Abstract Thinking: Contemporary Art in Your Traditional Home

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My 140-year-old Greek Revival home in Atchison was about as traditional as you can get. I filled it with antiques, when I could afford them, and to stretch my budget as far as I could, good reproduction cheater pieces. I covered the walls with classic artwork, like botanicals. As much as I loved it, and felt like every inch was a reflection of me, I never wanted the décor to feel stuck in time. Or dreary and dated. I wanted my home to honor the classic furnishings I’m crazy about, but be welcoming to new patterns, colors and styles created by today’s designers.

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So Dan and I started to experiment. We purchased a few pieces of artwork that were not our usual fare, works that were more contemporary, a bit edgy. It was fun to say, “No, thanks” to the idea that your home has to fit into a rigid design category, either all traditional or all contemporary. We were amazed by how these tiny touches shook up our home, giving it a jolt of new energy, but still allowed our spaces to reflect the classic style we adored.


I’m absolutely obsessed with great textiles, so my next baby step was to cover a few of the accent pillows in my living room with more transitional and contemporary fabrics. Maybe it was an animal print or a sapphire Ikat. I mixed these newcomers in with my longtime faves, menswear fabrics like plaids, paisleys and stripes. It was amazing, the way they worked together to enliven my rooms. I was hooked.

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At Nell Hill’s we get to work with a lot of people who have inherited fabulous traditional pieces, like a Duncan Phyfe dining room table or a Sheraton sideboard. They appreciate these family heirlooms, with their timeless lines and expert craftsmanship. But often, a house full of grandma’s old furniture is not their bliss, nor a true reflection of their own style. So we show them how to both honor these traditional pieces and splash up their décor with stunning contemporary artwork and accents.

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Our daughter Kelly’s home is a great example of the New Traditional style we have embraced at Nell Hill’s. When Dan and I downsized to our little nugget of a cottage on the lake, we shed lots of our furniture. A number of those pieces found a home at Kelly’s. But Kelly has stirred the pot, adding her own signature with contemporary artwork. For example, over the classic buffet in her dining room she’s hung an oversized piece of abstract art. It’s jaw-dropping!

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Right now, you can find so many statement pieces, like over-scaled abstracts and bold fabrics for furniture and pillows, which act as a refresh button for your spaces.

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In a traditional home, they introduce an important element of surprise, acting as smelling salts, snapping you to attention so you can step back and really take a good, long look at the room.

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I will never lose my love for traditional furnishings. That’s the bedrock of my decorating style. But I’m so thankful the walls between classic and contemporary have been shattered, and now we can enjoy the best of each in our home décor.

Next Week … It’s a reveal! We were asked to redesign a college sorority chapter house, and I can’t wait for you to see the results.