Practicing as an interior designer for nearly 20 years, with 13 of those on television transformation shows that have brought me into the homes of folks all across America, I’ve been in (and worked on) pretty much every style of home imaginable.
From the classic bungalow to the classic ranch, and from cramped urban rowhouses to sprawling suburban mini-mansions, I’ve seen it all and discovered firsthand that the old adage of not judging a book by its cover applies to our homes, too.
Not that long ago, residential interior design wasn’t that much fun, especially if you were working on a historic home. There seemed to be hard-and-fast rules for what your home should look like and what every room in the house had to be used for, even if you had a different point of view or didn’t use a formal dining room more than twice a year.
The goal, apparently, was to do what was expected, and that often meant being guided by what the exterior of your home looked like. A Victorian-style home should probably have Victorian-style furnishings, and a perfectly preserved mid-century masterpiece should logically be filled with pristine mid-century things.
Unfortunately, this resulted in homes that felt like time capsules and operated like museums. They said practically nothing about the people inside. Living rooms and dining rooms were usually sealed off unless someone special was visiting. On the surface, nothing seemed noticeably wrong about this approach, but it certainly didn’t feel quite right to many who had to live in these static environments. After all, most people (even if their home is historic) don’t want to feel like they’re part of a historically accurate Williamsburg reenactment.
I’ve always maintained that your home (historic or not) should be a physical manifestation of you, regardless of current trends or the exterior style of your home. I’m also a big fan of the idea that a home should be functional and practical as well as aesthetically pleasing - and designing a historically accurate home, down to the furnishings, simply isn’t functional in today’s terms.
No one I know is one-dimensional to the point where a single style could completely define him or her, so I also endorse the idea that a home ultimately is the harmonious coming together of function and aesthetics, and that those functions and aesthetics uniquely cater to and reflect the individuals living inside. For example, we are way past the days when people felt obligated to purchase furniture in sets. We’re now free to purchase a dining room table without the accompanying chairs and china cabinet. And unless you are preserving your home to put on a history tour, the inside of your home can dramatically depart from the outside.
I have always loved living in older, historic homes. I grew up in older, historic houses and have always felt that they have a charm that is impossible to re-create in new construction.
My current home in Atlanta was built in 1925 and is a hybrid neoclassical/neo-Georgian, featuring architecture inspired by a home in Birmingham, Ala., that the original owner fell in love with. It still has many of its original energy-inefficient windows with wavy panes of glass, and foot-thick plaster walls that make it painful and time-consuming to install cable for the Internet.
When someone comes to our house, my hope is for the house and its contents to be another way to get to know us. This house is the furthest thing from a museum, because it’s the home of a family that includes two children under 3 (who like to eat ice cream on the sofa) and four dogs that range in size from 65 pounds to 125 pounds (who like to watch TV on the sofa). Keeping my historic home historic on the inside isn’t really an option.
Even without the kids and dogs, my home wouldn’t look like Atlanta in 1925. My home looks like me and my family. There are sofas with clean lines, contemporary light fixtures, Asian antiques and countless souvenirs from the 43 countries we’ve visited over the past decade. When people come over, they usually comment that the house feels warm, family-friendly and completely like us, which is the best compliment of all.
I don’t want to live in a historically re-created or preserved home, even if the home itself is historic. Those kinds of homes are living and breathing textbooks of the past and certainly have their place, but it’s way more fun to showcase your personality in a space that is as unique and timeless as you are.
Here are some general rules for decorating interiors - historic or otherwise:
— Make your home a physical manifestation of you and your family so that an invitation to your home is an invitation to get to know you. This place should be the most comfortable and desirable place for you and your family to be, and designing it to reflect you will ensure this.
— Make sure that you don’t overlook function. The perfect confluence of function and aesthetics for your specific situation is a worthwhile goal that will ensure that you’ll love and use your home to its fullest.
— Look for a common thread to tie together all the disparate items that coexist in a room. For example, if you have upholstered furniture from all different periods and of all different styles, look for a common fabric color to incorporate in each piece that will link them all together visually.
— Select families of wood tones without getting obsessed with making sure all your wood is the same color. You are looking for common tones in all the different woods that fall within a general family. Dark, medium and light versions of a wood color or tone can live together harmoniously to create a rich, vibrant and layered look.
— Most of all, don’t worry about ensuring that the style inside your home coordinates with its outside architectural style. The goal should be to create the ultimate home, not the ultimate museum.
Vern Yip is an interior designer and star of HGTV’s “Design Star” and “Bang for Your Buck.” Originally from McLean, Va., Yip is based in Atlanta and New York.