Reclaiming Family Heirlooms: History vs Modernity in 2023

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?

Dining Room set traditional federal downsizing fresh family heirlooms furniture
Real estate photo

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.

Federal style dining room Cape Cod Christmas family heirlooms
Christmas on Cape Cod which I created several years ago, photo by Michael J. Lee

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 family heirlooms, but they aren’t to your taste – you can change them!

Painted Federal sideboard chalk paint family heirlooms
Via All Things New KC on Etsy


Lost and Found Decor Dunan Phyfe chalk paint dining set family heirlooms
via Lost and Found Decor

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.

Old wall cabinet

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. his image below shows the middle armoire unit which is used as a bar cabinet.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings chalk painted cabinet family heirlooms

And the rest of the piece.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings Hingham Sitting Room and Home Office Work From Home matching furniture

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 part of which is shown below from when we sold my parent’s home on Cape Cod.

This is a much more modern color.

French provincial dresser chalk paint family heirlooms
Via All Things New KC on Etsy

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 family heirlooms 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.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings living room family heirlooms
Linda Merrill Duxbury Garden Home living room design; Photo by Michael J. Lee

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 family heirloom items to create an interesting “modern mix” as he calls it.

Ballard Designs Eddie Ross Modern Mix family heirlooms
Eddie Ross design for Ballard Designs.

Modernizing family home heirlooms involves finding ways to integrate these cherished pieces into your current living space while aligning with contemporary design trends. Here are five tips to help you achieve this:

  1. Reupholster and Refinish:
    • Update old furniture by reupholstering chairs and sofas with modern fabrics that complement your home’s color scheme.
    • Refinish wooden pieces to give them a fresh, contemporary look. Consider using lighter or darker stains, or even painting them in a modern color.
  2. Mix Old and New:
    • Blend antique furniture with modern pieces to create a balanced and eclectic style. This can prevent the space from feeling too dated or overly traditional.
    • Pair vintage accessories, such as lamps or mirrors, with contemporary furnishings to create a harmonious contrast.
  3. Create a Gallery Wall:
    • Display a curated collection of family photos, artwork, and memorabilia on a gallery wall. Mix old photographs with newer ones to tell a visual story of your family’s history.
    • Use modern frames and a consistent color scheme to bring cohesion to the display.
  4. Repurpose and Integrate:
    • Transform old family textiles, such as quilts or embroidered linens, into modern decor items like throw pillows or wall hangings.
    • Use vintage dishes or silverware for special occasions, integrating them into a contemporary table setting for a unique and stylish touch.
  5. Update Lighting Fixtures:
    • Replace outdated light fixtures with more modern and energy-efficient options. This can significantly impact the overall look and feel of a room.
    • Consider incorporating vintage chandeliers or pendant lights as statement pieces, adding a touch of nostalgia in a contemporary setting.

Remember that the key is to strike a balance between preserving the sentimental value of family heirlooms and adapting them to your current design preferences. Mixing old and new elements thoughtfully can create a home that feels both rooted in tradition and relevant to the present.


Reclaiming Family heirlooms pin

You may also enjoy: Modern Living in Antique Houses

23 thoughts on “Reclaiming Family Heirlooms: History vs Modernity in 2023”

  1. Happy New Year Linda! This article is spot on. Thank you for giving permission to the young and old to paint, restain and tweak a vintage piece of family furniture to fit their current style in 2024. My grandfather was the greatest man I knew but I own none of his furniture. Instead, I named my interior design company after my grandfather and my son’s middle name is his name. There are many ways to honor and remember those that have gone before us. Let’s remember them in our heart and head as we go forward into the New Year.

  2. Terrific information Linda. How much is an antique piece of furniture worth? Whatever someone will pay for it! I just designed a room for a client where the husband insisted on keeping his relative’s chair in the room – it was beat up and the upholstery was from the 80s, not original to the piece. They had no intention of painting the wood or recovering the chair. I found them a new chair, more in keeping with the style of their home, and put a frame on an accent table – to place the relative’s photo in her honor. No one ever says Gram wore this hoop skirt so someone in the family has to take it and wear it. But we find it necessary to place a large piece of furniture from a deceased relative that we really don’t like in our home. And, it’s usually a Mom or Mom In Law of the family who tells someone “you need to put this in your home in memory of __”. Hhhhmm, yet they aren’t putting it in THEIR home. 🙂

  3. Wonderful post, Linda, it’s so “of the moment”. Most antiques don’t hold the same value they once did, and painting is such a fantastic way to repurpose those well-made items for our modern era and keeping them out of landfills. On another note, I believe that infusing some vintage or antiques into a space is a must, it creates that truly custom, layered design that sets the home apart.

  4. Nice, Linda! I love the idea of painting old furniture for a refresh. I just inherited a vintage bar cabinet from my mother-in-law that my husband had wanted of hers. Not my fave piece, but after it gets a black lacquer paint job and some new hardware, it will be perfect. 😉

    • Sounds like it will be great! I have my parent’s old walnut stereo console cabinet that’s in a French Provincial style that I use as a bar cabinet. I’ve been planning on painting it, or at lease the inside and maybe stencil or decoupage the top – but I haven’t gotten around to it. I was going to paint the whole thing at one point, but never did. Now I’m back to liking the brown wood – it has book matched veneers on the doors and really very pretty.

  5. Hi Linda ~

    What a wonderful post about not wasting what is already in front of you, but finding new ways to re-purpose our parent’s or grandparents furniture.

    I have all of my grandmother’s furniture in my bedroom, which became my Mom and Dad’s, and it will all be refinished this year. It is so beautifully made that I can’t bear to get rid of it.

    I am thinking of doing the #oneroomchallenge this fall, to showcase that refinishing process.

    I love the idea of mixing.. it makes a home so much more personal and I bet your clients love how you helped them re-purpose that big entertainment center.

    • Thanks Lisa! And yes to reducing waste – it’s actually a bit surprising today that with so much emphasis on the environment and recycling that younger people aren’t more interested in the older stuff.

  6. Hi Linda – this is SO true! Much of the stuff of the last generation is superior quality and worth repurposing if the style and size are suitable. Paint and reupholstery are our friends! Almost every room can use a painted piece in the mix and black paint is often a great choice. I also love that you showed how a good upholsterer can even change the style of a piece. That said, it is never smart to try to decorate around something that doesn’t fit your taste or rooms just because it is free. You and your family were so wise to pick and choose what you saved from your childhood home to make sure it was things that were important to you and worked for your life! Great post! And that Christmas dining room photo is stunning – kudos to you and to Michael Lee for capturing it so beautifully.

    • Hi Janet – thanks so much! The Christmas shoot was fun. A little OTT for my Mom and she definitely thought the little antique rocker on top of the buffet was really an off choice. BTW, that was my Dad’s childhood rocker and now sits on my hearth. And you’re so totally right about not keeping things that don’t work. I’m sure in your design practice you’ve had people say they had to keep something (usually too big, too Victorian, not comfortable) because it was their parent’s or grandparents – even saying they didn’t love it but it was sentimental. Oy. The guilt we put onto people – especially our loved ones! A cute anecdote is that one of my nieces chose my Dad’s leather wing chair to keep. She said it smelled like Ritz Crackers and reminded her of him. She created a cozy little reading nook in her condo so she can snuggle up in it and feel like she’s being hugged. That was really sweet of her – but also totally her own choice. She also took my 9 drawer dresser (the one I show the similar refinished version of) because she needed a dresser. I should send her the photo of the refinished version… (because, nope, she doesn’t read my blog!)

  7. Hello Linda, Although multiple streams of furniture and decor can be a great resource for many people, it does need to be managed, as you point out here and in the linked articles. The trick when you end up with multiples is to decide on the best or most appropriate, and discard the rest, in the trash if necessary. I recall once I was moving and had tons of stuff to give away, but the charities would not pick it up, so I took it all down to the tree lawn, and people were absolutely swarming over it picking out what they wanted!

    My own problem is similar, and involves large quantities of collections (some of which have been featured on my blog), which to me are interesting, but will overwhelm a room if displayed too thickly. So again it is a balancing act. That is entirely in addition to the books, which are my life’s blood, and aside from a little thinning, I would not consider doing without. So far every room has bookshelves, and I am trying to figure out how to shoe-horn in a few more.

    • Hi Jim – you’re so right about donating and how hard that’s become! 2nd hand stores are becoming very choosy and it’s so hard get rid of anything. The estate sale for the rest of my parent’s stuff (after we’d taken what we wanted and disposed of the junkier stuff) was incredibly successful for finding new homes for almost everything else. But not particularly financially. I think we made maybe $4,000.00. But I was so happy to have it all gone. But on item that didn’t sell and couldn’t be donated was a beautiful cut velvet Hickory Chair camel back sofa that they purchased in the 70s. I would have totally kept it – but knew I’d have no room for it. It wasn’t a comfy tv watching type piece. But because the frame needed some repair – one arm was wobbly, the stretchers on the base needed to be re-attached – it wasn’t appropriate for a 2nd hand store. So, that did get junked. I’m still sad about that! Big collections like yours can be tricky to deal with – it’s nice to think we can move them in and out of display to keep them fresh – like a museum – but hard to find storage space. Plus it’s a lot of work. I have tons of design books and they take up a lot of room.

  8. I do hear you! A few years ago I used AS Chalk Paint on a very ordinary, faux mahogany dining cabinet. I used the gray and then sanded the edges and waxed. Oh my: it’s in my husbands study and is just perfect.
    I follow, and occasionally bid, at Skinner and am amazed at some of the low prices for antiques. Downsizing has certainly taken a toll on so many of these beautiful pieces….

    • Hi Libby, Your cabinet sounds great – and yes, chalk paint is an amazing product with such professional results! I attend an auction at a local auction house and am also amazed at how low some prices are. Especially rugs. I think the amount of downsizing as the Baby Boom generation gets older has taken its toll, but also just tastes moved away from “brown furniture”. As a result, buying antiques has never been more affordable. I think they are making a comeback and once they do the prices will rise and we’ll also see a resurgence in antique reproductions in the market. Which might not be so good…


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