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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."

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."

Over My Dead Body

The lessons childhood homes bequeath aren't always simple or straightforward. Nor will our lessons be the same ones learned by spouses or housemates. Sure, you see Uncle Elmer's humor or Grandma's kisses in the chipped armoire. Your partner sees trash. So how can you and your partner respect the ghosts you carry through the doors?

Here, experts and peacefully designing couples offer their advice:

  • Compromise. "My teddy bear" — displayed in designer Michael Payne's family room — "means nothing to my wife but she understands what he means to me," says Michael. "And she is incredibly proud of a really ugly Howdy Doody puppet" — also in the family room. "We compromise."
  • Take your time. "You need negotiating time, time to let your partner see what you love," says Cecilia Tejada. Robert and Leslie Hirschman of Los Angeles, for example, have spent two years looking at chairs for their dining room table. They've finally agreed on style and are now negotiating about color. "We made a pact," says Leslie. "If one of us doesn't like something, we won't get it."
  • Pick your battles. "Decide if this issue is more important to one of you than the other," suggests New York child psychologist Robin Goodman. "If one person's taste is minimalist, the other person may need his own room where he can be expressive. Or maybe one person decides about style but compromises on color and accessories. It shouldn't be all or nothing."
  • Keep perspective. "I say to clients, 'This is not life and death,' says designer Carol Tobin. "'This is about color, table and chairs. We can have some fun.'"

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