Celebrate Your Heritage Through Your Home Decor

Dan and I both suffer from a need to be surrounded by nostalgia. Call us sentimental, but we are fascinated by the lives of our very ordinary ancestors, optimistic immigrants and stalwart pioneers who came to Kansas in search of a better life. You’ll find little tributes to our family members, like old photos or keepsakes, threaded throughout our home. Have you ever considered using your family heirlooms as decorative accents? Here are some ideas I hope will inspire you to add to the aesthetic beauty of your home by using it to honor your heritage.

One of a Kind Artwork

One of the best sources of unique artwork for your home may be sitting right under your nose: your pile of family pictures and papers. I’m crazy about working my family’s past into the art montages on my walls, whether it’s old photos, keepsakes or artwork.

If you’re lucky enough to have some portraits of family members, you’ve got to get them out where people can see them. I am so jealous of my friend Rich, who found a watercolor that was done of his great-great aunt in 1931, shown in the photo above. He freshened up the original portrait with a new mat and frame and placed it front and center on a side table in his living room.  It looks amazing with his eclectic mix of artwork, which ranges from modern to traditional.

In my house, we’ve hung up all kinds of cool old stuff that has been handed down. In our kitchen, you’ll spot an old calendar that was from Dan’s great-grandfather’s general store. The calendar features a photo of Dan’s father as a baby. It’s irreplaceable!

You can turn all sorts of vintage treasures into wall décor. How about old postcards? Pages from an ancestor’s favorite book? Don’t miss the obvious: marvelous old photos of family members, their homes and even their vacations. Rich found and framed a snapshot of his grandparents when they toured Italy. It looks charming nestled in with other accents on a bookcase in his living room.

Perhaps one of our most cherished pieces of art is a poem written by Dan’s grandmother right before she died. Dan discovered the poem year later, and it brought tears to his eyes. As a surprise, I had the poem, written on a yellowed piece of her stationery, framed and hung in our living room. The text of the poem, pictured above, is:

Let me grow lovely growing old

So many fine things do.

Laces and ivory and gold

And silks need not be new

And there is beauty in old trees

And streets a glamor hold.

Why should not I as well as they

Grow lovely, growing old.

Accents that Tell a Story

The beauty of decorating with antiques is that each piece is a unique treasure with a story to tell. But there is nothing to match the joy of decorating with antiques passed down through your own family. Dan and I are lucky enough to have a few household items that belonged to our ancestors. While none of them are of great value, to us, they are priceless. I have worked them into my everyday displays because they not only add beauty to my home, they make me smile every time I walk past them.

One of my favorites is a biscuit jar that was a wedding gift for Dan’s grandmother, who was an early pioneer. This poor woman started her married life in a dugout in Kansas! The delicate biscuit jar, shown in the photo above, was probably one of the prettiest things in her simple home. I keep the jar in my living room, filled with matches for the fireplace.

Another of our favorite pieces is a mustache cup used by Dan’s grandfather. It has the family name written on it, which makes it truly unique. It’s sitting on the secretary in my living room, holding pens and pencils.

An important rule of thumb when decorating with heirlooms is to work a few carefully chosen pieces into your décor so they blend in well with their environment. You don’t want to have so many old items on display that your home resembles an antique store, nor have them staged in an artificial manner, more like a museum than a home. One other word to the wise: Make sure all your precious breakables are well protected. I’m a big believer in putting things out where people can see them, not keeping them locked away. But I also don’t have a home filled with toddlers investigating their environment. If I did, I’d make sure the breakable treasures were carefully placed in a protected spot.

Furniture That’s Part of the Family

If you are lucky enough to have inherited furniture from family members, by all means, use it in your home. Rich received the cabinet in the photo above from his family. And while his style is more contemporary, this very traditional piece mixes in well with his other furnishings, adding a bit of contrast. Even if you’re not a fan of antiques, or the style of the piece you’ve inherited is not what you’d usually pick, chances are, it will look sensational worked in with your other furnishings. I like to mix all sorts of styles of furniture together, pulling together different colors, textures and shapes. Chances are, a treasured family piece would be a great addition to your space.

Another option is to recover or refinish an inherited piece so it works more seamlessly with your existing décor. Dan’s mother passed down a pair of unique chairs that had such beautiful lines that I had them reupholstered. Now they blend in so well with the other furnishings in my living room, I’ve given them the star spot in front of the fireplace. Sometimes it’s worth the financial investment to repair or reupholster old furniture in order to have a few truly unique pieces that are steeped in tradition.

Next Week … I am certifiably nuts about dishes. I not only like to eat off them, I like to decorate with them. Find out how next week.

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