In a multi-generational home, design choices can be emotional

ALLISON PARK, Pennsylvania. – Should Thailand’s hanging stay on the living room wall where it has lived since I was born? Should we set up the family room as it was when I was 8, when I was 17, or in a whole new layout? Should we leave my mother’s spice rack on the north kitchen wall? And the spices?

When you live in a home passed down from generation to generation, profound design opportunities lurk around every corner. There are so many ways to blend past and present. And the weight of history can rise and knock you down at the most unexpected times.

In 2007 we moved into the mid-century modern house my parents built in 1965 – and which I came home to as a day-old in the spring of 1968. It was two-level , and it showed. Upstairs, my mother’s Scandinavian sensibility reigned, with clean lines and blond wood throughout. Downstairs, my father’s jurisdiction was cluttered with books, framed stamps, record albums, and musical instruments.

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When my parents left, they moved into a retirement community with clothes, furniture, files, a TV, and nothing else. They left behind 42 years of life’s possessions – things accumulated locally, things collected on long international journeys, things we were delighted to have saved, things everyone agreed were should have been discarded.

It was up to us to add their specificity to ours. But how?

My wife, the one with finely honed sensibilities, recognized in her kindness that what for her was an act of design was, for me, an encroachment on good memories. It probably didn’t help that when she was doing something like moving a stack of bowls from one cupboard to another, she could meet me in the doorway yelling, “YOU ARE DESTROYING MY CHILDHOOD!” I was joking. Kind of.

Eventually, certain decoration patterns emerged. Some were deliberate, others inadvertent or performed quietly to avoid discord.

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— Existing furniture was replaced with new ones more in line with our sense of design, but they remained in the same places. It sometimes made places like the living room feel like an Ikea design showroom, where the layout was exactly the same as it was decades ago, except, say, the Kibik had suddenly been replaced by the Vallentuna.

— My wife’s growing propensity to build industrial-style furniture using stained wood, pipe and metal flanges created an increasingly unified look for the home. But more often than not, many of the items displayed on those brand-new but vintage-looking shelves were carefully selected from my parents’ collection. The best of both worlds.

“Some things were sacrosanct. This hanging mentioned above has remained where it has been since Lyndon Johnson was president. But the white wall around it sprouted with our wedded possessions—cabinets from China, a 1940s pop crate from eastern Pennsylvania, a Thai spirit house from our Bangkok years. Objects from a previous generation became the centerpieces of design thinking for the next generation. Similarly, a Chinese rug my parents bought in 1980 became the perfect prop for a circular coffee table we bought in Thailand – one made by fusing wood to the steel wheel of a massive Thai truck.

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I have a patient wife; it should be said. Someone who has as many great ideas as she has about how a house should look is indeed a patient partner when confronted with such emotionally charged details. But what we have now, 15 years after living here, is a kind of design relaxation.

She (as she has been from the start) accommodates the sometimes annoying fingers of the past as they approach today’s discussions of, say, what color of paint to use in the kitchen or what kind of light fixture that best suits the kitchen. upstairs hallway. I, in turn, learned (not quite from the start, alas) to be open to novelty.

The result: a home that summons the past without getting lost in it, and the promise that, while something new and innovative is possible, it won’t be pulled down just because history says so.

My parents are long gone now; our house is, among other things, a tribute to them and what they have given us. But I end with an anecdote from the years immediately after 2007, when they moved out and we moved in.

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At that time, when our decidedly less minimalist aesthetic was beginning to prevail, my parents often came over for dinner. We were always afraid that my mother would blanch before the disorder and the usurpation of her clean lines. Instead, she sat by our newly installed “family history wall” — a lively concoction that came from our aesthetic, not hers — and invariably expressed her joy. “It’s not the same as when we lived here,” she said, “but I love it just as much.”

She would add, “It will always feel like our home, but I love that it’s your home now.”

Trying to blend the sensibilities of multiple generations and the emotions that come with them is about the best outcome I can imagine.


Ted Anthony, director of new storytelling and newsroom innovation for The Associated Press, has been writing about American culture since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at

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