With a little planning, you can make your beloved heirlooms integral parts of your décor scheme.
At some point, everyone experiences it: you just get your home set up the way you want it, when you suddenly acquire an unexpected new piece that throws your décor scheme for a loop. Maybe you inherit an antique lamp, or your aunt’s collection of bells, or your grandpa’s war medals. It’s always something you love and want to treat respectfully. But the problem with beloved family heirlooms is that they’re usually incongruous with the rest of your décor.
Jonathan Legate is an interior designer from Halifax. He often meets clients who are wrestling with that sort of dilemma. He urges them to take a hard look at the pieces they’re trying to display. “Often people feel they have to prominently display anything they inherit or are given,” he says. “Sometimes you inherit something that just doesn’t work—it’s like inheriting someone’s bad habits. You don’t need to keep everything.”
Designer Susan Snow, proprietor of Moving Designz in Charlottetown, P.E.I., agrees. “I know people don’t like hearing it, but if a piece totally disrupts your décor, you shouldn’t keep it,” she says. “People are often more fond of the memory than of the piece.”
At the other end of the spectrum, the piece may be something you love, but it is so dramatic and large (say a big painting or an antique piano) that it overshadows your current design scheme. In that case, embrace it. “I often deal with people who inherit a table or an art collection,” Legate says. “I tell them to do a room around it. You can’t just stick it in; you need to incorporate it into your whole design. I look at a room like it’s a painting: I want a balance of visual weight. Pieces in a room can just look like clutter if you don’t draw it all together.”
He doesn’t mean, however, that you have to theme a whole room around a piece. If most of your design is contemporary, having an antique room in your house is going to seem odd. Look for pieces that complement, without mirroring, each other. “Don’t be afraid to contrast,” Legate says. “An old piece can have new things with it. The contemporary touches make it look newer [and] fit in more nicely.”
That’s the approach Christina Rogers Small took with her home in Riverview, New Brunswick. When her grandmothers downsized their households, they gave her many pieces that had immense personal meaning for her: antique books, sewing boxes, Christmas ornaments and more. “They’re all things I really wanted,” Small says. “And I wanted to have them out being used, not hidden away somewhere.”
The sewing boxes are the most treasured pieces. “I have so many nice childhood memories around them,” she says. “I remember watching my grandmother knit and get her stuff out of there, and show me what she was doing. I think my other nana hid liquor in hers mostly, but I like that one too.”
She has them on a landing where they’re visible from the living room but that won’t be their permanent home. “I’m not entirely happy about that,” Small says. “They’re just taking up space there. I want to have them where they’re more part of things, being used. I’m going to rearrange things and have one by the couch. It’s big and sturdy and I have a lamp that would look great on it.”
That approach will likely work, according to Legate. “Look around,” he advises. “If you love the things you have, you find lines that work together. Old and modern pieces can combine nicely—say a nice contemporary lamp on an antique table. You want your heirloom to look like a design decision, not a pimple on the room. You want it to balance.”
Small has some of the smaller pieces in a curio cabinet and brings the ornaments out seasonally. If you have several smaller pieces, particularly with the same theme, it can be best to segregate them.
“In a small space especially, create controlled clutter,” Legate says. “Cluster things and control them. Don’t let a collection dominate the house. A cabinet or floating shelves is ideal for that. If you have, say, a collection of bells together like that, it can look good. If you spread them out all over the place, it just looks like you’re the crazy bell lady.”
With a collection of small pieces, even if you like them all, don’t display everything simultaneously. “Pick a few favourites to highlight,” suggests Snow. “You can bring other pieces out from time to time to freshen your look.” For eye-catching pieces, you may want to consider installing LED or puck lights to display them more prominently. “That makes them easier to see and adds to the impact,” Legate notes.
Ultimately, it all comes down to some simple advice. “Work with pieces you really love,” Legate says, “and it will all come together.”