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Retro vs Vintage - The Difference and How to Use Each in Your Home, According to Experts

(by Shelby Deering on Mar 6, 2024 via

Although their definitions can blur together, there are some distinctive variations.

When it comes to all things old, interchangeable words get thrown around a lot. Some that you might hear often are “retro” and “vintage.” And while it’s perfectly natural to think that these two descriptive words are one and the same, they’re actually not.

In fact, there are key differences between the two, and learning about these dissimilarities can aid you in your quest for bygone decor. Here, the differences between retro and vintage furniture and furnishings.

Retro vs. Vintage, Explained

melanie turner atlanta ladies lounge

Mali Azima

Vice President of Merchandising at Chairish Noel Fahden Briceno says that “vintage” refers to items that were actually made during the era and are at least 20 to 99 years old.


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Sotheby’s Head of 20th Century Design, Carina Villinger, has a slightly different definition of vintage. She says, “Something that is from the 1990 is vintage if it is from the period. If pressed, I would say anything before 2010 [is vintage].”

After writing dozens of articles about vintage furniture and furnishings, we realize that everyone defines it a bit differently. But thankfully, retro items are much easier to distinguish.

Villinger says, “To me, retro is exactly how it is defined in the dictionary: imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past.” It can refer to everything from bright colors and midcentury Americana to ephemera and kitschy pieces. “Vintage, on the other hand, means that the piece is of the actual period and not trying to be anything else,” she adds.

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Generally, retro items are less than 50 years old and have their own distinct vibe, as Leah Ashley, interior stylist and vintage expert explains.

“When I think of retro, I think of midcentury modern pieces or things that give off a bright, funky, or psychedelic vibe,” Ashley says. “Retro may also not be old at all, but instead has been made to look like it’s from a different era.”

Another difference between the two? Ashley says that most of the time when dealing in vintage versus retro items, there will be a price difference. “Vintage is usually going to be more expensive because it’s older and a lot of times it can be of better quality,” she notes, though you can certainly find well-made retro pieces.

Vintage Sofa

Vintage Sofa


Retro Mushroom Ottoman

Retro Mushroom Ottoman


Examples of Retro and Vintage Pieces

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Carmel Brantley

As mentioned, retro pieces can also include newly made items. As Michael Mitchell, founder of Michael Mitchell Interiors, points out, refrigerators and many kitchen appliances on the market right now are considered to be retro.

“Companies such as SMEG are producing retro refrigerators with modern conveniences,” he says. “You can get an ice maker in one of the SMEG refrigerators today that the original likely did not have. The color tones of these fridges are even coming from the 1940s and '50s.”

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Fahden Briceno says that these retro items feel “distinctly nostalgic and often blur into the material culture of the past.” She adds, “They may not be ‘important’ design pieces, but they are often imbued with a collective memory and familiarity. As such, they can also bring a sense of fun,” citing examples such as a powder-blue midcentury phone or a flowery chaise in throwback hues.

Other examples of retro pieces can include record players, art, and funky barware, Ashley says.

On the other hand, those 20- to 99-year-old vintage pieces can span several decades, styles, and genres. Ashley says that some examples of vintage pieces include pottery, rugs, colonial and primitive furniture, and textiles. These pieces often have a more sophisticated, classic air about them, as Fahden Briceno shares a silver plated swan centerpiece and chinoiserie wall sconces as examples.

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