Flea Market Decorating 101

flea market style magazine

Don’t you just love seeing what other people have done in their houses? I do!

Flea market decorating has gone mainstream, judging by the amount of magazines you can find on the topic. I’m gratified to know my house is finally cool instead of just cheap!

All these titles feature dozens of tips about what’s hot, how to convert trash into treasure, and where to shop. What they don’t do is tell you how to start decorating from scratch.

Here’s my Flea Market Decorating 101:

Concentrate on the big pieces.

You’re going to find lots of accessories you love. It’s (relatively) easy to find small stuff. But the furniture you choose makes a bigger impact and sets the stage.

Here’s how I put together the dining room in my 1946 house:

1930s dining table and china cabinets

Mis-matched china cabinets and mis-matched chairs play together happily through the magic of paint.

I bought four matching pieces for the dining room (china cabinet, buffet, liquor cabinet and a table) from a friend for only $35 back in 1980-something. They were black-brown and badly chipped. I didn’t need the table so I gave it away. The second china cabinet was a flea market find for $10. The solid wood shelf filled with tablecloths set me back $20. I painted everything the same off-white as the house trim.

1930s buffet and huge wall mirror

The huge mirror over the buffet came with the house. It’s one of my favorite features. The jadeite glass knobs on the cabinets were a Christmas gift from ManRay a long time ago. The chandelier came from my parents’ house after they downsized. My father bought it at a flea market for $5 about 40 years ago.

The dining table was a recent Craigslist find for $45. (We had a 1970s glass-topped dinette set for decades that I disguised under vintage tablecloths!) It has four leaves and can extend to seat 12. (Yay! Big enough for parties!) ManRay had to repair one of the legs. I painted the top off white and the bottom jadeite green.

small 1930s cabinet and mis-matched chairs

Only four of the eight chairs match. I think it’s amusing but no one else seems to notice. The tall etched mirror over the liquor cabinet was a thrift store find for $10.

The chairs were thrift store finds. I paid $5 each for four of them and then stopped seeing them. Luray found a matching set of four chairs in her area for $60. I painted them and ManRay helped me reupholster them with heavy linen I found at a discount fabric store. I dyed it jadeite green. The rug was 50% off on clearance (yes, you can see why!)–by far the most expensive item in the room.

All together it gives me the imaginary grandma’s house look that I wanted. But sometimes I think about repainting all the furniture red…

Be brave. Live with colors you love.

If there’s a color that makes your heart rejoice, forget the Pantone Color of the Year and go with what makes you happy. You’re the color expert.

One of my favorite flea market finds ever was a bedspread and two pairs of matching 95″ long curtains in a deep, flamingo-colored satin with chenille decorations. I think they’re from the 1940s. I’ve never seen anything else like them. This picture doesn’t begin to do them justice.

vintage satin and chenille curtains

I paid $100 for two sets of curtains, valances and a matching bedspread–a frightening amount of money at the time. I still don’t regret it. The walls are turquoise, but look gray here.

I love, love, love the color but it’s been impossible to find sheets that match, even with an internet full of options. No problem. All our sheets are white.

Listen to William Morris, then get real.

You’ve probably run across the famous William Morris quote: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful’.

It’s a lovely sentiment that will encourage you to collect lots and lots of beautiful stuff that you pile on shelves, hang on the walls, heap in cupboards, and generally strew everywhere the eye can see and many places it can’t.

stacking of vintage tablecloths to iron

I love vintage tablecloths. Good thing I also enjoy ironing them.

Let’s be realistic. Every “score” you bring home has a hidden price tag: Maintenance. Do you really want to dust 300 pieces of Pyrex? Do you hate ironing? Polishing silver? Washing dishes by hand? If you’re like me, your time outside of your job is limited. How do you really want to spend it?

Be confident. Say no.

Magazines are sprinkled with blue Ball jars, “vintage” French linen, industrial rusted-and-reclaimed things and succulents in re-purposed containers. I don’t own any of them.

You don’t have to buy anything just because it’s popular. It’s okay to buck the trends and look for Harvest Gold plush upholstered furniture to coordinate with your fabulous avocado shag carpet. (To each his own!)

Say no. Be picky. Your house isn’t a warehouse. You don’t have to own everything made in your favorite vintage decade. Let someone else get a thrill from the stuff you leave behind.

Be patient.

Pulling together vintage furnishings is a lot harder than shopping at Ikea. You never know what you’ll find, or when you’ll find it. I’ve been looking for the perfect fabric to recover a chair for years. Years I tell you!

my great grandmother's chair with new plaid wool fabric

This sad shell of a chair belonged to my great grandmother. The springs came untied and the original upholstery shredded about five years ago. I think I’ve finally found a new fabric I love!

You’d think coordinating with a multi-colored rug would be simple. Nope! Maybe I’m too picky.

red and yellow plaid fabric and faux vintage carpet

This bright plaid wool fabric was only $4 at a thrift store. And it matches/clashes enough to make me happy.

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent looking at vintage blankets, vintage rugs, every fabric in every fabric store online, on Etsy and eBay for any textile that would “sing” on this chair in this room. Finally, FINALLY!, I can move ahead with this project.

Be honest. Count the cost.

Yes, this is a plea for fiscal sanity. Do you have a savings account? A growing 401K? A pile of debt? Is yet another flea market “bargain” worth your peace of mind?

Accumulate thoughtfully. You can’t take it with you.

No one ever writes about this, but it’s the final truth: All those treasures you find at flea markets, thrift stores or estate sales are going to end up there again. The writer of Ecclesiastes says there’s a time for everything. “A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away.”

Now that I’m a grandmother and nearing retirement, I’m feeling the need to let go of things. I’m sure my kids don’t want to deal with 1,200 books, a dozen sets of dishes, stacks of tablecloths, and lots, lots more. I know what time it is for me.

If it’s your “time to get” and “time to keep,” I wish you loads of fun with your flea market decorating!

We will be over the moon and totally love you if you share us with your friends!

2 Comments on “Flea Market Decorating 101”

  1. Super good tips. It does take time and I love having a quirky house that is me and no one else. Your curtains are AMAZING!

    • janeray says:

      Thanks, Laurie! You’re so right about having a house that’s all yours alone. I enjoy looking at magazines to see what other people have done, but in the end I love doing my house my way. After I stole all their good ideas!