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Retro vs. Vintage Furniture

In nearly every issue, you can find examples of magazines promoting vintage furniture in gorgeous displays of interesting rooms that exude one-of-a-kind charm. But what is vintage furniture exactly? How is it different from retro furniture? The furniture you buy for your home can be plotted on a timeline based on when it was manufactured, and affixed with a label like “contemporary,” “antique,” “vintage,” or “retro.” An item’s age is a key facet of its value, along with its condition, quality, and relative rarity.

The way we label the age of an item doesn’t just clue us in to its actual date of origin—it can also help provide context about popular trends at a given point in time.

For example, we’ve seen before that in uncertain economic times there is often nostalgia for decor from former decades associated with comfort and stability.

Simply being old does not make any furniture vintage in the technical sense, even though most people use the term old and vintage interchangeably. To earn the title vintage, the piece should also be an example of what defined a particular style of that period.

What is vintage?

If antiques are things that are 100 years old or older, what are vintage pieces?

Vintage furniture pieces were made within the last 20 to 99 years, and they’re usually collectible, depending on how many pieces of a particular style were produced.

Like many “retro” items, “vintage” items are often either mid-century modern (in style if not in fact) or related to bygone pop culture and trends.

Red Antique Sofa reupholstered by Threadz Nola.

According to Merriam Webster, the term “vintage” relates primarily to wine and is an altered form of the French word vendage, meaning “the grapes picked during a season.” One of its secondary definitions is “a period of origin or manufacture”

An item described as ‘vintage’ should speak to the era in which it was produced. Vintage can mean an item is of a certain period of time, as in ‘vintage 1950’s’ but it can also mean that the item exhibits the best of a certain quality, or qualities, associated with or belonging to that specific era. In other words, for the term vintage to accurately apply to it, an item should be somewhat representational and recognizable as belonging to the era in which it was made.

Red Antique Wingback Chair reupholstered by Threadz Nola.

Experts say that ‘vintage’ should not be used in reference to objects less than 20 years old.

What is retro?

Green vintage sofa sectional reupholstered by Threadz Nola.

The prefix “retro”—as in “retrograde” or “retroactive”—means backwards in Latin. According to Merriam Webster, retro is “relating to, reviving, or being the styles and especially the fashions of the past : fashionably nostalgic or old-fashioned.”

Retro furniture may not actually be old, but it references styles of the recent past.

Within the vintage category, newer pieces, especially those dating from the 1950s to1980, are generally considered retro.