On ‘vintage’

by Barendina Smedley

Admittedly, there’s something about the editorial injunctive mode that always brings out the rebel in me, that makes me ask ‘why would I want to do that?’

Consider a recent example, culled from the sort of decorating magazine one picks up along with the organic rare-breed pedigree quail fillets, Heston Blumenthal’s individual cedar-smoked pomegranate-and-harissa custard pots and ambient superannuated Sloanery from the King’s Road Waitrose. The instructions must have caught someone’s fancy, as they are printed as quite a flashy pull-quote. Here they are.

‘Make a quirky bedside table by attaching 1950s style table legs, sourced from eBay or a flea market, to a small but solid vintage suitcase. Adorn with a sleek and practical Anglepoise-style lamp and oversized alarm clock.’

Let’s consider, for a moment, the circumstances under which anyone, anywhere, would dream of taking this advice.

In the first instance, the victim, ahem, ‘quirky’ home decorator, would have to arrive at a working definition of ‘1950s style table legs’. Are these to be tubular steel, slim triangles of wood laminate, a chunk column of gold ormolu, pastiche Louis XVI (a popular 1950s style, actually — look it up if you don’t believe me), neo-Georgian slightly past its sell-by date, the normal traditional farmhouse stuff that never stopped being made just because Sputnik might at some point in the near future happen to be passing through the pale skies over East Anglia, unremarked and largely irrelevant?

Next comes destruction. Somehow, having bought a perfectly good table, the legs need to be removed. The lines above skate over this point, probably for good reason that on a competently-made piece of furniture, it won’t be at all easy to do — particularly in such a way as to allow the destroyer of tables to attach them at a later point to, of all things, a suitcase.

Needless to day, the ‘small but solid vintage suitcase’, presumably also purchased at some cost, will also be destroyed by the exercise of attaching rogue table-legs to its surface. How are the legs to be fixed onto either leather or, more likely on a budget, paste-board in a way that is likely to support anything — let alone an ‘Anglepoise-style lamp’?

If you don’t see the problem here, find an actual Anglepoise lamp and try to lift it. The reason it can tolerate having its neck extended in various directions is, of course, that the base itself is extremely heavy. So quite rapidly, what started out as the creation of a ‘quirky’ table turns into an engineering problem of some urgency. Table legs removed from their original context (were they originally screwed onto the table? Dovetailed or mortice-joined? did they originally fit neatly under the skirt of the table-top in such a way that their upper reaches were never meant to be seen?) need to be attached, somehow, to a very thin, fundamentally non-rigid surface (of course it will be thin — who ever wants a heavy suitcase?) in a way that will somehow reliably carry several kilos of steel. Good luck with that. You are going to need it.

And here — if not already concussed by inadequately-supported Anglepoise lamps collapsing onto your head in the depths of the night, in which case you have more serious problems to think about — it’s worth asking why the instructions didn’t suggest leaving the table in its original form, and putting the suitcase on top of it. Had this plan been adopted, the table would be able to keep doing the sort of thing tables are designed to do — supporting objects at a convenient height. As it is nowhere suggested that the table legs should be shortened, the difference in overall height should, after all, be minimal. The weight of the lamp could be distributed, at least to some extent, across the entire table-top, rather than resting on a surface that was never designed to be weight-bearing.

More to the point, though, the scheme would also have been reversible. If the day ever dawned when you woke, noticed a strange, not-very-functional, sub-surrealist object at your bedside and suddenly realised that it had all been a ghastly, regrettable mistake, you’d still have been up one ‘1950s style table’ and one ‘small but solid vintage suitcase’. There would have been a way back from your error. Nothing would have been damaged or destroyed. In time, friends and family would have come to forgive you for this uncharacteristic moment of aesthetic madness.

Why the injunction was couched in those terms, though — why destruction was, apparently, necessary, even when the rewards could only ever had been so woefully low — takes us right to the heart of the present-day use of the word ‘vintage’.

Within living memory, ‘vintage’ meant something else entirely. It referred to the year in which a batch of wine was produced. By definition, wine good enough for people to keep for a few years — let alone to worry about the exact year of its creation — was relatively good wine. Hence ‘vintage’ took on the sense of something of high quality, a brilliant example of its type. One might speak, for instance, of a ‘vintage Olivier performance’.

It was in this sense that ‘vintage’ came to refer to old objects — but objects of high quality. A ‘vintage car rally’ would involve automobiles that were made some time ago, but lovingly maintained and much-admired as excellent examples of the motoring genre. The inclusion of ‘vintage’ in the name of a publishing imprint implied that the titles on offer were reprinted classics that had inexplicably fallen out of favour but were now on their way back, because they were such good books.

And then something happened to ‘vintage’. I would love to know how, and why. Suffice to say, though, that somehow ‘vintage’ came to describe a style in its own right — a style that, while composed of old things, in no way implied excellence. Who has ever heard of a ‘vintage’ statue by Roubilac, a ‘vintage’ Faberge egg? Hence the heavy emphasis, in descriptions of vintage style, on style itself — ‘1950s style’, ‘Anglepoise-style’ — at the expense of any interest in quality. This is particularly notable where ‘vintage’ refers to clothing, but somehow it has spilled over into the language of furniture, ornaments, interior decoration itself.

So whatever it may have meant before, ‘vintage’ is now the word for slightly old but not properly ‘antique’ things, probably a bit mass-market or kitsch, loved less for their ability to carry out the purpose for which they were originally intended, than as a badge of that apparently admirable trait, ‘quirkiness’.

As such, these items are treated as the natural targets of hostility. Which is to say, they can be tolerated in a domestic setting, but only once something has been done to them to show we aren’t actually taking them literally. They are tokens of a non-intimidating past-ness, safely peered at through a thick prophylactic smear of irony. They are ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ generalised across our visual context.

An old thing can never just be an old thing. To achieve ‘vintage’ status, something must be done to it. It must pass through the cleansing flame of ‘quirky’ sensibility and, more often than not, definitive alternation.

So it is that a nice old chair, put together a century or so ago in the once-ordinary English elm we can no longer take for granted, must be stripped down, painted in several layers of the more innocuous end of the Farrow & Ball spectrum, sanded back selectively, waxed then finished off with a ‘quirky’ seat cushion made up in Pop-Art fabric. Look, a vintage chair!

And by the same token, an old teacup cannot be loved as an old teacup — it has to be separated from its matching saucer (not ‘quirky’ enough otherwise) then made up as a scented candle, despite the fact that when it burns down, the heat of the guttering light is unlikely to spare the old porcelain. Perfectly good old picture frames have to have lots and lots of unmatched plastic buttons stuck to them. ‘Pre-loved’ wedding veils and Christening gowns are hacked to bits and made into bed canopies or tacked onto cushions. This process is described as ‘letting them achieve their potential’ or even ‘up-cycling’, as if demotion to soft furnishings somehow represented an improvement in their fortunes. Really?

Of course this is a bit of a cruel caricature. There’s an acceptable face to ‘vintage’, which is the desire to use old things rather than always rushing out to buy new things. Who could fail to welcome that? Also, some business-savvy people have seen the ‘vintage’ bandwagon passing and quite reasonably leapt aboard, selling their quilts, cushions or furniture as ‘vintage style’, when in fact it is simply traditional in nature, nicely-made and thoroughly attractive.

Yet as soon as my heart begins to soften towards ‘vintage’, back into view comes that poor, grotesque, bizarre hybrid table, a traduced little suitcase limping along, Frankenstein-like, on its borrowed 1950s legs, cringing under the intolerable load of that Anglepoise lamp, and my heart hardens again. Old things need care, sometimes a bit of money, perhaps even a bit of patience and sympathy. What they do not need, though, is a quirky vintage makeover — whatever the home interiors magazines may tell you to the contrary.