Honoring the Past
TV flea-market personality Bob Richter shares the deeper meaning behind his work.
WITTY AND KNOWLEDGEABLE, BOB RICHTER has become one of the most recognizable stars of the flea-market-design world. Fans know him from the PBS series Market Warriors, and three seasons of Flea Market Minute (on Youtube and via The Huffington Post). You may have also seen him on the Hallmark Channel, CBS and FOX. And then there was his successful book, A Very Vintage Christmas. Well, you may be hearing it here first: Bob has another book in the works, Vintage Living Today, slated for release in spring 2019. We were thrilled to interview this creative expert.
Flea Market Décor: You’ve said that flea-market shoppers should buy what they love. But can you give some recommendations for how to make it all fit together? We need some guiding principles, Bob!
Bob Richter: I love this question! Yes, buy what you love, but have a place in mind for it. If you don’t have a place for it and aren’t willing to remove something to make room for it, it’s probably best to walk away and let someone else take it home and love it. I actually got to a point where I had five storage units. That’s when I realized I had to stop buying and start selling. No matter how inexpensive something is, it’s not a bargain if you have to pay to store it. And it’s not being loved and enjoyed if you have it locked away
“My job is to not only hunt, gather and decorate with vintage objects—but also to learn from them and pass that knowledge on to others.”
somewhere. Now I have more of a balance; I get to a point where I’m ready to let go of objects I’ve owned and loved for a long time. That’s typically how collectors become dealers.
FMD: When is too much just too much, from the viewpoint of an interior designer?
BR: More is more, right? Yes, that was the motto of my design hero, Tony Duquette. But sometimes more just becomes too much and starts getting in the way of your life. I live with a lot of objects, but everything must have a place, and there must be lots of room for entertaining. If you feel you can’t have people over because of all of your stuff, you might need to do a major edit. I ask myself and clients all the time: “Do you love it?” If the answer isn’t an automatic “Yes,” then you realize quickly which pieces can go.
FMD: Some of our readers have impressive collections of one or two types of things. Any suggestions for dealing with that? Turn one room into a shrine?
BR: If it makes you happy to decorate this way and it fits in your lifestyle, go for it. I, on the other hand, like spreading my collections around. I feel individual objects are hard to see when too many are grouped together. Also, as a collector, I’m more about styles
(like Art Deco), genres (like art pottery) and colors than I am about a collection of, let’s say, salt and pepper shakers. That said, I do have a number of cute vintage s & p’s, and they are scattered all over my kitchen. And my bathroom is filled with World War II items. Places like bathrooms and kitchens are good places for collections. They are frequently visited places in the home, so collections can be enjoyed. People typically take a long time in my bathroom, and it’s not because of nature calling; it’s because they want to see everything in there!
FMD: Are you always tweaking your own place?
BR: Oh, my gosh, I move objects around my house every day. It’s just my process. I love doing it, and it gets my creative juices flowing. When I was a kid, I would often “refresh” our home before my mom got home from work. She was not always on the same page, but she gave me a lot of room to express myself. I feel like objects are my paints, and the room is a canvas. You’re only a painter if you’re painting, and you’re only a decorator if you’re decorating. So, while I do it for clients regularly, I do it for myself daily! Also, I learned from the best: my Nana. She owned and ran our family interior design business from 1936 to 2005. She had the best taste, and she taught me everything I know about color. That really is how I decorate. I let color be my guide, then shape, then form. She also taught me the easiest way to change up a room was to switch out the fabrics like drapes, slipcovers and pillows.
She did this with the seasons. Bold colors in the winter, and whites and soft colors in the summer. I don’t do it on the scale that she did, but I definitely follow this model. For clients, however, I have to let their lifestyle be the guide. With kids and pets, busy schedules and financial limitations, changing by the seasons isn’t always possible in a big way, but there are little ways that can be simple and inexpensive. This might just be switching out throw pillows and flowers or plants.
FMD: Tell us about the impetus for your upcoming book, Vintage Living Today.
BR: My job is to not only hunt, gather and decorate with vintage objects—but also to learn from them and pass that knowledge on to others. Beautiful vintage objects are history lessons and reminders of values, activities and interests that deserve to be revived. For
example, I have a large collection of vintage china that I use on a daily basis. (A favorite set is “Riviera” by Homer Laughlin.) But I make my coffee in a modern electric drip coffee maker. This is Vintage Living Today—honoring the past, using objects from it, and adding in modern elements that make life easier and more comfortable.
FMD: Tell us a good flea-market story.
BR: My favorite flea-market find is a painting that hangs proudly in my hallway. I found it at a New York City flea market early one morning. I was drawn to it, and when I looked closer, I knew why. It was done by my brother! My brother was a very talented artist who passed away when he was 27. I was only 15 at the time so I didn’t have a chance to own any of his work. Sure enough, all these years later, there is this piece at the flea market. Better still, my brother included himself as one of the images in the painting, so I not only have a work by him—but of him. Clearly, it was meant to be.
FMD: Why is flea marketing so important right now?
BR: In this world, it seems so many people are angry with each other because they have opposite beliefs or politics.
While these things might not change, I’d argue that we have a lot more in common than we think. If you don’t believe me, go to a flea market or antiques shop with someone and see how much you have in common. I hear it all the time, “My grandmother had one of these!” or “My Dad always wore one of these.” Vintage objects are truly conduits for comfort, connection and continuity. They make us smile and remember good times and people, and we share those memories with others, who then share their own memories. And finally we live with them today in a way that’s relevant in our world, like Grandma’s mixing bowl, or one like it, that now holds apples on the kitchen table.
FMD: Any advice for styling furniture that is currently less en vogue, such as the Victorian and heavier wood pieces? Is there any hope for them?
BR: I am very much a purist when it comes to vintage. In fact, I am often concerned about the repurposing craze because I think it potentially ruins beautiful objects and takes away the character that age gives them. However, there are certain pieces that don’t have aesthetic, historical or financial value. Those are the pieces I say go ahead and repurpose. My friend Eleanor recently painted some very heavy old Victorian chairs turquoise, and they look great. I also like using old sideboards and dressers as bases for sinks or as potting tables. If it’s not comfortable (most Victorian furniture was designed not to be comfortable), I don’t want it in my home. The thing about the vintage objects and furniture I love is that they were well-designed and comfortable in 1940, so they should naturally be both of those things in 2018 as well.
FMD: And objects should have meaning, yes? BR: I’ve been in the vintage/antiques world my whole life, and one thing I’ve learned for certain is that stuff outlives us, but we live on if people remember us. Certain TV shows would have you believe that if your grandmother’s china isn’t worth some big financial number, it is worthless. I couldn’t disagree more. Your grandmother’s china has great value if it has good memories for you. You should use it and share it. And when you do, share stories about your grandmother. That is how we live on.
BOB LIVES IN AN 1854 HOME but references many eras with his furnishings and artwork.
VINTAGE LIFESTYLE EXPERT Bob Richter is a lifelong collector who grew up surrounded by his family’s design business.