As an artist, writer, and true vintage fanatic, Virginia Chamlee has quite a few lessons to share about creating spaces you love. She’s sharing all of them in her new book, Big Thrift Energy, which offers tips for how to become a vintage pro and make pieces work with your personal aeshetic. And she should know: her vintage storefront is diverse and colorful (and a Chairish Super Seller, to boot), while her evocative prints and original art are some of our best sellers.

To learn more about her approach to vintage, we spoke with Virginia about what it’s like to be a journalist, visual artist, and designer. See what she had to say below, and be sure to shop her prints and her finds for a true taste of her “big thrift energy.”

Big Thrift Energy

You’re a journalist by day, but also collect and sell art as well as creating your own art. Was collecting always a passion of yours, and how did it develop for you?

I’ve been collecting and enjoying art since I was very young. I was raised by my grandmother, who raised me as a single mom and was incredibly artistic and creative. Her first husband (my grandfather) was also a talented artist. He did everything from portraiture to weavings and fiber art sculptures. Growing up, we had a lot of his work displayed in our house, so I think the seed was planted at an early age. I also learned a lot about buying art—vintage and otherwise—when I was young. When my grandmother started a business buying and selling containers of furniture, she needed accessories (art, pillows, accessories) to balance everything else for her storefront—which was actually in our living room for several years. So I basically lived in a home decor store. Quite literally. And she would take me with her to estate sales, thrift shops, and live auctions to find pieces to supplement her inventory. That’s when I really learned about art and vintage furnishings and grew to love it.

What inspires your own art? Which artists and what kinds of things make you feel creative?

I love to reference vintage pieces in my work—so, a column or bust I saw in a vintage art book becomes a little more abstract, or a Picasso face from a ceramic becomes a little more chunky and modern in an abstract painting. All art is derivative and for me, a lot of it is a new take on older works.

Big Thrift Energy

A lot of your work uses language and incorporates the written word. Tell us a bit about that.

I am a writer by trade. I graduated college with an English degree and am fascinated by language—the etymology of words, how one word can mean different things depending on inflection. I try to explore that with my “Play on Words” pieces. I think one sentence can have an entirely different meaning based on where you place the emphasis, or what kind of mood you might be in when you read it.

Your book, Big Thrift Energy, just came out this month. Congratulations! How did it come about?

I grew up going to vintage shops and actually spent much of my childhood in a vintage shop—both when my grandmother’s business was in our home, and later, when she moved her business to a large space in an antiques gallery. So much of shopping for treasures is second nature to me. Years ago, I started sharing my finds on Instagram and always got comments like, “How did you find that?” or “How did you know that was good?” At some point along the way I thought, Someone needs to write a book about this. Of course, being a writer, I thought I might as well give it a go myself. So I did a lot of research and spent months crafting my pitch. And I got a book deal, which was probably my greatest dream realized. I never imagined I would get the opportunity to have Big Thrift Energy in front of such a wide audience but now it’s available pretty much everywhere books are sold.

What do you most hope that readers get out of your book? What are some of the key takeaways?

First and foremost, I want this to be a resource. It is a coffee table book, so it’s beautiful and looks great on display. But I wanted to create something that people can turn to again and again—for a source of inspiration but also to learn more about how to do research, to determine the story behind a good find. The key takeaway is to have confidence when it comes to buying or styling vintage. People talk a lot about what not to do—what’s out, what’s tacky, etc. I am a firm believer that you should do (and wear, and decorate with) whatever makes you happy. 

Big Thrift Energy

Which types of pieces catch your eye when you’re looking for new vintage finds? And what advice would you have for someone who’s new to secondhand shopping or thrifting?

Art-wise, anything with lots of color. For furniture and accessories, I am always drawn to materials first—and that’s a good piece of advice for novice thrifters. Look for leather, marble, stone… these are pieces that tend to be more pricey, so it stands to reason that anything made out of them will be well designed.

In terms of your vintage business, do you mostly sell through digital avenues like Chairish? And how do you manage most of your sourcing?

I sell almost entirely through Chairish and am proud to do so. I was a fairly early adopter of the platform and have formed great relationships with the team and honestly I just really drink the Kool-Aid. The merchandising is always stellar, the site is always on top of trends. I’m definitely a Chairista. I manage most of my sourcing the old-fashioned way: by going out and shopping myself. I am a one-woman show, so it’s pretty much just me spending hours searching for goodies each week (and perusing online auction houses, that kind of thing). And my boyfriend is also usually there, helping me lug things to the car and holding my phone so I can film a Reel for Instagram.

What types of pieces do you see moving these days? What are the patterns in terms of what’s selling right now? 

Honestly, my own art sells more than anything. My words, in particular, do very well. My second biggest seller is vintage art. But of course, with the shipping and supply chain issues, furniture has been a big seller in recent months. That’s one of the great things about buying vintage: it’s available right now. No need to wait.

What are some trends in the art world that are inspiring you right now? And is there anything that you wish would go away? 

I love the brown trend we’re seeing lately though—though as a maximalist, I am not at all upset that we are also seeing a return to fun, over-the-top decor. I think I could do without seeing another beige-on-beige, overly minimalist room. 

Finally, what’s a dream piece you’d love to have yourself (either a piece of decor or art or both)?

I would give up one of my pinkie toes to have this Jay Spectre coffee table in the shape of Joan Crawford’s lips.

All images courtesy of Virginia Chamlee

July 11, 2022

Dennis Sarlo is the executive editor of Chairish and a lover of all things design-related. Prior to joining the team, he served as the executive editor of Dering Hall and was the first site director of Architectural Digest. He was also part of the founding team of travel startup Jetsetter. He lives in New York.