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Ask a Designer: tips for flea-market shoppers

The arrival of spring means that flea markets are reopening for business around the country. Shoppers will hunt for treasures amid acres of used goods. A few will come home with just the right vintage art or quirky piece of furniture to make their home more beautiful.

Jaime Rummerfield, co-founder of Woodson & Rummerfield’s House of Design in Los Angeles, sometimes mixes flea-market finds with high-end new furnishings to decorate the homes of her celebrity clients.

“The beauty of flea markets,” she says, “is you never know what you will find. There’s nothing like being outdoors or in a place off the beaten path rummaging through old treasures.”

Los Angeles-based interior designer Brian Patrick Flynn, creator of the FlynnsideOut design blog, also hunts for vintage pieces: “I shop second-hand regardless of my project’s budget or client’s level of taste,” he says. “Vintage and thrift is the best way to add one-of-a-kind flair to a space without insanely high cost.”

There is luck involved, of course. But skill also plays a role.

As you browse crowded tables of used things this spring, how can you find the treasures that will give your home an infusion of style while avoiding decorating disasters?

Here, Flynn, Rummerfield and another interior designer who shops for vintage decor — Lee Kleinhelter of the Atlanta-based design firm and retail store Pieces — tell how they do it.

WHEN TO GO

Winter and early spring are perfect for flea-market shopping, says Flynn.

“Since ‘thrifting’ and ‘antiquing’ are often associated with gorgeous weather and weekend shenanigans, many people shy away from hunting for their vintage finds when it’s cold or gloomy,” he notes, so go now and go early.

“I usually show up just as the flea market opens to ensure I see every new item as it’s put out on display,” he says. “When you wait until the end of a flea market’s run to check out its stuff, you’re likely to find mostly leftovers, things priced too highly which others passed over, or things that are just way too taste-specific for most people to make offers on.”

TIME TRAVEL

Rummerfield occasionally finds signed artwork and ceramics by noteworthy artists at flea markets and antique malls.

“It is amazing to see what people cast away,” she says. “I personally hunt for Sasha Brastoff ceramics because of his unique California heritage as a set decorator and artist.” She has also found vintage Billy Haines chairs and Gio Ponti lighting at flea markets.

So read up on the designers and artists from your favorite periods, and then hunt for their work or impressive knockoffs.

A single flea market might offer goods from every decade of the 20th century. Can you put a lamp from the 1970s on a table from 1950? Yes, if the shapes and colors work well together, Kleinhelter says.

If your home has contemporary decor, Rummerfield says it can be powerful to add one statement piece _ a side table, say, or a light fixture — from a previous era.

But “a little bit goes a long way. Use vintage in moderation with contemporary spaces,” Rummerfield says. “It will highlight the uniqueness of the vintage item. You don’t necessarily want to live in a time capsule.”

FIXER-UPPERS

You may assume that old upholstered furniture should be avoided, especially if the fabric looks dirty or damaged. But these designers say it’s actually a great thing to hunt for: “Hands down, upholstery is the best deal to walk away with at flea markets. Just make sure you train your eye to pay no attention to the existing fabrics,” Flynn says. “Zero in on the lines of the frames instead.”

Kleinhelter agrees: “I usually gravitate toward the bones and frames of vintage pieces, and I make them my own by adding fun fabric or lacquering the base.”

The same goes for lighting. Buy it if you love it, but get the wiring updated by a professional. Flynn usually estimates an extra $50 to $75 per fixture for updating the wiring, so keep that cost in mind as you bargain.

MIX AND MATCH

Be on the lookout for pieces you can use together. “You don’t need multiples of the same chair or sofa to make a room work,” Flynn says. “Stick with those which have similar scale and proportion, then recover them in the same fabric.”

Once you get home, use flea market finds sparingly, Flynn says, mixing them in with the pieces you already own: “A few big pieces mixed with some smaller ones added to your existing stuff can instantly take an unfinished space and make it feel way more finished and remarkably personal.”

MONEY ADVICE

“The best way to get an amazing deal is to buy a bunch of different items from the same vendor,” says Flynn. “This way, they can actually lower their prices since you’re guaranteeing them more sales, which in turn also makes their packing up and leaving much easier.”

You should bargain, but don’t go so low that you’ll insult the seller. “If something is marked $185, it’s probably not ideal to offer $50,” Flynn says. One option is to negotiate for a 25 percent to 35 percent discount.

And do bring cash. “Mom and pop dealers don’t have the luxury of taking credit cards due to the charges acquired,” Flynn says. “If you bring enough cash with you, you’re more likely to be able to negotiate successfully.”

PERSONAL TASTE

Above all, choose items that delight you.

“I never focus on eras or hunt for specific designers,” Kleinhelter says. “Pick what you like.”

And be open to serendipity.

“When I’m looking for furniture, I always stumble across a good vintage jewelry or clothing vendor and end up with a fun bauble of a bracelet or necklace,” Rummerfield says. “Prices are usually so reasonable, you come away with a good amount of loot. It is always a day well spent.”

Wine service 101: planning your party

You’re throwing a holiday gathering for a few friends. You want the vibe to be upbeat and upscale, but you don’t want to break the bank with beverage costs. What do you serve?

Why, wine, of course. You are well past the kegger days, and stocking the liquor cabinet for everyone’s cocktail preferences is too varied and expensive. The right wines can lend elegance and sophistication to your affair. Wine pairs well with food and can help you keep costs in line. Your friends may even make some exciting wine discoveries among the glasses you pour.

But there’s the rub. How do you choose from among the literally thousands of wines available today? How do you serve them properly? And is that $100 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon you covet really 50 times better than the Two Buck Chuck that has become your everyday plonk?

Here are some ideas to help you better navigate the thickets and vineyards of Wine Service 101.

Decide on a theme. Yes, it’s the holiday season, but everyone will be taking the same old winter-wonderland approach. You can, too, of course, but by adding a creative or thematic spin to the event, the décor or the menu you can make your gathering memorable. 

Your angle will help you choose the wine to serve. Spanish tapas, for example, cry out for Spanish wines. The same strategy can be used for food and wine pairings from other countries. 

Pick wines that pair with your menu. If your theme is an eclectic mix of influences and flavors, you can still match your wines to your menu. Everyone knows a big, bold red wine goes with red meat and bold sauces, but few people realize that a bright, fruity white pairs well with Asian food. What you decide to serve on the plate should determine what you pour in the glass.

Vary your selection. Experienced wine drinkers enjoy new discoveries, but many people have a preferred wine. As much as possible, offer a mix beyond mere red and white choices, with an eye toward a little creativity.

Your range of reds could include a robust cabernet sauvignon, a rustic and chewy zinfandel, or a more refined and transparent pinot noir. These days, more U.S. winemakers are experimenting with creative blends — a technique traditional to French wine production. A range of blends offers your cab aficionado and your zin fan different variations on familiar themes.

White wine fanciers tend to come in two main varieties, those who like oaky, buttery chardonnays — and everyone else. There is nothing like a sophisticated chard, but there is a lot to be said for tart, citrusy sauvignon blanc or a soft, supple riesling. Trade up your white wine drinkers by offering them a bright New Zealand sauvignon blanc or a drier, more refined Riesling from France’s Alsace region. They will appreciate the lesson and may even find a new wine to love.

Have the proper stemware available. Some people pride themselves on drinking Champagne from old jelly jars, but then some people just don’t know any better. You may not have the bucks to invest in a full line of Riedel stemware, but the right glass completes the wine in the same way the right frame enhances a painting.

Red wine should be served in stemmed goblets with bowls large enough to capture and deliver the aroma, which is an integral part of wine enjoyment. White wines generally have lighter aromas and work well in stemware with smaller bowls. 

The glass itself should be completely transparent — no color shades — so the drinker can check the wine’s color and transparency. Thinner glass does a better job of dispersing the wine’s various flavor elements to different spots on the palate and tongue, resulting in a more complete and comprehensive taste profile.

Sparkling wine drinkers should invest in Champagne flutes. The hollow-stemmed glasses are specifically designed to showcase the fun columns of bubbles rising in the glass.

Serve your wine at the proper temperature. The old adage that red wine should be served at room temperature evolved when the average room temperature in drafty European castles was 55 to 60 degrees. The most common mistake in serving wine today, in fact, is that red wine is served too warm and white wine is served too cold.

Temperature plays a role in unlocking a wine’s flavor. Chill wine too thoroughly and the flavors become muted, or not apparent at all. Serve a wine that’s too warm, especially a big red, and the alcohol may dominate the palate, muting the more refined and subtle flavors.

Red wines should be served at between 60 and 65 degrees, and white wines between 45 and 50 degrees. An easy way to accomplish this is to refrigerate your reds for 45 minutes before serving, and, if you store your whites in the fridge, take them out and let them warm up for 30 minutes before serving. You will be surprised what a difference this technique will make.

Finally, don’t forget the water. Despite being a beverage, alcohol also is a dehydrator. The more wine you drink, the thirstier your body will become. 

To combat this, serve your wine with water on the side. In addition to stretching your wine budget, the water will refresh your guests, can be used to cleanse their palates between glasses and help to mitigate the alcohol’s intoxicating effects. 

Even if you serve bottled water, it’s an inexpensive way to let your guests know you want them to have the best possible time at your gathering. And that’s what good hosting is all about.