Antiquing Like a Pro
Design powerhouse Matthew Patrick Smyth shares his tricks for finding timeless pieces
C&G can’t get enough of Matthew Patrick Smyth. The designer (who served as a judge for this year’s Innovation in Design Awards) is being honored at the Litchfield County Antiques & Mid-Century Show later this month, where he will also be signing his book, Living Traditions (now in its second printing, The Monacelli Press). I recently caught up with Mr. Smyth to get his thoughts on finding antiques, the Nutmeg State and techniques for creating a timeless home.
Did you grow up with antiques? How were you first acquainted with them?
I didn’t grow up around them at all, actually. My family had all modern furniture. I ran into some people who were dealing in antiques, so I started looking around. It kind of snowballed from there; it’s been a learning process.
What was the first antique you ever bought?
A French sunburst mirror from the 1950s. It was $30 at a flea market, but I got it for $25. I only cleared $90 a week from my paycheck at the time. My check had just cleared, and I was so worried about having only $65 to live on that week. Now it seems silly. I still have it above my bed in my New York apartment.
When you’re going to an antiques show, do you have a system for finding great pieces?
I start on one side and work my way over. For some reason, every time I go to the Winter Antiques Show in New York, I always start from the right. But I always walk through the entire show, and then go back and visit the booths I’m interested in. You have to get the feel of it first. Plus, I’m always running into people and getting sidetracked. It takes two trips so you don’t miss things.
What draws you into a booth?
Presentation is everything. It’s telling of the quality of the booth if the set-up is done well. If the items are crowded and difficult to see, I probably won’t spend a lot of time in a booth. There needs to be a point of view.
Is there anything that sets a certain piece above the rest, something that catches your eye?
That’s all subjective. It depends on what you’re looking for, and your history of what you’ve liked and searched for. It isn’t instinctual. You have to educate yourself. I also go to auction houses a lot, and they can be very informative. They provide descriptions of items and their values. I learned a lot starting out—I even bought old auction house catalogues to study. When you’ve done the research, you’re able to tell if the nails are original or if the patina has been redone. It takes time and experience. But the more you look the more you learn.
What’s special about the Litchfield County Antiques Show?
It represents the northwestern corner of Connecticut. So opening night, it’s like the kickoff to the summer—you see everyone, and people are relaxed.
When there isn’t a show going on, what are your favorite resources for antiques in Connecticut?
I do a lot of driving. I love browsing through Woodbury, and Artifacts in Kent is a great store. There are a lot of shops in Greenwich and Westport that I like, and the Antique Center in Stamford is a great source. Connecticut has a lot to offer.
Do antiques play a large role in your design concept for a home?
They really do. Designers can separate themselves by injecting antiques into projects. Antiques are one of a kind, and they can add another layer to a home. It’s instant personality. A room of store-bought things is just a room of store-bought things. Antiques create a balance so that it’s not a cookie-cutter home.
What sets Connecticut homes apart from other parts of the country?
I think Connecticut has a heritage of antiques. There’s a sense of history. Plus, the region is design-oriented. You have everything from the Philip Johnson Glass House to the many classic 18th-century homes. They’re all appreciated.
What elements are needed to create a timeless home?
You need focus, appropriateness and a sense of humor. I don’t just believe in buying something and saying it works. I focus on what the room needs, and what’s appropriate for the house and the family’s lifestyle.
Tell us about your book signing!
It will be taking place on the premiere night of the Litchfield County Antiques & Mid-Century Show. Polly Allen Mellen, a legend in the fashion business, and Lillian Vernon, the queen of the catalogue, are being honored as well. It’s a real treat to be alongside these two legends—intimidating, but a treat.
How did you choose which homes to feature in the book?
I really chose to represent a range of work—there’s an order, a sense of humor. There’s everything from old New England homes with lots of antiques to modern, fun New York apartments. It wasn’t about creating one kind of aesthetic. Honestly, I think interior design is a service industry and we should represent the needs and wants of our clients over creating a signature look.
Smyth is being honored opening night, Friday June 22 during the preview party at 6:30–9 p.m. for his work in interior design, and he will be signing his book, Living Traditions. The Litchfield County Antiques & Mid-Century Show will be held Saturday, June 23, 10 a.m.–6 p.m. and Sunday, June 24, 10 a.m.–4 p.m at the Kent School’s Spring Center.