The holiday season is the perfect time to visit with family, share stories and recall happy memories. And while looking through old photo albums is perfectly nostalgic, one of the best ways to honor your family’s past is by exhibiting heirlooms for all to see.
Whether you own heirlooms from centuries past, have recently received family treasures, or are just now starting your own collection of keepsakes, these items can bring a lot of love to just about any space.
Despite their sentimental value, it might feel impossible to meld family heirlooms with contemporary or modern design styles – some things just don’t match. But not to worry, there are plenty of ways to integrate the past into your present space.
To help you scatter your favorite family memories through any room of the house, we spoke with seven interior design experts who brought their top tips for blending family heirlooms with personal interior design styles.
How to blend family heirlooms with your personal style
While there are clear benefits to showcasing family heirlooms in your home, making them mesh with current interior design trends can prove quite difficult. Contrasting styles can work well together, but only when thoughtfully and carefully put into place.
But the finished designs found in heirloom-adorned spaces will have you rushing to the attic to unearth your own family’s treasures. Here’s what designers have to say about the benefits of decorating with family heirlooms, plus how to seamlessly integrate history into your day-to-day environment.
1. Create contrast between the old and new
Because family heirlooms come from so many different people, places and time periods, designing with them looks different for everyone. No matter their origins, though, there’s no need to make your entire home match, it’s about embracing transitional style.
Create a playful juxtaposition in your space by blending old items with new design styles. Your whole home doesn’t need to transform into a time capsule just because your family left you with antiques.
‘It completely depends on what you have inherited, but introducing old with new will create a rich and layered contemporary living space. It’s all about finding the right balance, contrasting heirloom pieces with contemporary style,’ says Tom Rutt, interior designer and founder of TR Studios.
Tom Rutt has worked in the offices of Norman Foster and Michaelis Boyd before founding TR Studios in 2015.
2. Maintain your existing color scheme
Keeping a cohesive color scheme is one of the easiest ways to ensure your interior design is up to par, so family heirlooms that feature bold hues can quickly get in the way.
Luckily, there are simple ways to get around odd colors, whether they’re far out of the box or just not in line with your personal style. Audrey Scheck, interior designer and founder of Audrey Scheck Design, suggests tastefully altering larger heirlooms to make them match the existing space.
‘Keep the color scheme of your home in mind when incorporating larger furniture pieces. If the finish doesn’t flow with the remainder of your home, try restaining or repainting the piece to align with the tones that are established within your space,’ she says.
When it comes to heirlooms on the smaller side, experiment with their placement. It might not look natural on the first try, but thinking creatively will allow you to find somewhere it’ll blend in, yet still get its due attention.
With more than a half-dozen years of experience in remodels and renovations, Audrey Scheck leads Audrey Scheck Design, a full-service interior design firm based in Austin, Texas.
3. Take advantage of your home’s focal points
Kathy Kuo, interior designer and CEO of Kathy Kuo Home, says that adding family heirlooms to your interior design style adds ‘soul and personality to any space.’
To best fit heirlooms in with their surroundings, note your room’s focal points, and try decorating with antiques in regularly used places. From furniture arrangements to side tables, finding the right place for your heirlooms will spark conversation with guests and elevate your interior design.
‘Try adding some special heirloom pieces to styled vignettes on your bookshelves, on your coffee table or on your mantel – framed photos and small sculptures and trinkets work well here. You could also bring heirloom glassware or dishware into your bar cabinet or hutch, and try mixing one or two heirloom furniture pieces in with your newer items if the styles and colors match well and the pieces are in good condition,’ says Kathy.
Kathy Kuo is a celebrated interior designer and international guru within the home and lifestyle space. She has 20+ years of experience in the design industry.
4. Make a statement
While heirlooms always make great accessories, go beyond the small details and feature them prominently in your space. Jessica Jubelirer, interior designer and founder of Jessica Jubelirer Design, suggests using family heirlooms to add both subtle touches and centers of attention.
‘These items can be incorporated as accents, such as hanging a mother’s plates on the walls of a breakfast nook, or as bold statements, with a dramatic antique bench or writing table,’ she says.
According to Jessica, heirlooms work wonderfully in any space because of their construction – they’re made with love, and last quite a long time when cared for properly.
‘Whether it’s a grandmother’s porcelain table lamp or an antique armoire, older pieces are often crafted with enduring artisanry and exceptional quality, which is welcome in any space. In addition to being well made, one-of-a-kind antique treasures are highly personal and unique, inviting conversations and stories,’ says Jessica.
Jessica leads a team of designers at her firm, Jessica Jubelirer Design, working on commercial and residential properties with American modern influence.
5. Update your heirlooms to blend with your space
It might feel unnatural to modify family heirlooms to match your home – respecting their history is important, after all. But a surefire way to make heirlooms work in your space is to make small adjustments. Alexandra Denburg, principal interior designer at M&P Design Group, says this trick works especially well with upholstered furniture.
‘Adding new fabric to an antique can birth life into a relic, creating a one-of-a-kind show stopper that marries vintage detailing with your own flair. These pieces will often turn into some of your most cherished possessions because you’ve given a whole new life to something that already holds your family’s history and story,’ she says.
Alexandra brought this tip into practice when she reupholstered a client’s heirloom bench, pictured above. The bench had been in the client’s family for over 100 years, spanning many generations, and this skillful touch gave it lasting power.
Upholstered furniture isn’t the only place to make updates, though. If there are elements of your heirlooms that you could really do without, don’t be afraid to bring them more in line with contemporary design styles.
‘Swap the vintage escutcheons for some really lovely drawer pulls. Sand off that horrible cherry varnish and refinish with a natural wood tone. Try to not remove the piece’s vintage personality so entirely that it may as well be purchased new, but small updates allow for the craftsmanship of yore to feel fresh and whimsical in your existing spaces,’ says Alexandra.
Alexandra leads M&P Design Group, an award-winning interior design firm based in New York City.
6. Let your heirlooms tell a story
Rebecca Frye, designer, and founder of Rebecca Frye Design, agrees – heirlooms are meant to tell a story. Let your family’s background take center stage in your home by featuring heirlooms in the places that mean the most to you. Not only will guests be intrigued by the tales you have to tell, but you’ll be reminded of the ones you love each and every day.
Whether you place your great-grandmother’s hand-me-down compact where you get ready for the day, or your great-great-grandfather’s baseball cards are framed near the entertainment center, your family heirlooms will remind you where you came from, and give you that extra bit of encouragement along the way.
‘Decorating with family heirlooms is a genuine pleasure, a meaningful journey if you’re fortunate enough to undertake it. These aren’t just pieces of furniture; they’re threads of your family history woven into the fabric of your daily life. Embracing the beauty of heirlooms is about creating a home that tells your unique story – one that spans generations and encapsulates the warmth of memories shared with those who came before you,’ says Rebecca.
Rebecca Frye is the founder of Rebecca Frye Design, a firm based in New York City. She has a Master of Fine Arts from The New York School of Interior Design.
How can you best preserve the family heirlooms you have on display?
When displaying family heirlooms, you’ll want to keep their safety in mind – they are quite old, after all. Be sure to keep heirlooms out of direct sunlight, and in places that aren’t often exposed to the elements. A bit of moisture or too much warmth can damage older materials, especially fabric and upholstery.
If you’re looking to display photographs, artwork, or vintage papers of any kind, consider framing them, or covering them in thin plastic. This will prevent some fading, spills, and fingerprints from eroding the material.
Decorating with family heirlooms allows you to tell a story with your space and feel more connected to your loved ones, no matter their generation. By being mindful about placement and making a few quick adjustments, it’s incredibly easy to display the things that mean the most to you without compromising your personal style.