While we all are guilty of dreaming of new home furnishings and the latest trends, there’s a lot of beauty to be found in older pieces too. Handmade textiles passed down from generation to generation, one-of-a-kind art, and family heirlooms all lend homes a certain depth and history, even when the rest of the furniture is brand-new.
When my grandmother passed away earlier this year, I found that going through her piles of artwork, books, photos, and décor with my family not only helped us grieve but also know her better. I thumbed through her yearbooks from the '40s and '50s, read an original poem my great-grandfather dedicated to her, and marveled at her collection of Paul Sawyier prints, a renowned Kentucky impressionist from the late 1800's. I saw the joy in her eyes in her wedding photos and found a silver monogrammed dish, where I imagined she might have kept jewelry.
I only took a few small things to remember her by: a mustard handknit throw, a small Paul Sawyier print, and the silver dish, but my apartment has never felt more like home. I can now see pieces of my own history and family legacy throughout. In a year full of loss and hardship for so many, we can all benefit from curating homes we love. That's why I asked designers Gail Davis of Gail Davis Designs, and Leah Alexander of Beauty is Abundant to share their advice for creating a home full of vintage finds and warmth.
"Everything is absolutely fair game in eclectic decor and in design in general when it comes to items of the heart," Alexander tells MyDomaine. "My top tip for incorporating anything into any design is to be sure you love it."
Everything is absolutely fair game in eclectic decor and in design in general when it comes to items of the heart.
And I love every piece I have, though my favorite has to be the mustard yellow blanket handmade by my grandmother. My mother, having grown up in a home with gold shag carpet and avocado walls, was not about to repeat that era, while I, loving the resurgence of '70’s style in both décor and clothing, fell in love with it. It’s now a proud resident of my apartment, and on chilly days when I’m curled up on my couch with it, I feel a bit of my grandmother’s warmth there too. Whether you chalk it up to good memories or something more spiritual, it’s a feeling you can’t buy.
Davis, who has collected her grandparents' vintage gold glassware and linens from the '30s and '40s, knows the bittersweet feeling of adding family heirlooms to her personal collection, knowing that these pieces just aren't made the same way today.
"Nowadays, if you have stuff like this in your house, people aren't going to let their kids touch it, only for special occasions," she says. "When we went to eat at my grandparents' house every Sunday and on holidays, that was the occasion, and you used your good stuff. You didn't just leave it. You used it. When your family came around, we ate off of china. We drank out of the glasses and we used the Sterling silver."
When choosing which vintage pieces to add to your modern décor, Alexander recommends considering materials first.
"Acrylic, brass, and rattan lend themselves to the popular bohemian plant-parent motif while woods in reddish hues, oak, and ornate eastlake-style pieces are too olden-looking to mesh with much of new-production pieces," Alexander explains. "Be mindful of too many different pronounced leg styles on chairs, sofas, and tables. Too many styles and materials feels busy."
Davis advises looking at shape and colors as well, especially when mixing with more modern pieces.
"I love considering the shape [of vintage pieces] because I like mixing shapes and I love mixing color," Davis explains. "I would use a brand new charger with old china, and I would mix glassware so for the water, I will use my grandparents' glassware. Then for the wine, I would use something fresh that my husband and I have received for wedding gifts."
It's always good to start slow, adding one piece into a room at a time. I added my Sawyier print to an existing gallery wall next to my kitchen, adding a touch of history without totally switching up my space.
"Successfully integrating old with new may mean limiting heirlooms, thrifted finds, and the like to one per room," Alexander recommends. "For example, a colorful passed-down patchwork quilt in a stark, black-and-white bedroom adds a pop of color and a touch of patina without throwing off the overarching style. Whereas that multigenerational quilt and a vintage secretary desk in the same modern black-and-white bedroom may confuse the senses."
When adding in any furniture or accessories, new or old, be sure to think about your lifestyle. Filling your home up with too many pieces you can't touch or use can cause your house to feel less like a home.
"I think people get too carried away by not living and enjoying where they are," Davis says. "It becomes like a museum. You want to be able to mix patterns and colors and shapes where it doesn't read like a museum, but it reads like someone who lives here loves where they live. They love their home."
You want to be able to mix patterns and colors and shapes where it doesn't read like a museum, but it reads like someone who lives here loves where they live. They love their home.
Though my tiny studio apartment is temporary, it feels like home. I know where I come from. And now my walls do too.