Designer Wallis Jordan tells her clients to avoid “room in a box” syndrome—that is, when everything in your living room looks like it was bought from the same store on the same day. Instead, she advocates for creating rooms with character, as evidenced by her inventory of stylish vintage furnishings, which occupies approximately 1,800 square feet of the hip RiNo design collective Modern Nomad. The Chicago transplant made her retail debut there in August 2019 with a collection of vintage jewelry and home accessories and within months, expanded her offerings as a way to downsize the personal surplus of vintage furnishings—inherited or snagged from estate sales over the years—which had overwhelmed her condo and filled a storage unit. Here, Jordan explains her passion for vintage and shares her best tips for breathing new life into old things.
5280 Home: Clearly, you’ve got a thing for pieces with history. What is it about vintage decor that appeals to you?
Wallis Jordan: It creates warmth and a connection to the past. Vintage is a much better value and is an opportunity to purchase high-quality furniture with a smaller budget. And the environmental benefit is another big factor. I’ve always loved shopping, but sometimes the retail structure leaves me feeling like a consumer of resources—and frivolous. I try to focus on making retail feel sensible and responsible.
What sorts of pieces do you gravitate toward?
Parisian modernism is my go-to, and I can’t get enough of the ’80s Southwest. I love to travel, so anything handmade with roots in the local culture is so special because [handcrafting decor] feels like a dying art. I love beautiful wood, postmodern lacquer, and Lucite, which has great texture. You could call my look “classic with an edge.”
Any tips for breathing new life into an old piece?
The most effective way to change the look of a piece is to paint it. For example, I once reworked a shagreen chinoiserie-style side table that was in terrible condition when I found it. I painted over the shagreen cover and kept the texture, then added a black outline to give it a cartoonish feel and make it playful. Drawer pulls are also a great way to play with a look. Plus, I’m very experimental. I’ve got a Frankenstein lab of lighting pieces in the back [of the shop]. I’m always workshopping—collecting table bases that don’t have tops and vice versa.
What’s your secret to incorporating pieces from different eras into a home?
The trick to mixing different styles or periods is to find a common feature. It can be scale, color, material, or shape. If you want to pull a teal velvet Victorian sofa into a more modern room, an idea would be to use a patterned wallpaper that pulls in the same teal color. This approach makes an unconventional [combination] make sense together.
5 Vintage Pieces Jordan is Dying to Stumble Upon:
On the hunt for: Gabriella Crespi split reed rattan bookcases
Why: “They are so beautifully structural that they stand up in any scheme, from casual to the ultra-refined home.”
On the hunt for: Massimo Vignelli postmodern coffee table (or any marble variation)
Why: “I can’t get over how unique this 1970s Italian design still feels today. It’s really all you need to set a room apart from anything overly serious or cookie-cutter. Also, if the Greeks taught us anything, it’s that marble is for the ages.”
On the hunt for: A biomorphic piece, like a 1980s John Dickinson plaster console table
Why: “Natural forms and handmade rustic shapes have recently made a big comeback. The organic quality is such a perfect mirror of the landforms of the Southwest. I love the idea of Colorado embracing its strengths to make a unique design statement. It reflects how much we value nature, and design that has a raw human connection.”
On the hunt for: Tessellated stone mirror (think: designs by Maitland-Smith)
Why: “I love bold shapes that create architecture where it may otherwise be lacking.”
On the hunt for: Handblown Murano glass lighting piece (by Mazzega or designer Carlo Nason)
Why: “There is something about old glass, especially handblown glass, that creates dimension that no machine can imitate. Seeing it illuminated can be exhilarating. Lighting dictates the mood in a space. It’s worth it to find something special.”
4 of Jordan’s Hottest Vintage Finds:
What she snagged: Danish modernist leather- and wool-upholstered sofa by Stouby
Why she loves it: “The wool adds a warmth which I find is often missing in leather pieces. There’s no need to dress this up with pillows or throws. It’s straight fire!”
What she snagged: French-style blush laminate coffee table with a navy-and-chrome racing stripe
Why she loves it: “This table has such an unusual color palette. There’s something about it that evokes the Monaco Grand Prix in the ’80s. And I can’t think of anything wrong with that.”
What she snagged: Graceful shagreen chinoiserie-style side table
Why she loves it: “When I found it, the shagreen cover was in terrible condition. I painted over it and kept the texture, then added a black outline to give it a cartoonish feel and make it playful. I strongly believe that we can have fun with our furniture to reflect our personalities.”
What she snagged: 1980s Deco revival mirror-top cocktail table.
Why she loves it: “This table embodies the glitzy 1980s New York City cocktail scene. It makes a space impossible to ignore, like the obnoxious charm of those pinstriped suits and Wayfarers.”