There’s been a lot of talk and articles over the last couple of years about how the kids today (I sound so old saying that!) don’t want their parents (or grandparents) family heirlooms, aka – old stuff. Collected treasures or trinkets, wedding china and silver, heirloom quality furniture – or even just mementos of childhood. Most of it is just not that interesting to those in their 20s and 30s. When that desire for a “less is more” lifestyle comes up against a baby boomer “more is better” mindset – there are suddenly guilty feelings on one side and hurt feelings on the other. In my view, both generations have it a little right and a little wrong. No one should feel like they have to take a piece of furniture they don’t like or have room for, but hand-me-downs, aka vintage and antique pieces, have life in them and are usually better quality than what’s available and affordable today. The same is true for those who are downsizing. There is a big trend for empty nesters to sell the big house and move to the city, or at least sell the big house and move to a one-story home that will work well into retirement and older age. But along with the move, they are also looking for something newer and fresh, less encumbered.
In other words, how does one mix the old with the new?
When my mom passed away five years ago, I was faced with the task of cleaning out their house (my Dad passed away five years before that) and getting rid of their lifetime of physical belongings. In all honesty, my mother was not a collector. She didn’t imbue enormous meaning into every little thing – which made my job a lot easier. My brothers, nieces and I selected the items we wanted to keep and let the rest of it go.
At the end of the day, none of us had use of my parent’s beautiful Federal style dining room set. They’d purchased it in the 1950’s when they got married and we certainly all have many wonderful memories of sitting at that table. But, it didn’t fit anyone’s lifestyle or taste. This type of furniture is not popular at the moment and is very hard to sell. It was sold at the estate sale for $150.00. The price started at either $450 or $750, I don’t recall. The man who bought it stopped by a couple of times to see if it was still available and eventually offered my sales people $150.00. I was happy not to have to pay someone to cart it away and trash it. It sounded like he was furnishing a beach house, so I’d wondered if he painted it.
And, that’s my first big tip – if you can use something, but it’s not to your taste – change it!
How cute would these pieces look in a beach house! There are many shops which sell painted furniture, but Chalk Paint is so easy to use, it’s not a terribly difficult DIY project. And, it doesn’t need to be cutesy-chippy either. Last year, when I started working with some local Hingham, Massachusetts clients, they knew they didn’t really want this huge multi-part dark cherry wall unit anymore. It’s about 30 years old, very high quality. But they’d never have been able to sell it for much. So, I suggested we break it up and refinish it.
Mr. Client rolled up his sleeves and went to work. It was quite impressive. He used Annie Sloan’s Chateau Gray chalk paint (it’s really green) with a dark wax finish and we separated the various sections of the wall unit throughout the space. I don’t have great photos yet, so I apologize. But this image below shows the middle armoire unit which is used as a bar cabinet.
And this is my point – this furniture, no matter how expensive it once was, isn’t precious. It’s not a finely crafted antique that the Keno brother’s would drool over on Antiques Roadshow. My parent’s dining room set wasn’t precious. Now, in all honesty, my Dad would have had agita over the thought of painting fine wood, but if it was the difference between something going to the trash heap or being put to use, it’s an easy decision. My clients saved literally thousands of dollars by repainting and repurposing what they had versus buying new more modern cabinetry. Even if we’d hired someone to paint the cabinets, it would have still been much less expensive than replacing.
This dresser below is a dead ringer for the one that was part of my childhood bedroom set. That was also painted furniture, but this is a much more modern color.
Going back to my parent’s dining room – I did inherit all the silver and china which I showcased here last month. I would actually use the sterling silver on a daily basis if my tiny kitchen had enough drawers to properly store it. As it is, I keep my every day flatware in little Ikea utensil buckets mounted on the wall, which isn’t the best choice for fine silver. I also kept the rugs. The dining room rug is now in my bedroom. It’s not a rug color palette I’d necessarily go buy on my own, but it was actually my grandparents rug and it likely 75 years old and is still in spectacular shape. So, I made it work!
Speaking of making things work – this project below was for a Duxbury, MA couple who had downsized from a large antique home that was filled with their lifelong collection of art and antiques, vintage pieces and lots and lots of family heirlooms. While they certainly wanted to use their collections, they still wanted it to feel lighter and brighter and they required comfy furniture. I had their two arm chairs below reupholstered in a fun Thibaut coral print fabric which felt much fresher and made lots of throw pillows in fun fabrics as well. I’d also like to point out that these two chairs didn’t actually match – one had the English arms you see here, the other had roll arms. My upholsterer was able to rework the arms so they matched. We also added a custom sectional sofa in an off-white herringbone fabric. See more of this project here.
I love this image below with the modern sleek kitchen and chairs combined with the antique dining table with the dipped legs. What a wonderful combination of old and new! Designer Betsy Brown and architect Paul Bates both have portfolios filled with wonderful uses of older furniture mixed into modern designs. Both are real visual feasts!
One of the masters of mixing the old with the new is Eddie Ross. He put together this room below for Ballard Designs. So, most of it is new, but he’s layered in many older items to create an interesting “modern mix” as he calls it.
PS: If you’re wondering about the value of different types of family heirlooms, here’s a great article on the subject from an appraiser’s viewpoint.