My Grandmother's Midcentury Design Pieces Made Me Fall in Love with Vintage

Midcentury dining set in kitchen.

Courtesy of Heather Bien

Before the midcentury aesthetic was even a twinkle in Instagram's eye—hey, before Instagram even existed—I inherited my grandmother's midcentury furniture. I was unsure of it at first, but these solid wood pieces set forth a design trajectory that led me away from new and modern, and towards an eclectic style with a big dose of vintage.

I was in college when she passed away. Born in 1914, my grandmother, Alice Pendleton Bien, was a generation older than many of my peers’ grandparents. She’d been a single mother, a strong, Southern woman whose apartment I remember vividly. She had modest but intentional décor with warm wood tones, delicate crystal behind china cabinet doors, and walls adorned with oil paintings—gifts from a hobby her much younger sister, Jane, picked up in her sixties (she still paints today at age 99).

But, I never thought much about the pieces within her home. I went off to college, buying new furniture from Target and the occasional thrifted piece when I was running particularly low on funds. My style was blue, white, light, and bright. A grandmillennial I was not, and dusty, old furniture didn’t have a place in my personal style. 

When I moved into my first “adult” home (read: cheap apartment with a roommate), midcentury's resurgence hadn’t yet gone mainstream. I emptied out the storage unit where her furniture had taken up residence and stared at the brown wood pieces, wondering how on earth I was going to make these work. They didn’t go with the shiny and new aesthetic I wanted to cultivate as I started adulthood, but I had them in hand—and they were free.

Close up of midcentury dining set.

Courtesy of Heather Bien

I loaded them into a moving truck, unpacked into my second-floor apartment, and immediately headed to the hardware store for sandpaper and paint. Antique enthusiasts, cover your ears, but I hastily threw coats of paint onto this beautiful solid wood midcentury furniture, chairs, end tables, dressers, and nightstands, trying to make it fit the glossy, preppy look of the late aughts, early 2010s. I wanted it to look new. I wanted it to look anything but old. 

But, as time marched on and memories faded, these pieces started to take on more meaning. The birdcage Windsor chairs from the 1960s where I ate dinner each night were the same ones I sat in eating Southern snaps and drinking ice-cold Coke. The French midcentury coupe glasses, which are a staple of my Friday cocktail hour, bring back memories of that china cabinet in Richmond. 

Realizing that these pieces were actually packed with connection to the past made me understand how special furniture with patina could be.

Styled midcentury dining room chairs under Sputnik chandelier.

Courtesy of Heather Bien

Realizing that these pieces, which I had at one time dismissed as dated, were actually packed with connection to the past made me understand how special furniture with patina could be. A few nicks and scratches were no longer something to hide, they were scars that told stories.

And, as the pieces in my own possession became increasingly important to my sense of history and style, it became more meaningful to bring in vintage furniture whenever I redecorated. Even if I didn’t know the story myself, I fell in love with the idea of items carrying with them anecdotes from the past. Shiny and brand new no longer had the same allure. I wanted something that had stood up to decades—or centuries—of life, serving generations before me, witnessing dinner parties and celebrations, keeping the previous owners company through the years. 

Each time we make a cocktail in one of the passed-down glasses, it’s a 'cheers' to those that got us here.

In recent years, I’ve been the fortunate recipient of midcentury family heirlooms from my husband’s family, too: low-slung chinoiserie horseshoe chairs, a massive brass lamp scaled for a sweeping 1960s ranch rather than a 19th-century rowhome, and, of course, more glassware. Now, I understand how special these pieces are, not only because of their vintage appeal but because of the connection to family and history. Each time we make a cocktail in one of the passed-down glasses, it’s a "cheers" to those that got us here.

And, with the midcentury aesthetic still going strong, I can guarantee that whenever I post a photo of my dining room on Instagram, I’ll receive several messages asking, “Where did you get those chairs?” I smile as I answer, “They’re vintage, and they belonged to my grandmother.”

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