How to Decorate with Antiques
words by Amanda Lew Kee
Photography by Darrell
For Derreck Martin, 27-year-old owner of 507 Antiques and East Room, decorating with antiques is a matter of finding balance and immortalizing craftsmanship. Sitting in his eclectic Yorkville home on a humid summer day, Martin looks back on his antique upbringing and shares some insight on how to bring a little bit of the old world into your space.
Decorating with antiques brings life to both the objects and room, itself. Is there any feeling that you wish to create when doing so?
I try to create a dialogue between the pieces of furniture that is reflective of my personal taste - a mix of different styles and eras. Right now the industry is at an interesting point. We once had this swing away from antique furniture and a pull towards mass production and replicas. With the extension of the internet, people are becoming a lot more educated with what they are buying and are specific with their taste when it comes to quality and authenticity. The pendulum is now swinging back where we have people buying and mixing antique and mid-century furniture in interesting and eclectic ways.
What is your most prized antique?
A Rolex Explorer from 1950’s. It was a gift from my father.
Do you collect antiques that speak to you? Or is it best to follow a theme?
I don’t think it is necessary to follow a theme. If you’re buying from a dealer or going through a flea market, you want to look for quality pieces with good construction and patina, which are signifiers of age. As long as you buy right, you’ll always find a place for it.
How do you spot a great piece? Any on-the-spot evaluation notes to keep in mind?
Evaluation starts with educating the eye. I grew up around furniture and have the knowledge and trained eye to immediately spot if a piece is a reproduction or true antique. A good rule of thumb is to look at the construction, patina and materials. Aside from mid-century furniture, flipping a piece by turning it on its side or pulling out a drawer to view the underside will help when you’re evaluating it. Look for natural patina of materials and the construction of the pieces.
What is the best way to incorporate antiques into your existing living space? Are there rules that you stick to when it comes to larger pieces, like furniture, over smaller, more decorative objects?
When you are looking at a space, functionality and scale come first. I would suggest to start with larger pieces, like a table or sofa, that take over the space and splits the room into different areas. Once you have those areas marked off, you can start incorporating smaller objects like dining chairs, carpets or artwork.
Starting an antique collection can be intimidating. Any good recommendations?
The Toronto Sunday market and flea markets, definitely. Walk around for an hour to train your eye and sift through all the junk to find a treasure that is actually valuable. It’s a thrill to buy something that is a fraction of what it is actually worth. When you go to big box furniture stores, people assume that it would be a lot cheaper than buying antique, but it’s not the case. The sofa at my place is a period Pierre Paulin - incredible construction, original leather with great patina. I bought it for around the same price as a mass-produced sofa. If you buy smart with your antiques, you will always be able to resell.
What is your ideal ratio of modern pieces to antiques?
It’s difficult to put a ratio on creative intuition, but there should be a balance that feels right to the owner of the space. Go with your gut feeling.
How many repairs are too many repairs?
There are never too many repairs if you go to a reputable restorer. At 507, we have an incredible restoration department where everything we do is done in a period fashion. We don’t use any chemicals or sprays, which a lot of restorers do, that actually kills the wood by suffocation. We use natural waxes and shellacs with techniques that were used over 100 years ago that can still be used today on contemporary or mid-century furniture. As long as the restoration is done correctly, it won’t affect the evaluation of the piece.
How has the antique market changed with the growth of e-commerce?
Our online shop at 507 and 1stdibs, which has recognized 507 amongst a collection of quality dealers around the world, have opened up international markets from the US to Australia and Europe. Before the growth of e-commerce in the industry, we were solely selling in Toronto.
Are there any materials or construction details that you are drawn to?
Anything that you can tell has been hand-crafted and not made by a machine - quality woods and good, solid pieces. I like Regency, Biedermeier, Italian, Dutch and quality American mid-century. I am also drawn to folk pieces; the random little, weird pieces that have been made by people that live in the country. These make for great accessories that really stand out in a collection.
With the trend of producing goods off shore, what have we lost that lives in antiques?
Craftsmanship is being lost. People can’t manufacture and build furniture like they used to. The 50’s was the beginning of mass-produced, machine-made furniture. This brought the product out of the hands of the craftsman, and into the hands of the designer. That’s why people pay big bucks for mid-century furniture. They’re not buying the piece for the actual maker, they’re buying the pieces for the idea and design. If you look at furniture from 100 to 200 years ago, you will find construction methods that we can’t even begin to reproduce. Firstly, the amount of man hours involved would be expensive. And second, the practise of passing down techniques through families is a rare occurrence. The same goes for restoration. Proper restoration is something that isn’t often practised, nor passed down. These are methods that are time-intensive and take a lot of skill and knowledge.
Antiques not only connect the present world to the past, but also an artisan to the buyer via a dealer. Are there any particular paths of provenance that an antique has had that are memorable to you?
A couple years ago, The New York Times moved their building to midtown Manhattan, where they sold all the contents of the building at a second-tier auction house that we used to go to. It was a sleepy Sunday; everyone in the city was probably in the Hamptons or out of the city, and the boardroom table came up for auction. We bought the table, which had been in the building for around 80 years. It is incredible to think of all the decisions that were made by the many influential people who had sat around that table - it’s a piece of American history. We brought it back to 507 in Toronto and The New York Times published an article about this Canadian dealer that had bought a piece of American history. Everyone was up in arms, and that was when we received a call from the Smithsonian, where the table now lives.