The enduring appeal of vintage interiors
- Credit: Archant
A cabbage patch doll of a girl, all smiley with braided hair, stood next to a trestle table on Harpenden Common. Strewn across it were the sort of clothes her mum could have worn to see Led Zeppelin at Knebworth in ’79.
There were LPs that pre-dated anything recorded there and an old Remington typewriter like the one Melody Maker had probably used to review the gig.
A young dad struggling with baby in a sling trapped one of the keys and she caught his eye. “My dad had one like this,” he said. “He was into antiques.”
“You mean vintage,” she replied. “Especially, if you remember him using it.”
It was a reply that belied her age; for it subtly told him everything about the appeal of vintage and why there will always be a strong market for all things retro, eclectic and memorable.
First of all, she was right about the age. Antiques generally refer to items of more than 100 years old. Vintage ones are younger, can usually be placed in time, and more importantly, tell us, or even hint at, a story.
The model Helena Christensen once said she loved to wear a vintage dress because of the thought of “some other girl having worn it before and living her life in it”.
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Denise Denial, the driving force behind the Three Wise Monkeys knows all about that. She recalls a woman coming into her vintage arts emporium in Woodcock Hill, St Albans, picking up a 1930s Robert Journet dexterity game and announcing: “That came from my grandfather’s factory!
“She went on to tell us all about it; how they had a map and compass in the back and then bought every one we had. She had a family wedding coming up and decided it would be good to put them all out on the tables. That must have been a great ‘find’ for her.”
Not an unusual scenario among the crumbling barns and rustic back street shops that have become part of Hertfordshire’s DNA. And the driving force that unites them and the people who visit is more than mere nostalgia.
Denise, a 51-year-old part time book-keeper, who turned a disused saddlery into an Alladin’s Cave for 40 small traders, is often inundated with people rummaging for the sort of magazines they remember their grandmother reading, the tools their grandad used and the dolls house their mum told tales of playing with.
“Buying vintage is all about the evocation of memories,” she said. “It brings back the joys of childhood, happy memories of grandparents, a link with the past. All that is much more meaningful now we live in a digital age and so much is intangible.”
So is there a typical customer?
“We get all sorts; young, old, weird and wonderful. And we get a lot of traders; those we all tend to know from vintage fairs. All of those we’ve tried to attract here have a real passion for what they do and I think customers appreciate that.
“And we really wanted to be different. We didn’t want to create a place where customers were overwhelmed by too much of the same thing; lots of chairs hanging from ceilings, that sort of thing. We didn’t want it to look like a yard sale.”
Gayle Firmin and her team at Style and Source, who run The Den in Flamstead talk of seeing “the beauty in pieces that others have often destined for the skip,” adding: “We also have a passion for making ordinary items extraordinary by up-cycling or changing their use.”
This means salvaging and restoring everything from apple crates – an enduring retro storage staple – wooden chests and even ladders, creating not just something stylish and functional, but talking points.
Retrovation, a Sarratt-based company among the Woodcock Hill traders, try to buy direct from the owners who, they say, “have a history with what they are selling” and try to pass a bit of that on with the items. They try to steer clear of auctions where that history can get lost in the process. Sellers, they say, “want to believe that their items are continuing a journey”.
James Petre whose Quirky Interiors has helped the likes of Jamie Oliver achieve a retro look, specialises in all things metal, particularly anything reclaimed, weathered and distressed.
“What matters is that it’s unique, individual and handmade,” he said. “We try to get away from anything that appears mass-produced. People do tend to value something that stands out. Our products tend to have an edge to them and that’s what people like.
“Styles seem to change year on year - and month-on-month in some cases - although our mainstay products such as zinc-top tables, the sort of thing we’ve been doing for 12 years or so, will always be popular.”
So popular, in fact, that they estimate visitors spend an average of 25 minutes browsing their warehouse, even though it’s somewhat off the beaten track near a farm in Cooper’s Green Lane.
That’s less of an issue for more central locations such as The Vintage Emporium in Fleetville, which is more of a warehouse-style indoor market and home to many stallholders whose collectables fill the Hatfield Road site.
They, like many such emporiums, have become something of a resource for film companies. Set designers visit often seeking props.
Incidentally, the singer Kim Wilde can occasionally be seen sifting through the old books, vinyl, art, and mirrors.
So what are people buying?
Opinions differ between traders but clothes, the sort not just supermodels but all sorts of A-listers find intriguing, are always popular, particularly those made between 1920 and 1985 with proper metal zips and fine detail in the stitching. Then there’s:
Furniture – the sort made of real wood – even though a restorer may have to help you free the drawers up and replace the odd knob.
Jewellery - especially anything that evokes memories of the hours granny let you rummage through the walnut and tufted silk box she kept on her creaky pine dresser.
Tools - particularly wood-working ones, well used but sturdy and hung on a wall to look organised and, when framed in wood in a man cave, highly artistic.
Toy cars – Dinky, Corgi, or even the American Hot Wheel classics. Anything die-cast and dating back to the sixties and seventies. It doesn’t have to be an original James Bond DB5 with a working ejector seat and pop-up bullet-proof shield or, my favourite, the Hillman Hunter with a roof-mounted spare tyre that turned the wheels.
Toys generally grow in popularity long after the owner has grown up and had kids, or even grandchildren of their own. A first edition Venusaur Pokemon card recently sold on eBay for £401 and a Digimon Tamagotchi that was in vogue for the blink of an eye in the nineties went for £120.
The toy car genre has even inspired Three Wise Monkeys’ youngest trader in Denise’s son, Thomas. Far too young to recall vintage years first hand though. He’s just 10.