive and can be used in various ways. I like to gold-leaf them to dress them up and even use the frame without the mirror to create unique wall art. Coffee table books would be a second item, because they’re generally reasonably priced and work flawlessly with any décor. You can refer to past designs to give you inspiration. Just like fashion design, history repeats itself in interior design, as well. I would also advise collecting artwork to make a room instantly pop. Aside from being a focal point or decorative item, [art pieces] can also be the starting point for choosing a color palette and then for the décor. Plus, they are great conversation pieces that last for decades. Great design is timeless.”
Are there any online flea markets that you would recommend? “Definitely. For higher end luxury items, I suggest 1st Dibs. You can find classical, historic pieces at a nice discount. For less expensive items I would try Vintage Lab 52nd West and, of course, Etsy. All of these online flea markets have an extensive collection of items to meet all of your décor needs.”
What are the most valuable things to collect? And the least valuable? “Artwork, iconic furniture pieces (such as a Herman Miller original) and vintage chandeliers, especially those made of brass and crystals, would be at the top of my “Most Valuable” list. The quality of materials from the past and attention to detail is unparalleled to many designs that are being produced currently. The least valuable things would be a Kilim rug because they can be used as wall art or thrown on the back of a sofa or chair to add color to the space. Another item of lesser value is coffee-table glass. Many times at the thrift store, you might be able to find a coffee table for $50 instead of going to the glass store to spend a lot of money. You can repurpose these items without spending an arm and a leg. Dining chairs are also great because they’re generally inexpensive. I gravitate towards dining chairs with upholstered seats because you can reupholster the seat with a simple staple gun for a completely different look.”
Any last pieces of advice to the newbie flea marketer? “I was taught from my mentor to take a look around the store one full time before you pick an item up to make sure you’ve seen everything. This is to keep you from making an impulsive decision. The second thing she taught me was that when you’re in the thrift store and you want to pick something up, ask yourself, ‘If you weren’t in the flea market, would you want to pay $50 for it?’ That way you won’t buy a bunch of things that you may not really use. Obviously if the piece is $100, then the $50 rule goes out the window. I would also negotiate the price and walk away. A lot of times they may not want to negotiate the price immediately, but if you walk away, they will.”
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(Photos via Mikel Welch)