Antiques as Slow Décor
During every waking moment, all of us are bombarded with opportunities to buy things, and then experience quick satisfaction when those goods arrive on our doorstep one or two days later—or perhaps even by drone on the very same day.
Although commercial consumerism has been a component of people’s daily lives for hundreds of years,
now that we spend so much of our lives online it is ubiquitous, insidious and inescapable.
Linger for 30 minutes comparing backpacks in an online store, and receive a 10% discount postcard in the mail from that outdoor gear store two days later.
Abandon a package of LED light-bulbs in an online shopping cart, and get periodic email reminders to log back in to close the deal.
Shop multiple fashion sites for elegant special-event garb, and be subjected to pop-up ads for similar clothing for months after you’re hoping never to need such fancy apparel again.
(For an amusing and only slightly exaggerated take on the tentacles of online commerce and smart speaker eavesdropping, see the recent short New Yorker humor essay “Disturbing Digital Coincidences.”)
This aggressive marketing of online behemoths results in “fast consumerism,” in which getting the goods we want or need is just a mouse click away. But to cultural critics, “fast” means more than the timeframe in which we’re able to choose, purchase and receive goods. It also implies excessive rather than conscious consumption, which cascades into a multitude of environmental, ethical and social ills.
In contrast, “slow” consumerism means taking charge and being more thoughtful about how and what we buy. But just as the word “fast” implies more than a timeframe when describing consumerism, “slow” also means something more than a dimension of time when it is applied to our buying habits.
The “slow movement” has been described as nothing short of a cultural revolution (Honoré, 2004). It promotes a philosophy of not only slowing down the pace of life, but also of opting for quality over quantity and sustainability over wastefulness in our choices as consumers.
How does the slow movement relate to buying and decorating with antiques? To explore that question, let’s start with a brief look at the roots and expansion of “slow” trends.
“Slow” as a Lifestyle Choice
The slow movement began in the 1980s when a group of epicureans and social activists in Italy coined the term “slow food.” They were reacting to the opening of an American fast-food franchise in the heart of a historic district of Rome, and were concerned that their country’s local food producers and the tradition of savoring food in small cafés would be overtaken by the fast food industry. They opposed the cultural standardization of how and what we eat, and sought instead to uphold regional food traditions.
In the 30 years since slow food activism began, it has morphed into a variety of similar slow movements, including:
Slow fashion – supports environmentally sustainable clothing manufacturing and good working conditions and livable wages for overseas garment makers, as well as advocating buying vintage clothes, redesigning old clothes, shopping from smaller producers, making clothes and accessories at home, and buying higher-quality garments that last longer.
Slow cities – improves the quality of life in towns by slowing down the pace of life and encouraging conviviality, with special attention to preserving a town’s cultural uniqueness, resisting homogenization, and protecting the local environment.
Slow money – catalyzes the flow of capital to local food enterprises and organic farms by investing in local food producers.
Slow design – creates goods that are made to last and are produced with low environmental impacts.
To expand this list, we hereby introduce and explore the term “slow décor.”
Antiques as Slow Décor
Slow décor is not the same as slow decorating. You can decorate your home slowly, taking time to find and arrange just the right pieces, whether you use mass-produced goods or bespoke and antique objects. Rather, slow décor refers to the décor object itself embodying the slow philosophy.
The following list presents a case for regarding antiques as perfect exemplars of slow décor. Each word highlighted in bold references a tenet of “slow movements,” especially those of slow design (Strauss & Fuad-Luke, 2002), and applies them to antiques and antiquing.
1. Antiques fit the time dimension of the slow philosophy. It takes time to learn about antiques, particularly to understand the history and cultural contexts that gave birth to their design. It also takes time and experience to learn to judge good from bad, and authentic from fake. Finally, once you’ve learned about a genre of antiques and zoned in on what you’d like to acquire, it often takes time to find them. (Hint: Let an antiques dealer know what you’re looking for and the often ultra-slow process could become just sort-of-slow.)
2. Antiques fit the quality dimension of the slow philosophy. Good craftsmanship was the norm 100+ years ago, so antiques typically are solidly, even exquisitely, made.
3. Antiques fit the sustainability dimension of the slow philosophy. When you reuse things such as antiques that already exist, then there is no new environmental impact required to produce them.
4. Antiques fit the durability dimension of the slow philosophy. This refers to buying things that were built to last. High quality antiques typically survive well to be reused for generations to come.
5. Antiques fit the uniqueness dimension of the slow philosophy. Since antiques are typically one-of-a-kind, they are by definition unique. Curating a personal collection of antiques also celebrates the uniqueness of one person’s individual vision and aesthetics.
6. Antiques fit the less-is-more dimension of the slow philosophy. This promotes choosing quality over quantity. Antiques make it possible to be satisfied owning fewer good things instead of lots of lower-quality objects.
7. Antiques fit the mind-satisfying dimension of the slow philosophy. While our appetite for novelty can drive our desire to acquire the latest trends, we can also satisfy our need for novelty by discovering new genres of antiques. The more you delve into the world of antiques, the more amazing surprises you discover.
8. Antiques fit the cultural and emotional connections dimension of the slow philosophy. Objects that originated in an authentic past culture of design are a far cry from the homogenized, culturally unrooted or appropriated aesthetic offered up by mass-produced goods. Also, understanding the cultural heritage of antique objects inspires our emotional connections to them.
Taken together, these eight principles of the slow movement form a very positive case for buying and enjoying antiques—a.k.a. slow décor.
But . . . Is Slow Décor Elitist?
Many people cannot afford to buy antiques whose prices range from several-hundred, to several-thousand, to several-hundred-thousand dollars. In contrast, new decorative objects that are mass-produced cheaply overseas are available to people along a greater spectrum of the economic ladder.
So it is legitimate to ask whether branding antiques as slow décor simply promotes an elitist perspective that justifies having expensive taste and the means to indulge it with a feel-good “slow” label.
We argue that promoting antiques as slow décor is not inherently elitist because antiques and vintage goods are also widely available at the same low to high price ranges as new goods.
You can go to any flea market, antiques mall, small local auction, or online platform such as eBay to find lots of interesting, old things for $20 or less. Fill your kitchen cupboard with vintage drinking glasses for instance, or buy a solidly-built 1800’s dresser for the same or less money than what a particle-board version would cost at a new furniture store.
The craze of fixing up antiques, such as newlyweds who were establishing their own households in the 1960’s and 1970’s did by refinishing affordable old oak furniture, has been reborn as creative millennials refurbish, repurpose and restyle inexpensive old things to fit current tastes and trends.
Slow décor, then does not necessarily mean expensive décor, and is thus not a pursuit solely to be enjoyed by the economic elite.
Our Own “Slow” Identity
We entered the antiques business in part because it was a way to enhance our own and other people’s lives aesthetically and intellectually by learning about and acquiring what are essentially recycled objects. While the bins holding recyclable cardboard, newsprint and aluminum cans in our homes may help to reduce our environmental footprint, they do not kindle delight in the way that beautiful antique objects do.
The various slow movements, including what we’ve defined here as “slow décor,” ask us to be more aware of the the larger environmental, social and cultural impacts of our choices as consumers.
Buying antiques has always entailed contemplating their origins and longevity, taking time to learn about and appreciate them, and knowing that the earth’s remaining natural resources were not freshly depleted to satisfy our needs and wants. Those also happen to be the core tenets of “slow” movements that as antiques dealers and collectors we heartily endorse.
Honoré, C. (2004). In praise of slow: How a worldwide movement is challenging the cult of speed. Toronto: Vintage Canada.
Strauss, C. & Fuad-Luke, A. (2002). The slow design principles: A new interrogative and reflexive tool for design research and practice. http://raaf.org/pdfs/Slow_Design_Principles.pdf.