What happens when a former Martha Stewart Living staffer pursues her passion for design, becomes antiques-obsessed, and dives headfirst into the industry? The answer is Modern Antiquarian, the brainchild of founder Margaret Schwartz, who turned her love of interiors into her full-time job. After several years of owning a Connecticut-based antiques and home store, Margaret launched Modern Antiquarian and focused entirely on her gorgeous finds. Today, she shops Europe for incredible pieces for her A-list clients, with a particular specialty in elegantly textured Swedish furniture.
We spoke with Margaret about the launch of her business, how she handles sourcing overseas, and the types of pieces that she sees moving now. See what she had to say and shop all of Modern Antiquarian’s excellent offerings right here on Chairish.
Firstly, how did Modern Antiquarian get its start? Was collecting antiques a passion of yours before launching the business?
I always loved antiques, but it was a love for the look without truly appreciating antiques for what they are. I liked that the items weren’t so precious or perfect and that the patina was part of the story.
Years ago, I went on a one-day tour in England with the Antiques Diva, and that day changed my life. I didn’t know if I would buy anything, and I ended up filling a 20-foot container in a single day! It was good because I was naive. I simply bought what I loved. I completely fell in love with the industry and the people, and I knew that day that I would become an antiques dealer full time. It took me several years and many mistakes, but I celebrate my fifth anniversary in January. I cannot possibly imagine doing anything outside of the antiques world.
There is so much left to accomplish in this industry, and one of the major things is adopting a global ban on the sale and profit of hate-based objects, artifacts, and materials. These items belong in museums to be used as educational tools. They need to be placed in context and used to show why these ideologies were so harmful, what the human cost was, and how we are working to prevent these atrocities from happening again.
You carry a variety of vintage and antique pieces, though you specialize in Swedish finds. How did you get so involved with art and antiques from Sweden in particular?
The Swedish pieces speak to me differently. They have an honest quality, and you can see the labor of love. The Swedish country and estate pieces aren’t overly ornamental, yet they still catch your eye with beautiful colors and an approachable look. Most of the Swedish antiques I work with are based on French designs but were then simplified and modified to use Swedish materials and colors. I love the history of Swedish antiques, and I love that I am always learning something new about them. How can a 150-year-old dresser still be teaching me? But it does, and I’m grateful for that.
How do you manage your sourcing, and how do you make choices about what to select? Where do you travel to find new pieces?
I source the majority of my items in Europe, and that can be from roaming the Swedish countryside to digging through the brocantes in the South of France or attending one of the largest fairs in Italy.
When selecting pieces, I consider several factors beyond the standard “do I like it, is it good quality, is it the right price?” I look at where and whom I have bought from previously. How quickly did their items sell, and what was the margin? I also ask those same questions for inventory categories like mirrors, lighting, etc.
The one category I always struggle with is accessories. When I worked at Martha Stewart, we weren’t supposed to keep any “dust catchers” on our desks, and I’ve never gotten over that.
How was sourcing affected by the pandemic, and how did it affect business overall? Did you pivot the way you work as a result of changes in the industry over the last 2.5 years?
I am constantly evaluating my business and making changes. I am not afraid to fail! If I see an opportunity, I will generally try it three times; the best two out of three is the answer. If it was a success twice, I’ll keep working to improve it. If it was a flop twice, I’ll do a post-mortem and figure out what I can learn from those experiences.
The pandemic was terrifying for personal and professional reasons. We were all worried it would end our business as we knew it. It turns out that was true, but in an entirely different way than we expected! At first, I stopped buying and focused my attention on getting as many of my products online as possible. Then the pandemic caused a surge in online purchases of home decor. The general wisdom is that it takes six months for consumers to adapt their behavior in a way that was predicted to take five years. When sales exploded, I started buying remotely. Primarily, I bought from vendors I had worked with, knowing I could trust the quality. Buying via WhatsApp video call isn’t the easiest, but the team at The Antiques Diva adjusted quickly. They helped me fill two forty-foot containers that way.
The important lesson here is that both trade and retail clients are comfortable buying antiques online at all price points. There isn’t hesitancy anymore. A lot of that is due to Chairish offering a clear return policy and excellent customer service for both the dealers and the buyers. You all make the process smooth.
Have you seen more customers coming through digital methods like Chairish? Do you see that having an effect on how designers shop for vintage, in particular?
We’ve absolutely seen an increase in sales and traffic. People love shopping for vintage online. It’s not limited to where you are from and what flea market you can make it to this weekend—you have the whole country at your fingertips. We mostly work with luxury designers, and they know exactly what they need. Now they can quickly and easily fill their carts on Chairish with items for multiple projects with little risk.
I also think it has given designers who have not typically used vintage and antiques in their designs a reason to explore those options. The short lead times are still very attractive—vintage and antique pieces are ready to go, and if you live in the tri-state area, I can get you an item in as little as 48 hours.
What types of pieces do you see moving these days? What are the patterns in terms of what’s selling right now?
I have always been and probably always will be a casegoods and storage kind of girl. I sell chests of drawers, specifically pairs, constantly. I somehow have become known for pairs of chests of drawers. Painted Swedish will always have a place at the top! It’s the chameleon of furniture and looks equally beautiful at the beach, in the mountains, on Park Avenue, or in the suburbs, mixed with some mid-century modern pieces.
I also sell a lot of pairs of lamps and mirrors. Someone joked I should rename my business “pairs,” and they aren’t wrong! I know my niche in terms of who is buying from me and what they need. Regarding style, Murano anything is so chic and very of the moment.
I am also loving the Grandmillenial trend and think it will be here to stay. The Grandmilennial feel has a classic look that is both polished and inviting. You can interpret the look from your point of view and make it uniquely yours. It allows you to express yourself and enthusiastically show off your collections. I am definitely more of a maximalist!
What’s a dream piece you’d love to own yourself?
A large painted Dutch Bombe Vitrine. The Dutch pieces are expensive but so worth it in my opinion. They command attention in a room with their style and quality. I am constantly on the hunt for “the one,” but in the meantime, I live vicariously through my clients by stocking my shop with Dutch bombe commodes.
Also, china cabinets or vitrines are the absolute best for storage. I swear the one outside my tiny Manhattan kitchen has doubled my storage space. Where else would I be putting a stand mixer when I have approximately 3 square feet of counter space?
Do you see any upcoming trends in terms of what’s next for the design world? What types of pieces do you hope to stock next?
Lately, there has been a huge interest in garden and conservatory items which is incredibly exciting for me. I think this stems from the amount of time we’re spending at home and seeing how underutilized our outdoor spaces are. People realize that gardens have as many rooms as a home. There is a kitchen, dining room, living room, game space, and more. The garden should be an extension of your home, and it is past time to start giving gardens the attention they deserve.
People are bringing garden items into the home too, which is so fun. They love the organic look and feel combined with the durability. What is not to love about displaying your orchids in a moss-covered antique swan planter in your entryway? I just sent an entire forty-foot container to Round Top, filled with garden and conservatory items. It will be fabulous, so make sure to stop by!
Are there any styles or trends you’d like to see disappear in the design world right now?
I have never been a fan of The Memphis style. If you love it, go for it! We all have our own look and feel, which is what makes design exciting. But Memphis will likely never cross my threshold in my work or my home.
Who are some of your favorite makers or designers, in terms of your own inspirations?
It’s hard to choose! I love Bunny Williams, Alexa Hampton, and Nick Olsen. Those three have a deep appreciation for and understanding of antiques. I am naturally drawn to designers who incorporate antiques alongside modern or newly made pieces because that is how you get depth and tell a story. I don’t want to list too many of my favorites and give away my client list!
Lead image: Susana Lopez