Design in a Downturn

Why belongings should have meaning.

On a sunny day in 1950, my tiny grandma Zelda surveyed her Philadelphia townhouse with a critical eye. It was furnished, but it needed something more. She handed off the Inquirer to my grandfather and began what would become an almost daily odyssey of scouring antiques shops, flea markets, and department stores for interesting home accessories. The concept of “designer” never even dawned on her; instead, she went with her gut,  a process that soon had her hanging a 1930s Italian lamp above a Victorian divan and positioning a delicate Chippendale table squarely on a shag rug. Zelda didn’t know it, but she was forecasting this year’s hottest design trend: mix and match (think shabby chic meets midcentury modern).


Grandma’s decorating maxim was simple: Rarely buy new, and only buy what you love. Her style was shaped in part by the Depression; she never trashed things just because they fell out of fashion. Instead, she would cautiously work purchases into existing décor, as if she were introducing a new puppy to the family dog. Today, after vexing design shifts—Dump everything and go white! Dump all of that and go chocolate!—and numerous stock market zigzags, Zelda’s attitude is the zeitgeist. By embracing an eclectic inclusiveness, we can once again cherish our heirloom treasures without shame and occasionally splurge in good conscience.

As Zelda knew, surrounding ourselves with a blend of old, modern, and salvaged objects is more than an economic strategy. In times of uncertainty, well-designed objects from any era give us a sense of continuity; they have intrinsic value. When I visited my friend’s newly redecorated historic Nantucket house, she made a point of showing off five “funky old bureaus” she’d bought at auction for $250 each. Yes, the price tag was appealing, but she also knew the dinged handmade bureaus would give her five bedrooms an instantly homey feel that new furniture can only approximate. As Karen Keane, CEO of Boston’s Skinner Auctions, observes, “[Antiques] bring a certain quality to a person’s life and can create the soul of a home.” Meanwhile, the savings from the bureaus justified my friend’s new $7,000 dining room table.

In this spirit, I was thrilled when I saw a “free piano” flier stapled to a telephone pole near my house. It turned out the instrument had been in my neighbor’s Cambridge family for 40 years; they were moving to the ‘burbs and leaving the enormous upright behind. I was enthralled by the century-old piano’s deep, dark wood, ivory keys, and empty space in its chest where the “player” mechanism once sat. It took eight twentysomethings to roll the piano down the street and lift it up the three stairs into my living room. When I later moved, I gave it away through Craigslist, but only because I had a suitable replacement: my boyfriend’s intricately carved 1915 Mason & Hamlin. And so it goes.

Now is the time to savor what we have, let our instincts lead us, and forget clean-slate design trends. I adore my great-grandfather’s claw-footed black leather smoking chair and the taxidermied armadillo I bought on the Internet for $150. When I think about my boyfriend, I often think of his collection of campaign buttons from losing presidential candidates going back to the 19th century, or the huge advertising test prints his grandfather designed in the 1930s. These things look great in my living room next to my new chrome and green wool lounge chair from Design Within Reach and the modern white-lacquered credenza I built five years ago. It’s the juxtaposition that gives each object its importance. And none of these things will end up in a landfill in five years.

When my grandma died, I inherited many of her pieces. Her Victorian settee is now covered with my folded laundry, and her ornately carved bureau sports new battle scars from my recent move. But I’ve made it all mine—above the bureau hangs Space Monkey, a huge pop art painting I commissioned from local artist Ron Basile. Some people say Space Monkey doesn’t look right above the old dresser. I think the two are a perfect pair.