By TED ANTHONY – AP National Writer
ALLISON PARK, Pa. (AP) – Should the tag from Thailand stay on the living room wall where it has lived since I was born? Should we arrange the family room the way I furnished it when I was 8, when I was 17 or completely new? Should we leave my mother’s spice rack on the north wall of the kitchen? What about the spices?
When you live in a home that has been passed down through the generations, contemporary design options lurk around every corner. There are many ways to merge past and present. And the weight of the story can rise and tear you down at the most unexpected moments.
In 2007 we moved into the modern, mid-century home my parents built in 1965 – and which I returned to in the spring of 1968 as a day old. It was a split level house and it showed. Upstairs, my mother’s Scandinavian design sensibility dominated, with clean lines and light wood throughout. Downstairs, my father’s department, was crammed with books and framed stamps and record albums and musical instruments.
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When my parents left, they moved into a seniors’ community with some clothes, some furniture, some files, a TV, and little else. They left behind the possessions of 42 years of their lives – things accumulated locally, things collected during extensive international travel, things we were over the moon that were saved, things everyone believed was they should be thrown away.
It was up to us to add their distinctiveness to ours. But how?
My wife, the one with the subtle touch, recognized in her kindness that what for her was an act of creation was for me an intrusion into good memories. It probably didn’t help that she met me in the doorway and yelled, “YOU DESTROY MY CHILDHOOD!” I joked. Type of.
Eventually, some decorative patterns emerged. Some had been executed intentionally, others either unintentionally or silently to avoid discord.
— Existing pieces of furniture were replaced with new ones that better suited our sense of design, but they stayed in the same place. This occasionally gave places like the living room the feel of an Ikea design showroom, where the layout was exactly the same as it had been decades ago, only the Kibik, for example, had suddenly been replaced by the Vallentuna.
— My wife’s increasing propensity to build industrial-style furniture out of stained wood, metal tubing, and flanges created an increasingly unified look for the house. But mostly, many of the items displayed on these brand-new but dated-looking shelves have been carefully curated from my parents’ collection. Best of both worlds.
— Certain things were sacrosanct. The above hanging stayed exactly where it had been since Lyndon Johnson was President. But the blank wall around it sprouted with our marital belongings—cupboards from China, a soda case from eastern Pennsylvania in the 1940s, a Thai liquor house from our Bangkok years. The items of an earlier generation became the centerpieces for the design considerations of the next. Similarly, a Chinese throw rug my parents bought in 1980 became the perfect accessory for a round coffee table we got in Thailand – one made by fusing wood with the steel wheel of a massive Thai truck.
I have a patient wife; that much is said. Anyone who has so many great ideas about how a house should look is indeed a patient partner when it comes to emotionally charged details. But what we have now, here for 15 years, is something like a creative relaxation.
She (as she has been from the start) accommodates the sometimes tiresome fingers of the past as they intervene in today’s discussions, such as what color to use in the kitchen or what type of light fixture is best for the kitchen Upper floor hallway. I, on the other hand, learned (unfortunately not quite from the beginning) to be open to new things.
The result: a home that evokes the past without getting lost in it, and a promise that when something new and innovative is possible, it won’t be shot down just because history says so.
My parents are long gone; Our home is, among other things, a tribute to them and what they gave us. But I’ll end with an anecdote from the years immediately after 2007, when they moved out and we moved in.
During this time, as our decidedly less minimalist aesthetic was beginning to take hold, my parents would often drop by for dinner. We always worried that my mother would blanch at the mess and appropriation of her clean lines. Instead, she sat next to our newly installed “Family History Wall” — a hard-working concoction that stemmed from our aesthetic, not hers — and invariably expressed her delight. “It’s not the same as it was when we lived here,” she said, “but I love it just as much.”
She added, “This will always feel like our home, but I love that it’s your home now.”
Trying to unite the sensibilities of several generations and the emotions that come with it is the best result I can imagine.
Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation at The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted
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In a multi-generation house, design decisions can be emotional | lifestyles
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