The Vintage Virtuoso: Joanne Bickford of Simply Vintage Rentals
Armed with an eye for design and a treasure trove of eclectic pieces, Bickford helps couples create weddings that are anything but ordinary.
Joanne Bickford has always been drawn to vintage furnishings. “They have a personality of their own,” says the former designer. “There’s just something so special about them.” After ending a 15-year career in New York City’s Garment District, the Fashion Institute of Technology grad decided to funnel her passion for rare collectibles into a business, founding Simply Vintage Rentals in 2011. Bickford now shares her extensive collection—which includes everything from tufted banquettes and armchairs to wooden farm tables and whiskey barrels—with wedding clients throughout New England, creating plush lounge areas, festive dessert stations, and so much more.
What makes vintage pieces good for weddings?
When I was in the Garment District, I had a 6,000-square-foot showroom on Broadway that I did entirely in vintage—peeling paint, French furniture. When buyers came in, it broke the ice. They would say, “Oh, my grandfather had that.” It’s the same thing at an event. It makes people feel comfortable.
What’s unique about your collection?
I never refinish anything. Everything I have is authentic because I really feel like that’s the way it’s supposed to be. I do not have anything that’s new. Nothing from Home Goods, and no reproductions or things like that. I have Edwardian and Victorian furniture that’s extremely expensive with lots of tufting and fringe, but I also love tattered things.
How do you find this stuff?
Flea markets, Craigslist. I was at a resort where they were going to burn these beautiful birch trees that they had cut down. I asked if I could take them. A lot of people get rid of things because they don’t have the vision for what you can do with them. Most of my collection, especially sofas and large items, has come from purchases. I do not attend Brimfield or antiques festivals. They take the romance out of it. I don’t want to go look for a booth that carries vintage tablecloths in a huge field. It’s terrible, but I still personally have to like the piece. I will not get anything that I don’t have a feel for.
What are some ways to add personality to an event with furniture and accessories?
I love photo booths. You can do an area with frames that guests can hold up in front of a backdrop. You can rent china, as well as doors, windows, and chalkboards to use for posting menus. You can have a dessert table made from vintage boxes or pedestals. A lot of people will have either a settee or two special chairs for the bride and groom. You can rent pews, benches, chests, or trunks for ceremony seating. I had a wedding last year that had 32 vintage oil lanterns. You can imagine how difficult that was with new wicks. There’s no end to what you can do.
How do you start the process?
I often work with a wedding planner, a coordinator, or a designer, but I also work with brides directly. I will have her pick the sofa that she loves and two chairs, for example, and I will do the rest. Or she’ll send me a photo from Pinterest or something like that.
Speaking of Pinterest, do you think the website has given couples unrealistic expectations for their weddings?
Absolutely not! Whatever they see on Pinterest, I can make happen. I can even find them a hot air balloon if they’d like. I had one at my wedding. I’ll never duplicate something exactly, though, because that’s not personalizing things.
Are you available on the day of the event to set up?
Yes, I always do the staging. I’m not a rental company that leaves things on a ramp and then walks away. Like a florist, I am there until everything is perfect.
What are your most sought-after pieces right now?
Mix-and-match chairs are very popular—I had a wedding this past weekend with 200. Lounge or seating areas where people can get comfortable are always in demand. Sometimes I do little vignettes throughout the venue, or I’ll have large loungers in front of the band. Another thing that’s huge is whiskey barrels, which people make bars out of or use for cocktail tables. They also put flowers on them or have them at the entryway to the aisle. I have authentic farm tables, which are also popular.
Are there ways to incorporate rentals into your wedding if you’re low on cash?
If someone lets me know what they’d like and gives me their budget, I can make it beautiful. We may not be able to do a lounge area, for example, but maybe we can do two vignettes. I’ll often suggest putting the china only on the dessert table, because that’s where guests are going to remember it. I always try to help. You can do something on any budget.
Joanne Bickford shares four of her favorite vintage pieces for weddings.
THE FIND “Anastasia” sofa
THE DETAILS Upholstered in white damask, this 1960s Victorian Revival piece came from an antiques dealer in Canton. It makes for a great photo op.
USE FOR Outdoor ceremony seating.
THE FIND “Carmen” chair (pictured)
THE DETAILS This 1880s French bergère, sourced from a Boston thrift shop, is the ultimate in luxury. I absolutely love it!
USE FOR A cocktail-hour lounge area.
THE FIND “Cold Spring” table
THE DETAILS I bought this wooden console 25 years ago in Cold Spring, New York, but it’s definitely from the late 1880s. It has so much character.
USE FOR A rustic dessert display.
THE FIND “Oliver” settee
THE DETAILS French in style, this tufted blue-floral piece was created in the ’60s. I found it with the “Anastasia” sofa.
USE FOR Your sweetheart table.