Sarah Sherman Samuel Shops Vintage with Sotheby’s Home

Designer Sarah Sherman Samuel is known for her ability to combine different styles to create a distinctive spaces. This year, she was part of the team that completed a top-to-bottom renovation of a mid-century house for actress/singer Mandy Moore. The project was the perfect example of Sarah’s ability to infuse vintage pieces into a space while maintaining a fresh, modern vibe. Although Sarah makes it seem effortless, finding just the vintage piece is certainly more of a challenge than wandering the aisles of a local box store. In collaboration with Design Milk and writer Amy Azzarito we picked her brain for some tips and tricks to level up our vintage shopping game.

A vintage dresser with brass detailing that Sarah found for her Los Angeles home.

Do you find that it’s easier to use a vintage piece as a jumping-off point for the room, or vintage shop to fill specific holes in the space? 

Honestly, I do both, probably an equal amount! It depends on the project; sometimes a single piece of furniture can inspire a whole room, but other times you take your time searching for the perfect piece to fit a space.

You incorporate a lot of vintage case pieces (dressers, credenzas) in your designs. Are there reasons why you look to these kinds of pieces for a vintage infusion?

I am a fan of classic case goods. These types of vintage pieces were made well with beautiful wood detail, and they typically age well. When something works, you work it hard.

How does someone who isn’t experienced at vintage buying educate their eye and develop their aesthetic/confidence? 

There are so many great online vintage resources now that you can dive into, and once you find pieces that you are attracted to, searching for pieces of the same era or style can help you find key words that you are drawn to, and in turn, open you up to other designers and styles. The more you research and just keep your eye keen always looking, the more you’ll be able to hone your own aesthetic and spot the good finds.

Sarah created a floating bathroom vanity using a vintage credenza.

Can you share some examples of favorite vintage scores? 

Quality dressers are SO expensive, and even not-so-great quality dressers usually cost more than I want to spend. I found myself in that predicament (which I much too often am) when looking for a dresser for our LA house, so I turned to vintage. I found a listing on craigslist and I swear I heard angels sing. We called the craigslister and it turned out that it was from a local vintage shop. It was a highboy that has this stunning brass detailing and a little wicker inset on the top, all wrapped up in gorgeous walnut. Another is my dining chair set from our LA house. I found these Niels Koefoeds dining chairs (a set of 8 of them!) at a flea market for $150 each. I have seen a set like that go for around $7k.

John Keal Vintage Modern Walnut Tall Cabinets

Are their different considerations to buying vintage online vs. in-person? How do you navigate the challenge of not seeing the piece in-person? 

I think you have to set your expectations, find out if there is any damage or wear, and request close-up photos if there is. Usually the pieces are priced with any wear in mind, but it is good to gather all the information. It is always nice to buy in-person, but I love buying vintage online because it opens up your search area infinitely and saves SO much time.

Can you share any keywords that might help a shopper focus? 

I often like to search by materials, like “rattan” or “burl”, or favorite designers like “milo”, OR styles like “Danish” and “mid-century”. Sometimes people miss-categorize things, and you can find some surprising pieces from sellers that might not know what they have, and that is always exciting. 

Stilnovo Italian Colored Glass Pendant Lights

Can you talk about some unique uses for vintage pieces? (Thinking of your credenza as a bathroom vanity, but other examples are great, too!)

When it came to designing our bathroom in LA, I wanted to create the mix of modern and vintage that I love, even in the bathroom. I did this by combining all the new finishes with a great vintage walnut credenza that we retrofitted into a floating bathroom vanity. I also like the idea of framing vintage textiles as art, like a scarf or item of clothing.

Any tips for buying vintage rugs? Are there sizes/colorways that you find yourself looking for? 

I am a bit of a rug hoarder and I am often asked where I find the vintage ones. I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you! (Kidding!) One tip if you don’t have a trained eye on rugs: look to someone who does. I have about five rugs from Frances Loom alone; she has a pre-edited assortment and an eye that I trust. The color red is VERY prevalent in vintage rugs, so I am always drawn to the ones that do not have red, searching for pink or coral or blues.

Vintage Small Navajo Double-Sided Rug

For Archie’s nursery, you used vintage art as the jumping-off point. Any tips for buying vintage art and designing around it? 

I feel like art is very personal, and it should have a personal connection to whomever the client is or if it is for yourself. When searching for art, I consider the color palette, the subject, and most of all, the feeling you get when you see it. If it has the vibe you are going for, you know instantly. When it comes to building a space around it, you can easily pull from the color palette to extend that into the room and find pieces that support it rather than compete with it. In other words, if the art piece is really busy and bold, you can balance that out in the space with other bold choices; but if it is a quiet monochromatic piece, it might fit better in a cleaner, neutral environment. That is the dance of designing a space. 

Sarah used the paint-by-numbers landscape to set the tone for nursery design.

Are there any downsides to buying vintage pieces (maybe, the time? How do you combat this?)

In my opinion, the upsides of buying vintage far outweigh the down; however, there are a few things to keep in mind when buying vintage. You might have to put a bit of elbow grease or additional cost into the piece to refurbish or reupholster, and if a small piece or detail goes missing, like a piece of hardware, it can be hard to track down a replacement.

Check out Sarah Sherman Samuels profile on Design Milk

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