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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Bringing Home the Feeling of Home

Not all of us are lucky enough to have our aesthetics honed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Still, we bring along our childhood houses through the settings we pick, the pictures we frame, the furniture we use — or don't use. Our childhood homes influence every color swatch we veto or rug we lay. For example, Tamsin Bayless, a public relations consultant in Los Angeles, keeps a sense of her English childhood home by duplicating its colors and fabrics — rich coral and greens, velvets and brocades. She adds lots of plants in clay pots and lamps that send out pools of light. "I can't work properly if my house isn't right," she says. "Every room has to feel warm and cozy and eclectic. I create a very English feel of books and bookcases, dogs and cushions — that cozy, messy look."

Carol grew up in a house that focused on food, so she brings a sense of her childhood home to her kitchen and dining room table. "To sit down to a meal with a glass of wine — I could do that on a card table and feel like I'm home," she says. "I want to be surrounded by the people I care about, warm woods and a happy kitchen with great lighting. It feels really good to be in there."

Frances duplicates not so much the objects of her southern childhood home as its gestalt. "My mother always used what she had and she made it work. She was not one to toss a chair because she was redoing a room. And there was no chair too precious to sit on. I definitely follow in her vein. I learned that if a piece speaks to me and makes me smile, then that's reason enough to put it out."

Pick the Symbol

Perhaps this is the most important lesson: you can keep a sense of your childhood home in just one or two objects or even in the colors you pick. You don't have to cram your house with beloved junk. Michael Payne, host of HGTV's Designing for the Sexes and owner of Michael Payne Design in Los Angeles, duplicates the feel of his childhood home through the excitement he brings to design. "I grew up seeing my parents shop for fabrics and lighting fixtures. They'd come home and say, 'You won't believe the chandelier we bought.' I saw their joy and now I associate that with happiness. When I pick up furniture I love, I stand back and say, 'Whoa, isn't that fabulous.'"

Of course, Michael also allows himself one relic of the old days, a teddy bear that sits in his family room. "Teddy is one of my earliest memories. I will die with Teddy. He's made countless parachute drops" — out Michael's childhood window — "and I awarded him medals that he wears today along with the parachute. He's a true veteran."

Nancy keeps one of her grandmother's prints — a picture of three men in their hunting pinks. "That was my favorite thing in my grandmother's house. I had it reframed and decorated the family room around it."

But beloved objects don't have to be displayed as they were in our childhood homes. In fact, using old things in a new way allows you both to retain the sentiment and express your adult taste. One friend of Nancy's, for instance, tiled the backsplash in her kitchen with her childhood tea set.

"You bring memories of childhood and reinterpret that influence in more modern ways or in ways you've evolved as an adult," agrees Cecilia Tejada, vice president of design for Pottery Barn in San Francisco. "You may have an old chest of drawers that your grandmother gave you, but the room doesn't look like your grandmother's. That piece just brings those memories into your life."

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