Making the most of time-honored decor

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As we move through a world of disposables, it’s easy to forget that previous generations stored almost everything.

Furniture was made to last. Pieces of crystal or porcelain were investments passed from parent to child to grandchild. Even everyday objects could stay in use for decades: the same Corningware bowl and General Electric mixer could make birthday cake batter for a generation and more.

Many of these objects still exist, embedded in boxes under yellowed newspaper or wrapped in dust-laden sheets. America’s attics, basements, and garages are filled with run-down home decor and housewares just waiting to be dug up.


And this could be the perfect moment to do so, as prices are rising and supply chains are in overdrive.

Using junk items comes in handy for anyone looking to redecorate this spring. It’s good for the environment. It can even be mood-enhancing if the items have sentimental value or if you realize your great-grandmother’s style was actually pretty fabulous.

“There’s a joy in putting a piece together and knowing you’re restoring a piece of history,” says Shawn Hollenbach, a New York comedian who recently renovated an antique sofa that was one of his late mother’s prized possessions.

It was a challenging DIY project. The fabric was badly worn and Hollenbach had not reupholstered anything before. But now he proudly shows it to the house guests and tells the story of this cozy piece of furniture.

“It just makes me proud,” he says.

But there can also be stress. Anything connected to family history can carry emotional baggage, and there’s the sometimes literal weight of heavy furniture that no one in a family really wants.

Instead of storing things for another year — or decade — interior designer Melissa Cooley of Case Design in Washington, DC is clear: Take these prized items out of their boxes. Dust off the furniture that hasn’t been used since the Eisenhower administration. Take a fresh look.

“You don’t do them any credit by keeping them in the attic,” she says.

With that in mind, we asked interior designers and homeowners how they make the most of used furniture and homewares.

Glasses and dishes are often left wrapped because people are afraid of breaking something that a previous generation carefully stored.

Interior designer Nadia Subaran, co-founder of Maryland-based company Aidan Design, worked with a client who had a family collection of glassware and vintage green glass plates that no one got to enjoy.

“When we were talking about kitchen design, she said, ‘I really want to get these things out of the boxes, out of the attic. Not only displayed, but also used,” says Subaran. “So we built an entire wall unit with no closets, just open shelves so all of these things could be front and center.”

Today, this homeowner sees the items every time she enters her kitchen and finds beauty in their striking green color.

Subaran is encouraging people to display treasures like she did herself after inheriting a vintage saree from India, handmade from orange silk with shimmering gold threads. “I rarely get a chance to wear saris,” she says, “but they’re beautiful.” Also, her husband loves the color orange.

Instead of leaving it in a box, “we literally hung it on a pole and then had a plexiglass cover made that doesn’t allow UV rays to get in and damage it,” she says. “I walk in my front door and it’s the first thing I see.”

Aileen Weintraub is a veteran of used home furnishings. Her recently released memoir, Knocked Down, details the months she spent on bed rest in a house filled with items her husband’s family had owned for generations. There is also a barn full of legacy items from her own family.

“I was trapped in this old farmhouse with everyone else’s furniture,” she says. “Even the crockery was from the 1940s.”

While they debated what to keep, sell, or give away, she persuaded her husband to take some items to new places or use them in new ways.

A sofa has been moved to better accommodate a view out of a window. A marble-topped table didn’t look good but was too expensive to give away, so they tried it outside on a covered porch. It wasn’t designed as outdoor furniture, but, says Weintraub, “it’s become the most beautiful place to sit and watch the sunset every evening.”

Hollenbach had the same experience with the sofa he inherited, which he moved from place to place and finally settled in a place in the guest room.

Cooley worked with a client who didn’t like a heavy cherry wood cabinet from her husband’s family but needed to find a way to use it.

“She has a very luxurious, modern style,” says Cooley, and this closet was the complete opposite of that.

In such cases, the designer recommends isolating what you love about your favorite style and bringing some of that vibe into the furniture you inherited. She had the cherry red finish removed from the cabinet and painted it gloss black. Outdated hardware has been swapped out for modern brass parts.

“Find the elements that you like, that you value most,” says Cooley, “then we start beautifying the product that we want to improve.”

The contrast between old and new can produce beautiful results, Subaran says. If a traditional piece of furniture doesn’t fit into your modern living room, try placing it in a foyer where it will stand out as something special.

“You can pair it with a more modern mirror or lamp,” she says, “to help it connect with your other spaces.”

Cooley remembers a client who owned a historic door that had been in the family for generations.

“They’re African-American customers, and that goes back to their ancestors,” she says. The small, beautiful hardwood door had “some history about where it came from, what plantation it was on. That goes back so far.”

But the door hadn’t been used in years and didn’t really fit anywhere in her apartment. Cooley’s solution: The couple’s new bedroom design would involve building a small linen closet.

“We were able to find hardware that looks old, and we actually built her linen closet to fit in that door,” says Cooley. “It’s an ode to her family. And when she wakes up, she sees it every day.”

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