To the uninitiated, flea markets equal major overstimulation. There are so many people milling around so much stuff—going to a rock concert is probably more relaxing. We all know what happens next. You’re so overwhelmed by options that you either buy nothing or the most obvious (and therefore overpriced) things. So, here’s your new plan: Stay far, far away from those big-ticket items (a.k.a. midcentury anything) and focus on under-the-radar vintage pieces that you can snag for cheap because no one else realizes they’re cool yet. Which pieces, exactly? We asked a bunch of design-industry pros for their suggestions.
”Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a bit of a rule-follower, and I need to feed my alter ego, but I love finding items that speak to bad habits and using them in unexpected ways. Smoking is a drag and because most people have kicked the habit (or at least kicked it to the curb—no smoking inside!), ashtrays aren’t really in high demand anymore. For that reason, you can usually find them at flea markets for a steal. The right vintage ashtray can be repurposed as an interesting catchall for jewelry or keys, a candy dish, or a tea-light holder on your coffee table. I have a really large midcentury, pink-speckled ashtray that I use for fresh fruit in my kitchen.”Brittney Forrister, sales specialist at estate sale site Everything But the House
“The most unexpected items I love for a #shelfie are small stools. They’re perfect to fill a void when there’s open space, and totally unexpected. And, of course, they’re great as side tables, too. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for coat racks, hooks, vintage paintings, and desks too!”—Amber Lewis, founder of design firm Amber Interiors and online store Shoppe Amber Interiors
"It’s amazing how many homes I go into for my job at Everything But the House and find large collections of tapered candles. You can often buy them at flea markets and local estate sales very affordable. Most vintage candles are brightly colored or have interesting chintzy designs—my favorite set is a pair of candles with yellow roses molded up the side. The only thing about vintage candles is they are one- or two-time use, so buy in bulk!”—Brittney
"Keep an eye out for vintage plastic pieces for your home. Plastic framed mirrors, stools, lamps, and even desk-side trash bins are often great colors, and if you can snag up a Kartell brand piece, a lot of times people don’t realize what they are selling."—Daniel King and Meghan Lavery, owners of Brooklyn vintage shop Home Union
Toasters (and other industrial designs)
"Great industrial design from all countries is always undervalued and easy to find. Well, great stuff isn’t easy to find, but it is out there and fun to look for, because everyone had a toaster, but was it a great one? Maybe. So keep your eyes peeled at garage sales and especially flea markets." —Patrick Parrish, owner of Patrick Parrish Gallery in New York City and author of The Hunt: Navigating the Worlds of Art and Design ($20, PowerHouse Books)
"To me, a vintage ice bucket is one of the easiest ways to elevate any social gathering. When I’m not actually using them for an event, I have mine displayed on my bar cart, and they are great for storing Keurig cups by the coffeemaker! You can often find these at flea markets in different graphic patterns for less than $20." —Brittney