Reclaiming Family Heirlooms: History vs Modernity in 2023

There’s been a lot of talk and articles over the last couple of years about how the kids today (I sound so old saying that!) don’t want their parents (or grandparents) family heirlooms, aka – old stuff. Collected treasures or trinkets, wedding china and silver, heirloom quality furniture – or even just mementos of childhood. Most of it is just not that interesting to those in their 20s and 30s. When that desire for a “less is more” lifestyle comes up against a baby boomer “more is better” mindset – there are suddenly guilty feelings on one side and hurt feelings on the other.  In my view, both generations have it a little right and a little wrong.  No one should feel like they have to take a piece of furniture they don’t like or have room for, but hand-me-downs, aka vintage and antique pieces, have life in them and are usually better quality than what’s available and affordable today. The same is true for those who are downsizing. There is a big trend for empty nesters to sell the big house and move to the city, or at least sell the big house and move to a one-story home that will work well into retirement and older age. But along with the move, they are also looking for something newer and fresh, less encumbered.

In other words, how does one mix the old with the new?

Dining Room set traditional federal downsizing fresh family heirlooms furniture
Real estate photo

When my mom passed away five years ago, I was faced with the task of cleaning out their house (my Dad passed away five years before that) and getting rid of their lifetime of physical belongings. In all honesty, my mother was not a collector. She didn’t imbue enormous meaning into every little thing – which made my job a lot easier. My brothers, nieces and I selected the items we wanted to keep and let the rest of it go.

Federal style dining room Cape Cod Christmas family heirlooms
Christmas on Cape Cod which I created several years ago, photo by Michael J. Lee

At the end of the day, none of us had use of my parent’s beautiful Federal style dining room set. They’d purchased it in the 1950’s when they got married and we certainly all have many wonderful memories of sitting at that table. But, it didn’t fit anyone’s lifestyle or taste. This type of furniture is not popular at the moment and is very hard to sell. It was sold at the estate sale for $150.00. The price started at either $450 or $750, I don’t recall.  The man who bought it stopped by a couple of times to see if it was still available and eventually offered my sales people $150.00. I was happy not to have to pay someone to cart it away and trash it. It sounded like he was furnishing a beach house, so I’d wondered if he painted it.

And, that’s my first big tip – if you can use family heirlooms, but they aren’t to your taste – you can change them!

Painted Federal sideboard chalk paint family heirlooms
Via All Things New KC on Etsy


Lost and Found Decor Dunan Phyfe chalk paint dining set family heirlooms
via Lost and Found Decor

How cute would these pieces look in a beach house! There are many shops which sell painted furniture, but Chalk Paint is so easy to use, it’s not a terribly difficult DIY project. And, it doesn’t need to be cutesy-chippy either. Last year, when I started working with some local Hingham, Massachusetts clients, they knew they didn’t really want this huge multi-part dark cherry wall unit anymore. It’s about 30 years old, very high quality. But they’d never have been able to sell it for much. So, I suggested we break it up and refinish it.

Old wall cabinet

Mr. Client rolled up his sleeves and went to work. It was quite impressive. He used Annie Sloan’s Chateau Gray chalk paint (it’s really green) with a dark wax finish and we separated the various sections of the wall unit throughout the space. his image below shows the middle armoire unit which is used as a bar cabinet.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings chalk painted cabinet family heirlooms

And the rest of the piece.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings Hingham Sitting Room and Home Office Work From Home matching furniture

And this is my point – this furniture, no matter how expensive it once was, isn’t precious. It’s not a finely crafted antique that the Keno brother’s would drool over on Antiques Roadshow. My parent’s dining room set wasn’t precious. Now, in all honesty, my Dad would have had agita over the thought of painting fine wood, but if it was the difference between something going to the trash heap or being put to use, it’s an easy decision. My clients saved literally thousands of dollars by repainting and repurposing what they had versus buying new more modern cabinetry. Even if we’d hired someone to paint the cabinets, it would have still been much less expensive than replacing.

This dresser below is a dead ringer for the one that was part of my childhood bedroom set part of which is shown below from when we sold my parent’s home on Cape Cod.

This is a much more modern color.

French provincial dresser chalk paint family heirlooms
Via All Things New KC on Etsy

Going back to my parent’s dining room – I did inherit all the silver and china which I showcased here last month. I would actually use the sterling silver on a daily basis if my tiny kitchen had enough drawers to properly store it. As it is, I keep my every day flatware in little Ikea utensil buckets mounted on the wall, which isn’t the best choice for fine silver. I also kept the rugs. The dining room rug is now in my bedroom. It’s not a rug color palette I’d necessarily go buy on my own, but it was actually my grandparents rug and it likely 75 years old and is still in spectacular shape. So, I made it work!

Speaking of making family heirlooms work – this project below was for a Duxbury, MA couple who had downsized from a large antique home that was filled with their lifelong collection of art and antiques, vintage pieces and lots and lots of family heirlooms. While they certainly wanted to use their collections, they still wanted it to feel lighter and brighter and they required comfy furniture. I had their two arm chairs below reupholstered in a fun Thibaut coral print fabric which felt much fresher and made lots of throw pillows in fun fabrics as well.  I’d also like to point out that these two chairs didn’t actually match – one had the English arms you see here, the other had roll arms. My upholsterer was able to rework the arms so they matched. We also added a custom sectional sofa in an off-white herringbone fabric. See more of this project here.

Linda Merrill Decorative Surroundings living room family heirlooms
Linda Merrill Duxbury Garden Home living room design; Photo by Michael J. Lee

One of the masters of mixing the old with the new is Eddie Ross. He put together this room below for Ballard Designs. So, most of it is new, but he’s layered in many family heirloom items to create an interesting “modern mix” as he calls it.

Ballard Designs Eddie Ross Modern Mix family heirlooms
Eddie Ross design for Ballard Designs.

Modernizing family home heirlooms involves finding ways to integrate these cherished pieces into your current living space while aligning with contemporary design trends. Here are five tips to help you achieve this:

  1. Reupholster and Refinish:
    • Update old furniture by reupholstering chairs and sofas with modern fabrics that complement your home’s color scheme.
    • Refinish wooden pieces to give them a fresh, contemporary look. Consider using lighter or darker stains, or even painting them in a modern color.
  2. Mix Old and New:
    • Blend antique furniture with modern pieces to create a balanced and eclectic style. This can prevent the space from feeling too dated or overly traditional.
    • Pair vintage accessories, such as lamps or mirrors, with contemporary furnishings to create a harmonious contrast.
  3. Create a Gallery Wall:
    • Display a curated collection of family photos, artwork, and memorabilia on a gallery wall. Mix old photographs with newer ones to tell a visual story of your family’s history.
    • Use modern frames and a consistent color scheme to bring cohesion to the display.
  4. Repurpose and Integrate:
    • Transform old family textiles, such as quilts or embroidered linens, into modern decor items like throw pillows or wall hangings.
    • Use vintage dishes or silverware for special occasions, integrating them into a contemporary table setting for a unique and stylish touch.
  5. Update Lighting Fixtures:
    • Replace outdated light fixtures with more modern and energy-efficient options. This can significantly impact the overall look and feel of a room.
    • Consider incorporating vintage chandeliers or pendant lights as statement pieces, adding a touch of nostalgia in a contemporary setting.

Remember that the key is to strike a balance between preserving the sentimental value of family heirlooms and adapting them to your current design preferences. Mixing old and new elements thoughtfully can create a home that feels both rooted in tradition and relevant to the present.


Reclaiming Family heirlooms pin

You may also enjoy: Modern Living in Antique Houses

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