Accommodating heirlooms

Design Line

August 03, 2008|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Tribune Media Services

We recently inherited several pieces of furniture, along with some rugs, paintings and accessories. The value of these family heirlooms is more sentimental than monetary. We would like to incorporate at least some of them into our traditionally furnished home. Can you give some advice as to how this might best be achieved?

Interior designers are often consulted on ways to integrate an inherited collection of furniture and personal belongings in a home with an essentially incompatible design. I've done this on many occasions, but it's seldom an easy process. A designer has to take account of the client's personal taste while striving to produce a visually pleasing outcome.

Before making any decisions about what to display, group the items into categories in accordance with their nostalgic or aesthetic value. Then consider their condition and how they might be introduced into the rooms of your home without, presumably, necessitating a lot of reupholstering and other refurbishing.

As a final preparatory step, you can begin to situate the pieces and the accessories, keeping open the possibility of repositioning them as the process unfolds.

It's difficult for me to make specific recommendations because I don't know what your home or your newly acquired heirlooms look like.

You might find some all-purpose inspiration, however, from John Fowler. Anglophiles and interior decoration mavens may be familiar with the terms "humble elegance," "romantic despair" and "pleasing decay." These seemingly contradictory descriptions are often applied to the work of Fowler, widely regarded as the creator of the English Country style.

Fowler, who died in 1977 at the age of 71, ranks as one of the most influential interior designers of the 20th century. His signature country style has remained highly popular not only in England and Continental Europe but in North America and parts of Asia as well.

Its emblematic look of controlled clutter, usually consisting of inherited collections and personal memorabilia, does offer an appealing sense of comfort.

"Shabby chic" is one more epithet used in reference to Fowler's style. Like the others, it suggests the difficulty of emulating this type of design because, after all, "shabby" is the opposite of "chic," just as "humble" does not go with "elegance," nor does "pleasing" typically accompany "decay."

In this accompanying photo from the book John Fowler: Prince of Decorators, written by Martin Wood and published in 2007 by Frances Lincoln Ltd., the sitting room of the Coach House at Haseley Hall in England serves as a fine example of the display of inherited personal treasures. Its comfort and style doesn't depend on matching fabrics and high-style furnishings. We see instead a highly individualized space that nevertheless invites outsiders to enter and savor. Proper balance and scale in the placement of furnishings and decorative items are the primary factors that make this setting such a success.

Look closely, analyze the design carefully, and you'll probably get some ideas on how to create your own look of "humble elegance."

Rita St. Clair is a Baltimore-based interior designer. Readers with general interior design questions can e-mail her at

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