Picture this: you reached a place in the design process where your home truly feels yours—and then you’re presented with an influx of sentimental pieces, perhaps from a relative who is downsizing or one who left furniture in your name after they passed. You want to honor these meaningful items but aren't sure how to do so without disrupting your existing décor scheme. What’s a design-savvy individual to do?
To get the answers, we spoke with Stevie McFadden, the owner of Virginia-based interior design firm Flourish Spaces. Whether you’re feeling a bit shy about revamping a storied piece or need a little inspiration as to how you can best style that new-to-you dresser, McFadden’s tips will put you at ease immediately. It’s clear that there’s no need to sacrifice style in the process of welcoming heirlooms into your home.
MyDomaine: How can people thoughtfully introduce heirlooms into an already-styled home and honor a special piece without disrupting their existing décor scheme?
Stevie McFadden: Juxtaposition and creativity are the keys to marrying older heirloom pieces with your existing décor. The contrast of old and new makes a room’s styling look interesting and intentional, rather than forced.
For example, I recently designed a dining room and my client had a lot of family china. We wanted to display these family heirlooms, but not necessarily in the stereotypical china cabinet. Instead, we hung family china on the wall and filled the china cabinet with a striking, modern set of Kehinde Wiley plates. We juxtaposed old and new by styling the china where you’d expect to find art and vice versa. The result is a smoothly integrated family heirloom and a conversation starter.
I also like to tell people not to be afraid of putting their stamp on history. It can feel sacrilegious to alter a family heirloom in any way, but a new frame or paint color doesn’t make a piece any less emotionally meaningful—you’re merely adding another chapter to the piece’s story.
A new frame or paint color doesn’t make a piece any less emotionally meaningful—you’re merely adding another chapter to the piece’s story.
MD: What are some ways people can disguise or makeover a piece that is emotionally significant, but may not be as physically appealing?
SM: Paint and purpose are my go-to's. After my divorce, I was left with an excess of sideboards. A person only needs so many sideboards, but I didn’t want to get rid of everything from my former life. As a compromise, I gave one piece a new purpose as a bar with a fresh coat of paint and intentional placement in an otherwise forgotten nook under my stairs.
Also, styling can completely camouflage a piece—not just in terms of styling what you place on or around the piece, but actually how you position and layer the piece within the room.
Have an armoire with a less-than-ideal exterior? Try positioning the piece in a corner with the doors open, then hang art from each door to frame what you’re displaying within.
MD: What heirloom items tend to be the most challenging to style, and what tips do you have?
SM: Ephemera—we love all the loose letters, pictures, concert tickets, and postcards from years past, but they end up in a box somewhere for a reason: they are difficult to style. When tackling your own ephemera, these tips make it simpler.
- Presentation: Framing and hanging handfuls of concert tickets or postcards instantly takes them from clutter you ignore to a collection you can proudly display. Often, people shy away from framing sentimental papers, as the sheer volume of things to frame could lead to a pricey project. When on a budget, I suggest using a less expensive frame with a custom mat. You achieve a polished, professional look at a fraction of the cost.
- Location: Heirlooms, especially paper ones, are often talking points and conversation starters. Make sure you put them where guests can see and engage with them. Funnily enough, one of my favorite rooms for these collections is the bathroom. Almost every guest uses this room, and they never exit without a new question or topic to discuss.
- Styling: Sometimes, family heirlooms can’t exist alone. It’s crucial to consider mixing in modern objects or art. Don’t be afraid to call in an expert, who can come in and assess what you have, what you want, and make sure the two work harmoniously.
MD: What should people keep in mind to ensure that pieces age well and stand the test of time?
SM: Framing and shadow boxes are a common go-to, but I actually love using glass cloches. They not only ensure your favorite things are safe from the elements, but they also guarantee your favorite small things are seen as items of interest and not dust-collecting tchotchkes.