Something old, something new

Hand-me-down furniture and contemporary pieces can play nicely together

A hand-colored copy of an old map and an old bench add a personal, historic touch.
A hand-colored copy of an old map and an old bench add a personal, historic touch.

It can be a blessing and a curse: inherited furniture. There's a lot of sentimental value in Grandma's wingback chairs. Memories of sitting in Grandpa's lap for story time. Or posing for pictures with Great-Aunt Edna.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Finding ways to fit older furniture with newer pieces, like flanking this modern entertainment center with antique chairs, requires some attention to scale.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Designer Lindsey Binz combines antiques and family heirlooms with more modern furniture, achieving a decor makeover by blending old and new.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Contemporary styles and family heirlooms can result in a unique, harmonious look, as in this dining room. Designer Lindsey Binz put the modern chairs on an antique rug underneath a repurposed wooden fixture while contemporary art decorates the walls.


Mark Loman Photographer

Designer Krista Lewis used framed family puzzles to help decorate her father’s river house. Using old items in a new way can pull a room together and give it extra meaning.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Antique heirloom boxes and an antique rug blend in next to a contemporary settee and lamp in this room designed by Lindsey Binz. Rugs and smaller collectibles are an excellent way to blend the old and the new.


Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

A repurposed candle fixture complements the modern art on the walls in this space designed by Lindsey Binz.

And yet, how does one bring a pair of decades-old chairs into a living room that's made up of recent purchases from Pottery Barn or its like? The chairs are faded and, next to today's bulky, overstuffed, rounded sofas and easy chairs, they look ridiculously small.

Combining heirlooms and contemporary furniture is not always an easy task, but when handled correctly, the results can be very rewarding. Older pieces bring history and sentimental value and an extra something that can't be found in furniture showrooms.

Little Rock designer Lindsey Binz says that blending the old and the new can give a room a unique stamp. In fact, inheriting furniture is an opportunity to give a home a relatively inexpensive makeover.

"No space is ever the same when you do that," she says. "You have so much versatility with your pieces that you can change up your design without having to spend any money other than somebody to set it up for you. You can completely restyle your home with what you already have."


The mixing of styles is in vogue in interior design, and today's eclectic look makes it that much easier to incorporate older pieces with the new.

"We don't go buy a whole set anymore," says designer Mona Thompson of Providence Design of Little Rock.

Designer Krista Lewis points out that many of today's styles are actually jumping back a few decades.

"There's a lot of Lucite and acrylic happening," she says. "That is actually a flashback to the '60s. Those pieces work really well with even older pieces."

Still, the idea of mixing the old and the new can be intimidating for people. That effortlessly eclectic look isn't as easy to achieve as it may appear. It's important to keep scale and proportion in mind, not always easy to do with vastly different styles from different decades (or even centuries). There needs to be some harmony in the space, a sense of purpose and cohesion.

The basic design rules of scale and proportion still apply, even in eclectic styles. A giant old secretary could make a smaller room feel claustrophobic. And small, slim sofas and upholstered chairs may end up looking puny next to today's bulkier couches and plus-size family rooms.

Thompson says that, in general, it's in big playrooms, casual dens and family rooms where an old piece will have a harder time looking at home.

"The sofas were much smaller," Thompson explains. "They don't hold up to the way we live."


It's much easier to incorporate heirlooms in a dining room, breakfast room, bedroom or formal living room, where the older furniture is more proportional with modern furnishings and where lighting and fabrics can create a more harmonious look.

There are emotions at play, particularly when it comes to family heirlooms, that can make achieving the right look that much more difficult.

As Thompson says, "A lot of times, we start out with a project and people say, 'I just cannot get rid of these things.'"

Sometimes a piece just will not work -- at least not in the space the homeowner has in mind. But flexibility is key. While a small, feminine chair might be completely out of place in the family room, it may fit perfectly in the bedroom.

Binz says, "I have had some people that the piece just did not fit in at all and there was one party in the family that wanted to keep it just to keep it without any thought about it. Or they had to keep it in this specific room when it might have looked better in another place."

One of the designers' key pieces of advice for creating an attractive, harmonious space is to think outside the box and break things up.

"Use a buffet as an entry piece," Binz suggests. "It doesn't have to go in the room it was intended for."

Thompson has taken wingback chairs and -- instead of using them in the living room -- placed them as end chairs for the dining room table. Or turned an old table into a game table.

Feel free to break up sets and scatter pieces around the space or even through different rooms, creating a sense of flow and cohesion.


Lewis recommends finding harmony through colors or function to make an older piece fit in its new surroundings.

The important thing is to find a way to use the furniture, even if it's not the way it was originally intended. By and large, the furniture was made to be used, not to be preserved under glass, as it were, or roped off like in a museum.

"Some people are scared to use things," Binz says. "'Well, this has been in my family and I don't want it to get messed up.' Use it. You may not want to put it in your child's room or the playroom, but I don't think there's anything wrong with using your grandmother's china hutch in your kitchen."

These pieces have already lasted for years and, if treated well, they'll last for many more, with a new look, a new purpose and bringing new life into their new homes.

Lewis says, "I love it because I feel like that's what makes your home comfortable and reflects you, having things around you that are from your past or even things that aren't yours but have more history and more character."

HomeStyle on 05/02/2015