“We need history, not to tell us what happened or to explain the past, but to make the past alive so that it can explain us and make a future possible.” — Allan David Bloom (1930-1992), American Philosopher and Academic
Thinking about celebrating Mother’s Day made me think about mothers’ homes and the stuff in them. Many friends and family members have things in their homes passed down from moms and grandmoms. And oftentimes you look at those things, marvel at the history and sentimentality associated with them, and then go, “Holy cow what were they thinking? And what am I supposed to do with it?” But as Mr. Bloom notes in the quote above, “We need history …”
I’ve come across pieces in people’s homes that certainly didn’t reflect their style, but they felt compelled to keep the piece because it belonged to, whomever. And please don’t misunderstand, I’m all for the sentimental thing; however, there are differing views and different ways to pay respect. Pieces that we grew up with or admired in family members’ homes tend to look different when we’re all grown up and have developed our own style.
Dedicating an entire room to inherited Victorian or early American keepsakes may not work for everybody. Most of us do not have the luxury of a “spare” room, but there are other ways to incorporate beloved family pieces into your current décor.
As you know (you do know, right?), having furniture and accessories from different eras and styles just adds interest to a space. However, inheriting your father’s recliner, a la “Frasier,” may require a little more effort to make it work.
Upholstered pieces can be re-covered easily. You don’t have to live with the brown plaid sofas or dark green velvet sofa. I have seen beautiful little Victorian settees and chaises recovered to fit into modern or contemporary spaces. The juxtaposition of a Louis sofa upholstered in a vibrant modern print is exciting and the piece makes a great addition to an entryway, bedroom or sitting room.
And in reality, as with fashion, styles do come back. When you look through decorating magazines you often see pieces that could have comfortably lived in your grandma’s house.
Casegoods such as dining tables, buffets and desks can be incorporated into any style. Victorian or traditional tables can be gussied up with modern chairs, either acrylic or fully upholstered slipper chairs.
Conversely, a traditional buffet will live very happily with a glass top, acrylic or other modern dining table. And, remember, a china cabinet doesn’t have to be used for china, a table can become a desk and a desk can totally morph into a dressing table.
In addition to different uses, changing out the hardware for a more modern style and painting or refinishing will announce their arrival into today’s style.
So the moral of this column is that inheriting treasures from anyone can be a win/win for all concerned. Changing the color or upholstery does not diminish your feelings for your loved ones or their possessions. You are simply putting your stamp on them and most probably someday someone will put their stamp over yours. That’s the sign of true sentiment.
The key to any successful décor is having pieces you love and that work for you. So if you inherit them, buy them, have them custom made or however you may acquire them — someone, somewhere will be having the same thoughts you may have now about your pieces. It’s called history.
Carolyn Muse Grant is a founder and past president of the Architectural &Decorative Arts Society, as well as an interior design consultant/stylist specializing in home staging. Send questions to email@example.com.