Finders keepers - Vintage French style

Breathe new life into heirlooms or antique finds by combining them with contemporary pieces, says Penny Allen

I have a summer house in my garden. When I first saw it, I had visions of making my own little hideaway, reading sonnets on warm sunny afternoons with lace panels blowing gently in the breeze.

Romantic notions indeed. Looking back, I can’t imagine when I ever thought that I would have the time to spend lazy afternoons in my summer house, and as for reading sonnets! My summer house has instead become an Aladdin’s cave packed to the brim with glorious finds from various markets, brocantes and other secret places, which I will never divulge!

MAKE DO AND MEND Some of us rework old and secondhand bits and pieces out of economic necessity but there are a growing number who are keen to rescue and reuse because they appreciate things of beauty from the past. The term vintage is a cooler’ way of saying secondhand, and in the current climate, we are all keen to find more costeffective solutions to decorating our homes and wardrobes.

The French are particularly adept at combining antique heirlooms with funky modernity. The resurgence of the make do and mend’ culture almost gives us permission to satisfy our need for thrift as well as offering unlimited possibilities to show off our creative skills.

A lovely lady contacted my studio some months ago to say she had discovered three old sacks in her aunt’s attic. Her aunt had sadly passed away and she was charged with entering the attic to investigate what needed to be cleared away. She found an array of leather chests, hessian sacks and old globetrotter suitcases, each packed with collections of textiles including lace and embroidery, silver bits and pieces, sepia photographs and an abundance of old lampshades. When she opened the cases, her senses were filled with the aroma of bygone days – little handmade scented bags had been placed between the rows of linens and she was overwhelmed with wonderful memories of her aunt and of the need to bring these beautiful finds back into the open to be appreciated.

We were offered the lampshades as one of the few establishments teaching traditional lampshade-making skills, and she was keen for these beautiful antique frames to be re-adorned! We collected two sacks and these now form part of my Aladdin’s cave. Some I plan to cover in cerise satin from a market in Forqualqier. I believe that originally it formed part of a ladies corset – ooh la la!

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There is, in fact, quite a skill to combining the past with the present. One tip is to work from the heart. As an example, if you have a lovely old armchair that happens to be a little worn or torn in areas, consider sourcing small antique remnants that you could use to create a patchwork effect. Not only does this preserve the main textile but it also shows a degree of individuality and inventiveness. You can stitch the patch on with large stitches in vibrant embroidery silks or even strips of leather.

SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW Another way to combine past and present is to mix textures. For instance, I dearly love old stone or plaster statuary. A bust of a mythological character or of a beautiful face can look stunning when placed on an old painted sideboard with soft raspberry toile de jouy curtains behind. The softness of the fabric contrasts with the harshness of the stone.

Salvage yards are a good place to source such accessories. We have a fabulous set of old, nonmatching shutters in our design studio; they are currently being incorporated into a contemporary room set dominated by Vivienne Westwood wallpaper. It works because the aged items sit in harmony with, rather than fight against, the more contemporary elements.

You could display old bottles on a large kitchen dresser or hang old gilt picture frames, the more knocked-about’ the better, all together on one wall. You could frame old textiles or take sheet music, photocopy it and sponge tea or coffee onto the paper to create an aged appearance. These are tricks that will deceive the eye and are easy and inexpensive to achieve and, if you are really brave, hang them on a dark purple-painted wall to create a design statement that will harmonise perfectly with your vintage finds.

I continue to be amazed by the treasures that can be found hidden away under piles of clutter and newspaper and I am always unable to resist the temptation to add just one more little gem to my Aladdin’s cave of a summer house!

Penny Allen runs Les Tuileries, a gallery, design school and interior design business in Dorking Tel: 01306 888 028

French flea markets There are numerous markets, or march� des puces, across France but the largest is the Marche aux Puces de St Ouen on the outskirts of Paris. Referred to as the attic of the world’ by Anne Gregg in her book Tarragon & Truffles, this march� is full of treasures from Meissen porcelain to antique textiles, a real must for the serious collector and for those passionate about creating interiors that are true to the principles of bringing past into present. The second largest flea market in France is in the picturesque town of L’Isle sur la Sorgue just south of Avignon. Designers and collectors alike visit this antique market to source for clients and private collections as well as a large number of tourists hoping to pick up a little gem for just a few euros.