Not Your Mother's Living Room

Whether we realize it or not, our childhood homes shape the way we design and decorate.

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Childhood homes stay with us. They lurk in the chaise lounge where your mother took naps or in the coffee grinder your grandfather labored over at the kitchen table. They are in the colors we never want to see again — the ubiquitous turquoise — and in the flagstone path flanked by purple iris. Whether we know it or not, most of us decorate our adult homes with either a reverence or disdain for the past, and the choices we make add one more layer to a family story.

Memories of childhood houses build "a sense of who you are and where you've come from," says Frances Schultz, of Veranda magazine: "They build into your environment, and therefore your perspective, a progression of experiences and a sense that life is a process of going through layers on many levels, including creativity."

How childhood homes affect our current decor is as individual and surprising as design itself.

The Grip of Childhood

What most of us remember about our childhood homes are the feelings we attach to a certain person, place or object, and we experience those feelings through our senses. "That's why a particular smell or song or piece of clothing will call up memories associated with certain feelings," says child psychologist Robin Goodman. "Objects become representational of other things," she says.

"As children, we're sponges," agrees designer Carol Tobin, a principal of Tobin & Parnes Design Enterprises in New York City. "We're absorbing information, not filtering it. We learn about color, light, warmth, serenity, about what makes us feel soothed. Those things and those emotions are very powerful, and so is their recollection."

Nancy Gibson, curator of textiles for the DAR Museum in Washington, D.C., for example, associates the reds, golds and greens of her grandmother's house with the nurturing, comfort and quiet she found away from the chaos of her parents' house. "I've always tried to capture that look," she says. "Every house I've had as an adult has had a dark green room and a red room. I think it brings back that sense of comfort and safety."

How our childhood house looked and felt also forms our first template of reality, says Robert Sawyer, an architect with Elemental Designers in Los Angeles. Robert grew up in a modern house cut into a hillside, whose windows skirted the ceiling line and whose door handles surprised him by sitting in the middle of the door. "One day my parents removed the wallpaper in the bathroom and underneath we found newspaper articles about the architect. He was Frank Lloyd Wright! I was fascinated. I became an architect because of that. My taste was formed by that house."

Robert learned that details matter from that house: "The integrity of the structure shone through the lumber and taught me something."

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