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Exploring antiques as a green solution

"Buying antiques and vintage and retro is the most glamourous form of recycling"

In the second part of our interview with collectibles and antiques expert, Mark Hill, we chat about the ecological footprint that can be avoided by buying something a little less modern. To spend time on a SideStory Experience with Mark, also an expert on the BBC’s Antique Roadshow, take a look at his Antiques Treasure Trove page. To read the first part of the interview, click here

Mark Hill SideStory London Antiques Experience

Mark, we talked recently about the rise of decorative antiques; about how people are now buying pieces because they have a fundamental aesthetic appeal, rather than just collecting something because it’s the thing to do or the fashionable thing to collect. Obviously tastes change from year to year, but it occurs to us that if you are buying not to complete a collection, but rather because it fits your personal style, this has to be a more ecologically sound approach to furnishing your home. Do you think that’s the case?

I think so. When you think about it, buying antiques and vintage and retro is the most glamourous form of recycling there is. I think we’re becoming ever more aware of antiques and vintage as recycling – and even upcycling, if you make something desirable and useful again by painting it or modifying it in some way.

It’s usual today to buy something new that was made from a forest felled in a foreign land, which is now going to get flooded as a result, and then it’s flat-packed and shipped over, at which point we drive off to an out of town superstore to buy it, drive back, put it up, it falls down, so we drive it to the tip. And repeat. Well, no FSC marking in the world can convince me that that’s a green solution. I think the environmental side of furniture and other things we love to have in our homes is increasingly important.

A few years ago I did something called National Antiques Week, which sadly no longer exists, and we commissioned a proper carbon footprint analysis by a scientific research company to compare the environmental impact of a flat pack chest of drawers against an antique one.

Despite there being a large spike in impact in what the Georgian example would have done to the environment when it was made, there was a subsequent massive dropoff. And that drop off will continue. The conclusion of the report showed that it was something like 16 times greener to buy the antique than the flatpack.

London antiques exerience 1

That’s astonishing. Presumably that’s in part to do with the length of time it’s been in existence?

Certainly, yes. Those examples were made well, and made to last, so although we all might have memories as children of parents or grandparents telling us not to touch that antique sideboard because we’d ruin it, you have to say, “Well, hang on a minute.” They’ve survived two hundred years of kids, constant use and general life, so they’re likely to be a lot stronger than the bolted together pieces of MDF we’re seeing now that often barely last two years. That antique example is probably solid mahogany or oak, and it would have been put together with proper joints by proper carpenters: it’s about as sturdy a piece of furniture as you’re likely to get.

Wouldn’t part of that chastisement have been for fear that it would get marked or scratched, though?

Well, yes, but again that goes back to what we were talking about with the difference between collectors preserving pieces of furniture or using them in that more decorative or functional sense. It’s all about your attitude to it, really, and what it is. A bog standard Victorian pine or mahogany chest of drawers is obviously very different to a rare one by a major designer or architect, and made by an esteemed cabinetmaker.

At home, for everyday use, we have these early 19th century rummers, which are a nice, quite large wine glass. I used to buy these things in France for seven or eight Euros, and you can still find them today for about fifteen or so – and if you go to the right fairs here, the same in pounds. They were generally made between about 1820 and 1850 or 60, so they’re pretty old things, but they’re actually often less expensive than if you go and buy a really nice set of new wine glasses from a department store. It’s wonderful to say to a friend, “Here, have this, use this…” and see them relax and enjoy it when you tell them it only cost a tenner and they needn’t get all stressed about it. The beautifully hand-painted porcelain cup I use for my morning espresso was made by New Hall around 1790, and it only cost me a fiver!

London antiques experience 2

You have said before that because we’re less inclined to be completests now than the collector of old, there might be less inclination to hold on to things indefinitely. On the face of it, swopping things out here and there doesn’t seem like a terribly ‘green’ thing to do…

Regardless of what we say about culture and history, and me going on about some old wine glasses I picked up for a few quid, if you buy a piece of antique furniture and you buy sensibly, if you do get fed up with it or your tastes change, you can sell it. And you’ll get back a hell of a lot more than for something from a Scandinavian superstore or the high street. If you bought really wisely, you could even sell it for a lot more.

But, if you buy a chaise longue from John Lewis for five hundred quid, even if it’s quite nicely made, what’s that going to be worth if you don’t like it anymore and you want to sell it? Fifty quid? If that! But a 19th century chaise longue… Well, if you paid four hundred quid, if you take it to an auction house, they’ll probably put three to four hundred on it again. If you are prone to changing your furnishings, these aren’t bad things to be thinking about.

The idea of a 19th century chaise longue in a room with more modern furniture sounds wonderfully idiosyncratic…

I think mixing and matching is really the new way forward. In this eclectic, individualist approach, you could have a 1960s red glass vase on a cabinet from the 1760s: there’s a two hundred years gap in between them, but they’re both clean-lined and it might be that there’s a bit of red lacquer on the cabinet and the red vase that makes that colour pop, so it works. Our parents would have gone “What are you doing?! 1950s on Georgian? What?”, but Georgian furniture works very well in modern homes and likewise mid-century modern furniture works incredibly well in Georgian homes, partly because it’s all about scale and proportion, and those pieces were designed with that understanding.

London antiques experience 3

Are there some aspects of design which defy time and period?

Well, of course. There are always beautifully proportioned, wonderful quality bits of furniture from any generation: you can look at something and think that it’s fashionable, but the thing that always endures is quality. That’s absolutely key and I always say it’s better to have three truly top notch objects, regardless of what they are, than twenty mediocre ones, because those three objects are the best and will always be desired, valued, and loved.

For enquires and bookings, click here for Mark Hill’s Antique Treasure Trove Experience.