Creative Genius: Susan Harlan, Author of Decorating a Room of One’s Own

Meet the witty writer who gives us unfettered access to characters from our favorite childhood classics.

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April 24, 2019
By: Robin Anders

Don’t even get the witch from Hansel and Gretel started about her cottage’s original sugar windows: “I put my whole heart and soul into that house. It was my forever house,” she says. “Then those little brats came along and started eating the siding right off.” But William from Swiss Family Robinson is thrilled to talk about his proudest DIY. “No one does DIYs like we do. And DIYing requires patience, which is an important virtue. Take driftwood. Driftwood is all the rage here, and you can do anything with it.”

These are just two of the 40 characters that Susan Harlan “interviews” about their decorating choices in her new book, Decorating a Room of One’s Own. From their proudest DIYs to their important influences and plans for the future, Harlan gives us a peek into the house secrets of literature’s rich and famous—and infamous.

Reading Harlan’s book made us curious about her own style. To discover how she decorated her 1920s Winston-Salem, North Carolina, bungalow, we stopped by for a visit.

Does your personal style match any of the characters in your book?

When I was younger, I had this idea of what a professor’s house would look like, with books everywhere. In the Howards End chapter, they have salons and people over for discussions. This idea about intellectual spaces where you can have conversations really spoke to me.

Susan Harlan and dog Millie on a Red Shingled Porch

Susan Harlan on Her Porch With Dog

Author Susan Harlan hangs out on her red-shingled Winston-Salem porch with her best pal, Millie.

Photo by: Sarah Torretta Klock

Sarah Torretta Klock

Author Susan Harlan hangs out on her red-shingled Winston-Salem porch with her best pal, Millie.

You have a maximalist aesthetic, but it’s all so orderly! How do you pull it off?

I try to be pretty organized; I think you need that when you have a lot of stuff. Putting a house together is a lot like writing—making choices and trying to create something beautiful.

What does your house say about you?

My personality is definitely mapped on the space. You could sum it up as “bookish Bohemian Grandma.” I really like afghans and samplers and yarn art and paint-by-numbers and macramé —things that a lot of other people think are tacky. Not in an ironic, distant way; I just like them.

Books, Art, and Vintage Luggage in a Corner of a Sunroom

A Corner Packed With Books, Vintage Art and Antique Luggage

This corner of Susan's sunroom includes a menagerie of books, art and collected pieces, like vintage luggage.

Photo by: Sarah Torretta Klock

Sarah Torretta Klock

This corner of Susan's sunroom includes a menagerie of books, art and collected pieces, like vintage luggage.

Paperweights, artwork, vintage clothes—even taxidermy! What appeals to you about displaying so many collectibles in your home?

I have a pretty big souvenir collection because when I look at them, they tell stories about where I’ve traveled or things I’ve done. And, they make me happy. I love paperweights because of their uselessness. I don’t think things should feel pressure to be useful. I just like to look at them.

Do you have any advice for fledgling decorators?

I think that sometimes people feel pressure to base their preferences on what’s popular, rather than thinking about what they like. I say, do what you want. Don’t feel like you need to conform to cultural ideas of what you should have in your living space.

How Susan Displays Her Books

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See this author and English professor's book collection displayed in her unapologetically eclectic style.

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You often ask these literary characters about their biggest embarrassment. What’s yours?

I’m not embarrassed by anything. I feel like we bum ourselves out apologizing for our homes because they’re not clean enough or we haven’t done the dishes or whatever. The more we let that stuff go, the better our lives are, and the more social our lives are. I don’t really do anything to prepare when friends come over; we just sit on the front porch and have pasta and cocktails. It’s nice not to worry.

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