In this age of minimalism and decluttering, the common response to an offer of a family heirloom or antique might be, “I don’t have space,” “It’s not my taste,” or simply “No thanks.”
Well, “pull yourself out of that as fast as you can and start saying yes,” urges Susan Sully of Charleston, S.C., author of Past Present: Living With Heirlooms and Antiques published by the Monacelli Press.
Unless you find a piece really ugly, she says, just take it.
“What’s so bad about temporarily having too much stuff?” asks Sully. “The worst is saying no and having lost the precious tangible objects that tell the story of your family or a place you love.”
San Francisco decorator Ken Fulk, designer chairman of the New York Botanical Garden’s Antique Garden Furniture Fair, agrees: “No room is complete without something of age and provenance and character.”
And that show’s manager, antiques dealer Karen DiSaia, describes heirlooms and antiques as “the connective tissue of life, offering a feeling of depth and history.”
The trick to blending old and new in your home’s decor is careful curating — and keeping an open mind, says Sully.
Her book is packed with photos and descriptions of 20 homes around the country, from a converted fire station to farmhouses to elegant city dwellings. She offers tips on displaying odd collections, setting inviting tables, arranging tabletop compositions, and bringing together objects from different styles and periods.
“Start by dropping all your preconceptions about what goes with what. Just put things together and see what happens,” she advises. “Then rearrange them a few different ways and look at it all again. You might have two pairs of completely different chairs, but put them together and you might be surprised.”
Create what Sully calls an “anchor lineup” and then have fun curating the small stuff: “You don’t need a lot of things in each room — just a few great pieces that converse with each other. Start with an uncluttered, interesting foundation, with one or two interesting, eye-catching pieces in each room that are there to stay. Then you can start a rotating exhibit of vases and lamps and oddments.”
The book includes the dining room of a Federal Revival home in Birmingham, Ala., where a wall lined with gilded, leather-bound books and two sleek contemporary glass vases adds a warm yet airy backdrop for a heavy, dark-stained English library table. It’s surrounded by light-colored Hepplewhite-style dining chairs beneath an ornate Italian chandelier.
The parlor area in an 1880 home in San Antonio, Texas, features high Victorian detail and white furniture juxtaposed with strong colors in a series of Josef Albers lithographs. They share a corner with a small pile of painted wooden cubes found in an antique shop.
“I’ve always been interested in having at least one modern piece of furniture or contemporary painting in each room, so the house doesn’t look like a museum,” said the homeowner, banker and art collector Carl Groos.
Even for space-challenged apartment dwellers, antiques hold an important place.
After downsizing from a large home to a much smaller condominium, Atlanta antique collectors Stephanie and Bill Reeves grouped together portraits that had been displayed throughout their house.
“We displayed the portraits as if they were in a bigger room,” Bill Reeves explains. “As a result, the space looks bigger.”
Sticking to a palette of taupe, gold and brown allowed them to bring together pieces from different continents and centuries in an elegant and understated way, they said.
And don’t treat heirlooms like stuffy museum pieces, Sully advises. Instead, “take what’s old and give it life again by actually using it. ... Allow heirlooms to relate to the rest of the room. These are beautiful things with stories to tell and history to share.”
Use the fancy stemware and silver.
“Life is short, and silver only really tarnishes when it’s unused. It wants to be handled and washed. I hand-wash the knives, but throw the rest in the dishwasher and it looks great,” she says.
“If you mess it up, c’est la vie. But making heirlooms a part of your life adds depth and character, and makes every day more glamorous.”