This monthly feature focuses on local interior designers and their ideas for choosing color schemes, furniture, art and an overall design style or scheme.
Today we focus on San Luis Obispo designer Pattea Torrence, who owned Finders Keepers Consignment Antiques in the 1990s and purchased the Old Edna town site in 2000.
She has since been restoring the historic two-acre site, including the two-story tin main building, the blacksmith, Suite Edna farm stay and DeSolina house.
Pattea Torrence’s “storybook” vintage style has its origins in childhood days watching her father, Walt Torrence, create set designs for PCPA Theaterfest or work on one of the many imaginative homes he built in the area. Today, Torrence describes her signature style as “sweet and elegant,” pairing rustic with refined with an undercurrent of romance. Here, she offers pointers on how to achieve her own rendition of vintage décor.
Go on a treasure hunt
On each project, Torrence challenges herself “to spend as little as possible” while still achieving a luxe look. She is always on the hunt for great finds, scouring vintage furniture stores, estate sales, garage sales, consignment stores, salvage yards, and antique shops. One of her favorite activities is rummaging through a friend’s old barn for rusted metal tools that can be repurposed as art on exterior walls, or old sturdy wood to use as a mantel or shelving.
When antiquing, she not only looks for furniture, but for unique accents. She uses old columns as elegant room dividers, and old windows mounted on the wall for archi- tectural interest. Old tassels, textiles, trim or lace bring a vintage look to pillows, draperies, lampshades or furniture.
She also likes to have one “bold and provocative” and preferably very old piece of art for every room. She favors oil paintings because of their depth and texture. And she almost never displays them in a frame.
“I like older pieces and can’t always find an old frame that harmonizes well with it,” she said. “And when there’s no frame, you see the old nails, the way the craftsman put it together, the old weathered fabric. It’s much more interesting.”
Torrence has a gift for finding great pieces and “making them work,” which makes her a fearless shopper. Still, there are some items she will almost always pass over. Old furniture that is lovely but uncomfortable, light fixtures that are dated or dingy, or anything with a musty smell — those never make the cut, no matter how great the deal. Although she loves a good antique, she believes that a few new items bring a fresh look to a vintage scheme. She likes simple slipcovered upholstered furniture. She is a fan of the light fixtures at Pottery Barn. And she also touts local retailer Pacific Coast Kitchen & Bath for vintage-style plumbing fixtures that have modern functionality.
Anther no-no on her list is the “peeled and chipped paint” look in vintage furniture. “I worry about the lead in the paint in some of the pieces so I either repaint and seal, or I don’t use it at all.”
That said, she will often buy fine antiques that have minor flaws, such as the slightly chipped Roseville pottery she picked up for a steal at a garage sale.
“You just turn the chipped side around,” she said. “When pieces are already flawed, you aren’t afraid to let them be handled and touched.”
Torrence has a knack for repurposing items in novel ways. She will remove bases from small tabletops and hang them on the wall like paintings, which she says “adds depth to a room.” She recently purchased a copper-topped table from an estate sale and used the top as a headboard, which she said makes a “powerful statement.” The base she saved for another project.
A length of antique, nubby, monogrammed linen she had been storing for many years sparked another idea. She hung it from an old copper kindling bucket joined to a pot rack and crated a bed bonnet, which is a small canopy at the head of the bed. Torrence uses them often to give the bedroom a romantic feel.
Bedding materials, either new or old, can be repurposed in a variety of ways. Duvet covers can become curtains. A lace coverlet clipped to a white plastic shower curtain gives an instant romantic look to a bathroom. Old dishes that match your color scheme are good for hanging on walls, stacking in cabinets or adding to vignettes.
It’s all in the details
No tassel or piece of trim escapes Torrence’s attention when putting the finishing touches on a room. In fact, most of the spaces she decorates have certain details that may not be distinguishable at first, but work together to add texture and interest.
She always has at least one item borrowed from nature, be it a branch or a bird’s nest. Somewhere, you’ll usually find a vintage font, a monogram or old books. She also likes a little leather, as it offers a nice counterpoint to lace or opulent accents. Even if the home isn’t a 1920s cottage, she likes to extend the vintage look to the outdoors in some way. For instance, she encourages clients to plant some vintage flowers, especially roses. The added benefit is easy access to cut flowers for arrangements.
Even confident designers like Torrence sometimes make mistakes. Admitting that is liberating, she said. It means you can take a risk and buy a yard sale find that you love, even if you’re not sure where you’ll use it.
“Items can always be resold, and I seldom pay retail anyway,” she said.
Making peace with the occasional error also means you can cut your losses and start over if you discover you’re on the wrong track. Not doing so may result in living with your mistake for years. She often encounters homeowners who refuse to change a wall color even after they realize it is wrong for the space.
As a seasoned vintage shopper who learned “rummaging” with her grandmother, Torrence increases her odds of success by refusing to buy anything that she does not find inspiring.
“It is often exhausting searching for these things. I know this. However don’t settle just because you are tired of searching,” she said. “You will have your energy back. Just take a little moment, relax, and begin again.”