Retro chic the latest trend for kids' decor

Nicole Bonsteel of Cinnaminson furnished 3-year-old Catherine's room in vintage French provincial.
Nicole Bonsteel of Cinnaminson furnished 3-year-old Catherine's room in vintage French provincial.
Posted: May 10, 2014

Vintage, antique, retro, secondhand - whatever the description, what's old is trendy in the newest of rooms. Whether your tastes are more midcentury modern (think That '70s Show) or classic English Country ( Downton Abbey), furniture older than 25 years is the latest trend for kids' decor.

At only 3, Catherine Bonsteel is already a fan.

"She has an affinity for all things girlish," said her mother, Nicole. So her Cinnaminson bedroom is filled with French provincial furniture bought mostly from Craigslist. Luckily, it makes practical sense, too.

"It's a lot better-made, the detail is of a much higher quality than you can buy now, there's value in reusing something, and there was a big cost savings," Bonsteel said. "This furniture can last until she's a teenager."

And that's pretty much the reason for the vintage love. Parents see the benefits of leaving their Ikea-laden twenties behind to invest in furniture that won't land on the curb two years later. And if they can indulge in some nostalgia their offspring might enjoy, even better.

There are dressers and side tables and four-poster beds for the taking. Old schoolhouse desks have caught on for kids to use as workspaces, said Michael McFadden, a manager at Phantastic Phinds in Erdenheim. A 7-year-old recently picked one out for his clubhouse, buying it with his own money, he said.

Other big sellers: trunks and suitcases, and vintage crystals for jazzing up lamps, window treatments, picture frames, and mirrors. Old curtains can be made into pillow or chair covers.

Vintage books are popular accessories, too - remember Nancy Drew? But don't expect your kids to actually read them.

"Ninety percent of the time, it's books for looks," McFadden said.

Glenside mother Michelle Colkett-Chubb recently created a room for her 13-year-old daughter, Crystal, using vintage furniture. It gave her comfort and reminded her of when she was a kid. Crystal loves it too, especially her Elliott's Designs bronze-and-brass iron bed.

"I like the curvy things on the headboard," Crystal said.

Colkett-Chubb, who created a full-time business in the last two years refinishing pieces and selling them on Craigslist and eBay, said requests for furniture for kids' rooms have grown 20 percent in just the last few months.

"People want to get more for their money and they want the pieces to last," she said. Most vintage furniture has better-constructed drawers and is made from solid wood - a far cry from inexpensive assemble-it-yourself pieces from big-box stores. "It can look like a million dollars without spending a million dollars."

Vintage furniture can be found at estate sales, flea markets, yard sales, online sites, antiques dealers, and vintage shops, but a greater demand means that pieces move quickly.

"Some pieces barely last a day," said McFadden. Before you shop, learn the history of specific types of furniture or manufacturers. Find out if drawers are constructed with sturdy dovetail joints as opposed to glue or screws. Look for strong woods, such as oak. Pine is softer and can mark more easily.

Kathy Davis, who opened Rustic and Refined in Glenside this past October, said there's so much interest in refinishing furniture for kids that she plans to offer classes this spring. She believes customers want furniture that will hold up better to kid behavior - "like jumping up and down on the bed."

Because furniture from the 1940s and 1950s is usually solid wood, "there's no danger of wood splintering . . . . It can be repainted, has good strong handles, and will hold up for many years. Even in the 1960s, mahogany and cherry were made to last."

But not everything old is better. Cribs with drop side rails, for one, are now illegal. And anything painted pre-1970 will have lead in it. (If you aren't sure, hardware stores sell testing kits. If lead is found, you can strip furniture and refinish it, but check safety precautions first at 1-800-424-LEAD (1-800-424-5323) or www.epa.gov/lead.)

Scott Kaston's online site VintageLooks.com deals in retro furniture from the 1920s to the 1980s, including art deco, Americana, retro-kitsch, and Danish modern. So it was only fitting that he chose a 1970s-style theme for the room of his 8-month-old daughter Alyssa, to match the decor of the rest of their Fishtown house.

The theme is bright - with vintage plastics, pop art, and a lime-green dresser, said Kaston, who fondly recalls his own '70s bedroom as a kid.

"I actually had retro-bad '70s because I had wood paneling. There's retro-good and retro-bad, and [Alyssa] got retro-good."

Of course, it's all about personal taste - yours and your child's.

For the kids' rooms Colkett-Chubb designs, she limits the budget to $1,000. She recommends starting with one great piece, often a dresser or bed, and building around it. For post-crib kids, keep their existing mattress and box spring and find a new headboard.

Vintage pieces can be painted to match any decor, and can be touched up and fixed if kids nick them or get nail polish on them.

"Parents tend to like the whites, creams, and off-whites," Colkett-Chubb said, "but the young girls love the pops of color - teals and turquoises."

Chalk Paint, an easy-to-use paint for refinishing furniture, also has encouraged more people to buy vintage for their kids' rooms.

"Not only are customers buying a piece of furniture, but they're also buying paint with the intent of refinishing it themselves because it's easy and fun," McFadden said.

"You can sand it, distress it, and mix colors," Colkett-Chubb said.

Then, because this kind of furniture has such staying power, you can put it back into adult use when your child outgrows it all.

"That's nice for financial reasons," Davis said.

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