Philly-based interior designer Michelle Gage is a total huntress after our own hearts. “I’m always on the hunt for a glorious vintage find,” she says. Even the name of her perfectly curated Chairish shop, Early Bird Vintage, hints at her commitment to scoring those one-of-a-kind gems. A quick scroll through her curation (or her Insta feed) reveals a particular shopping obsession: vintage portraits. We decided to ask this pro for tips on finding, choosing, and decorating with these charming, friendly faces, or what Michelle lovingly likes to call “stranger art.”


Vintage portrait of girl sits above white bamboo side table next to vintage metal bed.

When did you first fall in love with vintage portraits? 

I can trace my passion for vintage portraits back to March 2014, when I purchased my first painted portrait at a flea market in Raleigh, North Carolina. I still have this top-knotted beauty – which bears a striking resembles to myself – hanging in my master bedroom. She adds soul to the space.

Vintage portrait of a girl is hung above the sink in this flamingo-wallpapered bathroom.

How has your collection of vintage portraits evolved since that first purchase?

It is an interesting obsession. Collecting these portraits, which I refer to as “stranger art,” has consumed me lately. Any time I travel, I find myself stalking local flea markets for these styles. I have found so many fantastic finds locally in Philadelphia. Most recently, I travelled to Paris and returned home with more stranger art than I care to count.

Living room bookshelf is decorated with vintage portraits in this classic family room.

Have you noticed a change in the popularity of vintage portraits over the years? Any styles you’re partial towards?

This look has certainly increased in popularity over the years. I am betting that the local flea markets you haunt have some similar styles. The fascinating thing is that, much like people, vintage portraits are all completely different from one another – different subjects, colors, sizes and styles. Most are painted on unframed canvases. Personally, I like when the handiwork feels a little amateur. There is something so special about an imperfect portrait. It tells a better story.

There is something so special about an imperfect portrait. It tells a better story.

Eclectic living room with blue velvet couch and gold wallpaper is decorated with vintage portraits.

How have you worked vintage portraits into your own home’s decor?

My home doesn’t feature many photographs of myself or my family. Instead, it features unfamiliar faces, which I have grown accustomed to seeing each day. Whether they live on the walls of my guest room or sit on my living room shelves, these portraits add so much personality to my home.

Any advice for people new to the vintage portrait game?
It’s easy to assort this artwork in your home. The first piece you find can hang on your entry way wall, greeting any guests who walk through your door. As your collection grows, you can create a gallery wall to display your finds altogether. You can pepper some pieces throughout the shelving in your home. Putting these portraits in unexpected places adds a sense of quirk and humor to your space.

Whether they live on the walls of my guest room or sit on my living room shelves, these portraits add so much personality to my home.

When hunting for the perfect portrait, I ask myself a few questions before making the purchase.

1. Who are they? The portrait needs to have some personality. I don’t bring boring people into my home. The facial expression needs to have some humor to it.

2. Is the artwork slightly imperfect? I don’t expect perfection in my portraits. The perfect piece is actually slightly imperfect. Perhaps the hand that painted the piece is a little bit amateur.

3. Are the colors interesting enough? Don’t be boring when you have so many exciting options. Select styles that provide a punch of color. This will draw even more attention to your newly purchased priced possession.

Huge thanks to Michelle, and be sure to check out her Chairish shop, Early Bird Vintage!

Copy and photos courtesy of Michelle Gage

October 5, 2017

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