Patina detail on the George Nelson 4692 Bench (1950s) (image via Rarify)

Why Patina is Important for Vintage Furniture

by Nico Haven

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Patina is the visual evidence of wear, use and weathering on an object through rust, oxidation and changes in color and texture.

It's a controversial opinion in the art and design worlds, but we believe it is important for vintage furniture collectors and enthusiasts to embrace patina. 

Design objects are alive, and patina tells their story. It shows us what materials were used, how it was used and experienced, and how that use has changed and transformed it.

Patina brings life to an object, and it distinguishes each piece as unique, even from other examples of the same kind and from the same time period. For example, two Eames Lounge chairs that were manufactured at the same time and to the same specs can, fifty years later, have their own distinguishing characteristics that show each specific chair’s unique history.

As vintage furniture collectors, we look for pieces that are alive, have rich histories, tell stories, and are valuable for their unique personality. We find those things in the evidence patina gives us.

Patina detail on the BE-YANG Table Lamp (1980s) (image via Rarify)
Patina detail on the BE-YANG Table Lamp (1980s) (image via Rarify)

What patina adds to a piece

Signs of age and wear don't detract from an object—they can add another dimension of beauty and character to a piece.

As you can see here, there is a dramatic difference between a Hans Wegner CH23 chair with 70 years' worth of patina compared to a newly manufactured chair.

Patina not only shows the older chair’s age; it also shows how it was used over that 70-year lifetime. Aside from the darkening and oxidation of the oak on the entire chair, it’s fascinating to see how the spot where people held the chair to move it over the years is even darker than the rest of the chair.

When we notice these details, or sit in the chair itself, we can feel connected to the history of the piece, and we can feel like we’re but a new chapter in a bigger, older narrative.

We can also look to this Richard Schultz Petal Side Table as an example to see how the patina on a piece can show the initial intention and thought process behind its design.

Since this table was designed as part of an outdoor furniture series through Knoll in the 1960s, we can see how the eight petals of the wooden top—typically redwood (teak more recently)—aren’t perfectly symmetrical and identical to each other.

That’s because Schultz knew the wood would expand and contract with the changing of the seasons. So, he designed it in eight separate pieces rather than a solid piece of wood to allow it to withstand the elements without breaking or warping, and the patina on the wood shows those changes and heavy wear.

Patina detail on the base of the Knoll Cyclone Side Table, Model 87 (1960s), designed by Isamu Noguchi (image via Rarify)
Patina detail on the base of the Knoll Cyclone Side Table, Model 87 (1960s), designed by Isamu Noguchi (image via Rarify)

Why patina is important for authenticating vintage furniture

Something can be original only once.

While we can use signature details that reveal when a specific piece was designed and manufactured—for example, the different labels used on Eames Lounge chairs over the years—we can also use patina to determine how old an object is.

On this Eames DCM chair, we used the finish of the wood, the rust on the steel-frame base, and the condition of the original rubber shock mounts, along with other information about the history of Herman Miller, to date it to 1952.

The patina is one part of a comprehensive approach to authentication that we use. But, had a previous owner replaced or restored the original upholstery or finish and removed the rust, we would have less information available to us to determine its age, and it would have been more difficult to pinpoint the year when it was manufactured. 

Since every component of this chair, to our knowledge, is original, this is a true collector’s item.

Why patina can be an important part of maintaining a vintage furniture piece

You don’t have to wait a lifetime to open up the deeper beauty and character in a piece. There are active measures you can take to revive a material without full-on restoration.

Oiling the headrest of a vintage Eames Lounge chair, for example, can bring the life and vibrance back to its beautiful Brazilian Rosewood veneer, but done in a way where the original oil finish is not fully stripped.

You can see how dramatically different and better it looks after it’s been oiled. Rather than taking a hands-off approach, actively maintaining your pieces can amplify the existing patina and make your pieces more beautiful and unique. We believe that restoration and maintenance can be crucial to longevity for many furniture pieces, however, we urge enthusiasts to consider that sometimes a less invasive oiling for the purpose of maintenance on wood furniture as an example can be a more responsible approach than full-on deeply sanded refinishing. These processes should be carefully considered. 

This active approach can be used for new design pieces as well.

The Pablo Pardo and Pablo Studio Bola Lantern has a high-quality natural vegetable tanned or black leather handle from which it can hang or be carried. The studio encourages owners of the Bola Lantern to clean and condition the leather twice each year to develop a beautiful, worn-in patina. Vegetable tanned leather is a material known for its ability to quite quickly develop a nuanced range of color based on exposure to light, oils (such as those on our hands), abrasions, among other things. 

Pablo Pardo and Pablo Studio Bola Lantern (2023) (image via Rarify)
Pablo Pardo and Pablo Studio Bola Lantern (2023) (image via Rarify)
Leather handle detail on the Pablo Pardo and Pablo Studio Bola Lantern (2023) (image via Rarify)
Leather handle detail on the Pablo Pardo and Pablo Studio Bola Lantern (2023) (image via Rarify)

As collectors and enthusiasts like you, we love patina and the stories it tells of the pieces we collect and love.

Rarify is an evolving collection of iconic, authentic-only furniture by history's most visionary designers. We curate collections of timeless classics and rare, authenticated vintage furniture pieces, as well as the collectible classics of the future.