The real gift of giving is to have a big slab of fun finding the thing, and for me, that means something vintage or an affordable antique, but only if my pal has been very, very good.
Yes, the ‘used’ second hand thing is a risk. The choice is narrower, and there’s no accounting for taste. Still — isolated from wider family and friends on Christmas morning, you don’t have to tolerate the immediate ‘what the festive flaming pudding is that?’ if they don’t appreciate your eccentric efforts.
Vintage objects not only offer good value but show somebody you care about that you’re not afraid to step away from the obvious and you presume something deeper of your recipient too. Choose something lovely, with only the light imprint of other’s use, and something they can still use — even if just for high days and holidays.
Starting with silver — oh, alright, silver plate — napkin rings are a staple of any general antique shop, often heaped in baskets orphaned from their original boxes and sets. Polished up, and even with a bit of their top coat rubbed away, they are lovely tactile little conversation bangers, throbbing with history. Gathered in a harlequin set, embracing linen napkins in nostalgic prints by say Jennifer Slattery (from €48 for 4) — they are fabulous. ( www.jenniferslatterytextiles.com )
Cutlery may seem an odd choice, but in a roughly matching group of Victorian or Edwardian classics with firm handles, the pieces can serve for suppers and lunches, and may start a collection. Tie them up in a faded silk bow in place settings. Period serving spoons and carving sets, are always useful and stand alone, so look for bowls as big as buckets.
If some of your friends like modern pieces, George Jensen Acanthus serving sets come in around €150 online. Original boxes and a sharpening rod are a stately bonus. Staying with tableware, large platters, chafing dishes and covered serving dishes dating from the late 19th century through to the 1970s, can be found in every antique market and waving from the back shelves of many second-hand shops.
Nineteenth century Staffordshire stoneware with transfer decoration survives well and can mix up with plain contemporary plates. Prices start around €30. Examine the piece for cracks and chips and give it a flick of the finger. A dull sonorous ‘bong’ may signal a serious crack. Elect porcelain for later pieces and hunt for shapes and designs that speak their time. Porcelain 1940s-50s dishes from Japan (Noritake) are good value with fine hand painting in sentimental subjects, as are the more groovy 1950s and 60s Crown Devon and Carlton Ware from the UK, and Rosenthal (German and superb quality).
An Irish-made Royal Tara tea set with immense flabby roses? Yours madam for around €60-€150 from the classifieds or far, far less if you trawl the charity shops. It’s mass-produced and largely 1970s made, so don’t get carried away. Slip in a small visiting card, dating and identifying the gift before wrapping, for that back story.
A single vintage dining chair — it’s useful in a bedroom — can deliver a feature in a living area, and be pressed into use for extra dining guests. Creative fingers can reconfigure a chair to new heights of contemporary fashion and usefulness, and include The Paint Pot and Quay Designs in Cork City, and The Restore in Fermoy, Co Cork, as well as independent design houses throughout the country (my favourite would be the artist collective of ReFound based in Belfast).
If you can find time to DIY it, find a stable chair that does not rock when moved from the top rail with a good line and plenty of presence. Ensure the legs have not been cut down and that all rails are firm and in good condition. For all wood models, a light sand and an application of chalk paint and you’re there.
Ladder or spoke backs can be picked out in a variety of colours. A tie-on seating pad is optional. A flat seat without Thonet style impressions, can take a stencilled design. Seal well with a water based varnish. With an upholstered seat, don’t be afraid to counter-point periods.
Victorian balloon backs and metal armed institutional chairs from the mid 20th century are jazzy, tailored to retro Scandi-chic fabrics (from €5 at IKEA and €3-€8 per metre in any remnant basket). Fix a bow to the back, and leave it outside the door with a ring-and-run delivery.
If your giftee loves bling, they will adore a hefty wave of Murano glass, and it’s just about impossible to tramp through a boot sale without seeing these Italian beauties here, there and everywhere. Avoid the vile duck trinket dishes, electing for the loudest colour and largest, wildest abstract design you can find. Run your fingers around the entire piece to check for subtle cracks or chips in edges or applied detail. Leave any original labels in place. Prices from around €20 for a reasonably large vase.
Suitcases, briefcases and flight bags (satchel style for airline crew) are now a specialist area for collectors and cleaned up, leather and even rigid steel 1960s examples are used in bedrooms for storage and display. With simple legs screwed to the underside, flat topped boxy cases can act as nifty side-tables. Wear and even gentle scuffs are desirable. Re-line a smaller case with bright, fresh new textiles using PVA glue, perfect cuts and neatly folded edges.
Saddle cream will bring most leather (avoid suede) to a soft, supple shine. Keep in mind that edgy craft and artwork can be read as an imposition of your taste rather than a gift, so know your target and keep the appeal as universal as possible.
Collector’s may be oddly displeased to be gifted something from their chosen field — but the hunt trumps the find every time.
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