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Decorating with Family Heirlooms

The decorating choices at my grandmother's house in Laurel, MD were a hot topic of conversation in my family through the years - usually when she wasn't in earshot. Grandma Jeanne's entry wall coverings were gold foil florals. Her furnishings were sourced from 1950s Japan. In the "formal" living room, a faded silk scroll hung behind a long low credenza that overflowed with opera albums on vinyl. The accent fabric was church pew red velvet. The carpet was a high pile silvery blue. Damask was abundant.

Mom and Dad, Christmas Dinner at Grandma's House

When she decided to sell the house in 2012, my mother and her siblings begged her to bring in a stager, to paint, to at least tear down the wallpaper. I will give them some credit. There was room for improvement. The den rug was a well worn lime green shag, tattered by the efforts of Luther the Dog and Dickens the Cat. In the 1970s, she refinished her yellow leather sofa with white hardware store spray paint. It was a durable but gummy finish. Summer childhood naps ended with my parents carefully peeling me from the surface so as not to leave any toddler behind. The fumes truly stood the test of time. I can imagine young professional home buyers traipsing through the living room with a realtor asking, "What's that chemical smell?"

"That's the couch paint you're smelling but the house is in an excellent school district."

Grandma ignored everyone's opinions and got the last laugh. She sold the place on the first day to the first buyers, above asking - for cash. For the buyers, it was gold foil wallpaper

love-at-first-sight and now, as I peruse my sample books of metallic wallpaper perfection from modern companies like Hygge & West, I fully understand that love.

Some of my favorite metallic wallpapers from our friends at Hygge & West

Grandma Jeanne was a force of kindness and intellect. She was a science educator for years and, after retirement, became instrumental in the management and de-stigmatization of disorders of mental health in her community and country. We were constantly attending ceremonies and parties where she was being honored or winning an award. I should applaud my parents for ensuring that I attended these events, for holding her up as a role model. I was typically in it for the cake, but I think the subliminal impact on my life was significant. What we never talked about was her undeniable sense of personal and household style.

Grandma Jeanne with her young family

My favorite evening clutch is a beaded, velvet number she purchased from the base post exchange when the family was stationed in Japan. She gifted it in the original box with the original receipt. Our walls and shelves are full of framed family photos, thanks to grandparents who documented everything on film. My favorite arm chair is a blue toile wing back, still immaculate in her chosen fabric. She gave me a gold and enamel pair of opera glasses for my twelfth birthday. These were under-appreciated at the time. Then, a few years ago, Calvin and I went to see the Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC. When I reached into my velvet clutch and busted out my own personal opera glasses, the gift was fully appreciated. She curated beautiful things and maintained them perfectly. Calvin and I really have been the beneficiaries of two families who lovingly preserve the past. We have multiple heirloom pieces in our house that serve as daily reminders of the legacies of our parents and grandparents.

Grandma Jeanne's Clutch

I will be the first to admit that heirlooms can feel like a burden and that sometimes "hand-me-down" would be a more appropriate description. Families love to benevolently donate unwanted items to their youngest members. "You're young and poor - take this!" I recall many times I've been handed a wonky floor lamp or strange chair in the aftermath of a garage sale and sometimes the appropriate place for these items is the trash heap. However, before you head to the county dump, I urge you to ask yourself some questions.


Does the item evoke a memory or feeling? Does it tell a story?

Engraved brass lamp and blue toile chair

The engraved brass lamps in our living room were a midcentury Japanese department store purchase. I picture Grandma Jeanne, a young bride in a cosmopolitan foreign land, choosing elegant furnishings for her home. She hand selected each perfect piece and returned to find that her three year old tornado (my mother) had poked holes in all of her rice paper doors. My mom always says that it made the most satisfying pop.


Is it priceless or irreplaceable?

Grandma Jeanne's Piano

The baby grand that anchors our living room was purchased for my grandmother in 1940, on her twelfth birthday, at a Manhattan music store. I learned to play Chopsticks, Für Elise, and the entire Sound of Music soundtrack on that piano. At some point an unnamed grandchild (not me), carved the letters corresponding to each key into the wood, making it much easier for the rest of us to learn. There isn't another piano on the planet that would sound as sweet or mean as much to my family.


If it doesn't work with your decor scheme, could you make it work with an upholstery update? A fresh coat of paint? New hardware? A new lampshade?

The family chairs, reupholstered in Rifle Paper Co fabric

Calvin's family gifted us this beautiful set of hand carved king and queen side chairs, pieces from the gracious Carolina home of his Great Aunt Louise, where they landed after generations in the family. The upholstery was worn and it looked like one of the siblings (certainly not Calvin) took a magic marker to it at some point. Enter Rifle Paper Co's Peony Cotton Lawn upholstery fabric and trimmings sourced from Mansure & Co of Greenville. Now I can't pass the pair without smiling.


Will you use it? Will someone else in the family? Will your children?

Many family heirlooms have been passed down through generations of attics and public storage units before some brave soul takes them to a thrift store or holds an estate sale. If it is compelling enough to keep, it is compelling enough to use! The Polk (my maiden name) Family China is more than a century old and rarely, if ever, found its way to the table when I was growing up. After I married Calvin, it became a part of our household. I will admit that Calvin draws the line at eating on hundred-year-old, irreplaceable, paper thin dishes but I love to use the delicate pieces when I host ladies' brunches and Mothers' Day celebrations.

The Polk Family China Pattern

My silver and blue glass salt and pepper shakers were a gift for my grandparents' 25th anniversary and they are utilized at every one of our dinner parties.

Silver and blue glass salt and pepper shaker set

We inherited my grandmother's entire wheat glass collection including, not one, but three caviar dishes. Oh to lead a life so abundant in caviar one might require three separate dishes. I feel like Jay Gatsby when I use them.

Wheat Glass Caviar Dish

In my homes throughout the years, I have employed a wide variety of styles - midcentury to minimalist, traditional to transitional. My favorite schemes have incorporated a smattering of beloved heirlooms amongst my purchases and finds, telling a story and honoring a history that transcends style. Next time you redecorate, consider shopping in the attic to see if that perfect piece has been waiting there for the opportunity to shine. But - please - don't spray paint your couch.

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