How to Breathe New Life Into Traditional-Style Furniture

Furniture collector and Fabulous Finds founder Susan Trezise now shares her traditional treasures through a weekly newsletter./Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli

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Susan Trezise has become an expert on traditional furniture, but the art history buff didn’t come by it honestly. “In college my focus was on contemporary art,” she says, a chic black turtleneck and hip tortoise cuff hinting at these early life interests.

Graduate school often took the Baltimore native to New York City for artists’ openings and private studio tours. “One of my professors there had given Jackson Pollock his first major exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art,” she notes. “I thought that was so cool.”

Trezise’s affinity for modern art deepened when she landed a job at an offbeat noncollecting museum in Cincinnati. “It was founded in the 1960s,” she recalls, “and had revolving exhibits of cutting-edge work.” It was all very exciting for Trezise, whose tastes broadened when she and her husband relocated to Delaware. “I got interested in antiques at Winterthur, where I volunteered at a furniture show, and then at Brandywine River Museum, where I became a docent,” she says. “We also bought this old Georgian house in Westover Hills where antiques fit the aesthetic. The ambiance here, and the people with great collections and knowledge, really opened my eyes to all these other possibilities.”

“I believe it’s important to be conscious of the value of things that already exist, and that we should preserve, repurpose and reuse what we have.” —Susan Trezise

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Trezise later opened a shop above Centreville Café with a group of women who collected vintage, antiques and other found objects. Drawn exclusively to traditional pieces, mostly from the 1950s and older, she finds most at auctions like S&S in New Jersey, as well as Sotheby’s and on road trips to visit her son in Vermont.

“Five years ago we [women] went our separate ways, and I thought I would just stop doing this,” Trezise says. But her clients kept calling to ask if they could come over and pick through what she had left. At the time she had “just a jumble” of inventory stored in two outbuildings on her Centreville property. “I figured I might as well start staging it again and continuing to do what I love,” Trezise says. “What’s really fun for me is the thrill of the hunt—looking for that gem in a pile of junk.”

Before she knew it, she was back in business, but she wasn’t interested in running another brick-and-mortar. Instead, she began blasting to subscribers an e-catalog, called Fabulous Finds, of about a dozen staged items that included dimensions and price. “Then they can text or call and say, ‘Hey, I love that—can I stop by in a day or two?’” Here, Trezise talks about reimagining décor and why old doesn’t necessarily mean old-fashioned.

Delaware Today: What is traditional-style furniture?

Susan Trezise: Traditional furniture has been around for centuries and has become more refined over the years in terms of scale and proportion. It’s often wood, like mahogany, and older pieces—I tend to favor those from the 1950s or earlier—that have a more formal or ornate design. The really great thing about buying this type of furniture now is that it’s so available and affordable, and oftentimes is made a lot better than newer, trendier pieces.

DT: For décor that incorporates the old without looking outdated, what sort of traditional pieces do you suggest?

ST: There are a couple ways to do this: You can use traditional furniture for your main pieces and add modern accessories, like lamps, rugs, wallpaper, mirrors and throw pillows. Or you can take a traditional piece and update it with modern upholstery or, in some cases, paint—I wouldn’t go painting a $50,000 antique! You can buy a great old sofa with good, strong bones for $50 and then reupholster it. You create a timeless, collected look when you use some of these classic pieces, and they look good with any kind of décor.

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DT: What are some ways you’ve updated early to midcentury pieces?

ST: One client updated Chippendale dining chairs with modern ikat fabric seat cushions, which was a fabulous contrast that looked really fresh. Another upholstered chairs that originally had this outdated pink damask fabric with a bright Lilly Pulitzer print. Something like this is really fun for a young person and can pair with a traditional wood or modern glass table.

DT: How can we reimagine pieces like a vintage cocktail cart or traditional china closet?

ST: Cocktail carts can be used in bathrooms—stacking white towels on the bottom, and a makeup bag and some accessories on top looks really pretty, especially if the cart is glass and chrome. They can also look really cool in a modern kitchen for things like a basket of linens or silverware. One client used hers next to a sofa as an end table, and put a lamp on top and magazines on the bottom. Use a china closet for fresh linens, or turn it into a library piece with books on the top shelves, bourbon and cocktail glasses on the bottom, and bills in the drawers.

DT: How can we mix traditional with modern so that it looks cohesive?

ST: It can be tricky, but when done well, these pieces can really play off each other nicely. Think an old mahogany sideboard beneath a modern mirror or painting, with matching 1950s Chinese lamps on top. Or a traditional sofa with 1920s art deco glass end tables and pillows with a modern print. If you don’t like traditional rugs, sisal is neutral and pulls a room together while adding texture. I also really love bamboo.

DT: What’s your favorite find?

ST: I have this beautiful European-looking, slant-front desk that I got at auction for maybe $300. First, I learned a lesson here because when I got home, I realized the drawers were locked and I hadn’t inquired about keys to open them! But we eventually got them open, and inside were piles of very old correspondence. I assumed the authors were deceased, so I didn’t feel [intrusive] reading them. Among the letters was one from Andrew Turnball, whose father owned Baltimore’s La Paix property where F. Scott Fitzgerald and [his wife] Zelda had rented a home. In this letter, Turnball wrote in pencil how sad he was to learn of Fitzgerald’s recent passing and how he’d planned to visit him in California that summer—and recalls the time when the Fitzgeralds almost burned down their house at La Paix! Turnball later became F. Scott’s foremost biographer.

DT: Why is it especially important now to think about how to embrace the old?

ST: It’s the ultimate way to recycle. Trends we typically tire of and throw away if they don’t wear out first. I believe it’s important to be conscious of the value of things that already exist, and that we should preserve, repurpose and reuse what we have. (Another bonus: Unlike modern boxed furniture, it’s already assembled!)

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Published as “Mod About Traditional” in the April 2020 issue of Delaware Today magazine,

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