A guide to knowing, loving, and displaying vintage decor

Updated: September 18, 2019

I don’t know you or your cottage, but I know one thing: your cottage is full of stuff. Old stuff. Things. Junk. Treasures. Some of it surprisingly valuable and some of it not worth the cost of driving into town. Some of it you love inexplicably and forever, and some of it is meaningless crap you’ve been intending to clear out for years. And somehow, all of this stuff—your cutting board collection, your great-grandpa’s hand-carved paddle, the Bakelite kitchenware that’s jumbled up in a kitchen drawer—is exactly what makes the cottage the cottage. Storied. Weird. And full of priceless memories. But the cottage is not a storage unit, nor a museum. So how do we live among our strange, wonderful things in a way that brings us harmony rather than chaos and clutter? And if we were going to part with some of our things (gasp!), what stuff has value on the market and what doesn’t?

“Antiques are like fashion,” says Scott Young, of Young’s Antiques and Restorations in Prince Edward County, Ont. “Stuff that was hot 20 years ago, you can’t give away today.” Oil lamps may be out, but the hanging nautical version, called ship lanterns, are in. Young says that antique paddles, model boats, and fishing lures are typically the most valuable things that people have. “An old lure might go for thousands,” he says, if it’s made from wood with glass eyes and in its original box. He’s always looking for glassware from the ’50s and ’60s, old mixing bowls, and mid-century modern furniture. Douglas Stocks, of Maus Park Antiques in Paris, Ont., says true antique furniture is difficult to spot in the wild, but recommends looking for solid wood with dovetail joints and no maker’s mark. And if you really do want to part with your goods, send photos to a shop before hauling in your stuff.

A guideline
50 years old or less? It’s retro. 50 to 100? That’s vintage. Older than 100 years? Officially antique.

3 ways to make your quirk work
Gather with purpose: Maggie Algie, a St. Joseph Island, Ont., cottager, collects items she can use. “I must have 25 quilts,” she says. “I don’t hang them. I just use them. We go up to our cottage in May, so every bed has six woolen blankets and four quilts, just because you really need them.” Same treatment for her Pyrex collection: it lives on the open shelves in her kitchen, where she uses it daily. 

Tie together with colour: Colour is Algie’s organizing principle for collections. “It’s fun to have colours that repeat. If you love one turquoise Greek sandwich basket, then three is probably better.”

Don’t be afraid to remix: Algie loves old oil paintings. “But the frames are ugly,” she says. “I remove them and whack the paintings up on the wall with a nail. They look like they’ve always been there.” Old enamel and graniteware kitchen utensils are so durable they’re good outside of the kitchen too: “Leave a ladle in a bucket of water outside the back door to wash kids’ feet off or water flowers.”

How the pros do it
Douglas Stocks sources his cool old finds from estate sales and people who are downsizing. Scott Young is a long-time “picker,” going door to door asking for stuff. Maggie Algie scores finds with a small budget, “usually $5 per item,” she says. “And the dump often has usable items for free.” Another great spot for free stuff: your boathouse. Old props, anchors, and fishing rods all make gorgeous 3-D wall art.

Once you’ve decided what belongs, how do you display it? “I like a uniform look with pops of bright colour. And lots of different textures,” says Maggie Algie. She uses her open stud walls for displaying things she loves. “I like to see contemporary and antique mixed together,” says Douglas Stocks. “And the finish on antiques should be good. Use them as a piece of sculpture rather than something to throw magazines or diapers in. Also, a piece should always be in proportion to the space around it.” Algie agrees. “I adore little ceramic vases that hang on the wall, but they’re small, so you have to be careful with scale, or else they look spotty. I use them in small spaces, so they don’t look overwhelmed.” The ultimate goal of cottage decor is to create a place that holds your family and all your quirks and oddities. “We’re so attuned, in the 21st century, to everything being plain and simplistic,” says Stocks. “But the weird-looking pieces are often the most valuable, because they’re different.” Good reason to embrace the strange things you love, regardless of how much they might be worth to someone else. “At the cottage,” says Algie, “you don’t have to pretend to be anyone else.”

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