Hand-me-down, vintage furniture is finding a new generation of fans

Collectively, it’s known as ‘brown’ furniture.
A vintage chest of drawers can fulfill a variety of functions in the home, said designers Cate Dunning and Lathem Gordon of GordonDunning Interior Design.
Photo: Courtesy of GordonDunning Interior Design / Emily Followill

Credit: Emily Followill

Credit: Emily Followill

A vintage chest of drawers can fulfill a variety of functions in the home, said designers Cate Dunning and Lathem Gordon of GordonDunning Interior Design. Photo: Courtesy of GordonDunning Interior Design / Emily Followill

As recently as 2019, trend followers were noting that younger generations weren’t interested in the hand-me-down furniture their boomer parents were trying to unload on them.

Millennial and Gen X consumers, it seemed, preferred Ikea and a sleeker space based on neutral shades of gray-beige known as greige, as well as farmhouse decor. And they definitely didn’t want to accumulate a surfeit of stuff to weigh them down.

Oh, how times have changed. Thanks to TikTok-driven trends like #cluttercore, #cottagecore, #darkacademia and #maximalism — with an emphasis on layered spaces and old-fashioned style — a design shift is underway.

Now, rather than going all-in on midcentury modern and Scandi-style minimalism, younger consumers are leaning into looks that telegraph their idiosyncratic tastes.

That inherited sideboard or vintage Ethan Allen dining set your mother tried to pawn off on you is suddenly critical to creating a gorgeously lived-in, personality-rich vibe.

Patina is everything. “Brown” furniture is back.

Bright colors and modern pieces help balance older furniture, said designer Isabel Ladd.
Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Ladd Interiors / Andrew Kung

Credit: Andrew Kung Group

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Credit: Andrew Kung Group

“It brings some story and some weight and some history to a space pretty much instantly,” said Lathem Gordon, co-founder of Atlanta’s GordonDunning Interior Design. Gordon and fellow co-founder Cate Dunning both recommend websites like Chairish and 1stDibs as places to learn more about antique furniture and discover what you like.

“Brown” can also occasionally be a derisive term used to describe antique or reproduction furniture of any kind — that undeniably old-school chest of drawers or mahogany trunk that may have been passed down from grandparents. But the return of “brown” coincides with an attitude shift among a generation of consumers who are opting out of the rat race, embracing authenticity and shopping more intentionally.

A vintage piece can be converted into a bathroom vanity.
Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Ladd Interiors / Katie Charlotte

Credit: Katie Charlotte

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Credit: Katie Charlotte

Instead of outfitting their homes with tasteful farmhouse decor, homeowners and renters want to show off their unique sensibility, said designer Isabel Ladd, who is based in Lexington, Kentucky.

A self-described maximalist whose work has been featured in “Southern Living” and “House Beautiful” and in show homes throughout the South, Ladd has seen how Instagram and TikTok have given her design clients a nudge toward “brown.”

“I think it’s because now people have these visuals that are thrown in their face. Whereas before, it was just what they saw when they went into their grandmother’s house,” she said. “I see people express personality so much more through the way they dress and the way that that their homes are.”

The rise of Facebook Marketplace has also helped shoppers score great deals on cast-offs.

For Gordon, the move toward “brown” corresponds to another generational shift when it comes to sustainability.

“I think it’s kind of linked to a sensitivity to an environmental movement: Why don’t we use these beautiful, well-working pieces with history instead of contributing to the throwaway culture of just something you can use for the next two years and chuck in the landfill?” Gordon said.

Living through COVID-19 and hunkering down during lockdowns meant we all got very familiar with the comforts of home and the solace our material world can bring. That time at home also fed into the rising interest in vintage furniture and objects with personal meaning.

“You want to have something that you love and that tells something about your story. And it’s beautiful to use and to look at every day,” Dunning said.

Think outside the box when it comes to incorporating "brown" into your home. A vintage dining table can become a foyer focal point, said designer Isabel Ladd.
Photo: Courtesy of Isabel Ladd Interiors / Katie Charlotte

Credit: Katie Charlotte

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Credit: Katie Charlotte

Here’s how to make “brown” work for you:

  • Don’t do matchy-matchy. “Matching is for rookies,” joked Dunning. All three designers advise breaking up inherited sets of furniture, whether a full dining-room set or a bedroom suite to avoid an overly matching look.
  • Pair traditional with “flair.” Ladd advised using “zippy” wallpaper, fabric and rugs in modern, light, colorful hues to offer needed contrast to more traditional pieces. Gordon and Dunning like mixing modern pieces to balance “brown.”
  • Rethink your furniture’s job description. Yes, that table was meant for the dining room. But there’s no reason you can’t move it to your foyer and use it to hold a stack of art books or a vase of flowers, Ladd said. Don’t feel constrained by furniture’s original job description. Use it in fresh, new ways.
  • A chest is the ultimate utilitarian piece. If you are going to invest in just one useful piece, you can’t go wrong with a chest, said both Gordon and Dunning. “I feel like chests are not only a great way to add a lot of that patina to a space, but they’re also useful. They serve a functional purpose,” said Gordon.
  • Use fabric to refresh. Old dining chairs can be given a quick dose of personality with new upholstery, Ladd said. “That’s the easiest thing you can do to really make it fresh.”
  • Do you. Younger customers often feel the need to define their “style” and make a cohesive statement in their home. Gordon recommends not sweating your personal design brand but just embracing a look that reflects you.


Felicia Feaster is a longtime lifestyle and design editor who spent 11 years covering gardening, interior design, trends and wellness for HGTV.com. Felicia is a contributor to MarthaStewart.com and has been interviewed as a design expert by The New York Times, Forbes and the Associated Press.

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