Open any home decorating magazine and you will find rooms full of exquisite English, French or Italian antiques and, for the truly trendy, a few Swedish pieces in the mix. Each is finely carved, inlaid or painted, and each piece was lovingly selected by the homeowner –– and often an astute decorator.
Most of the time, the rooms, despite their opulence, look eminently livable. Gone are the days when a collection of antiques meant the area was off limits or, worse, reserved for special occasions. Blessedly, the museum look left with grandmother’s antimacassars.
So how do you fill a home with precious antiques without it looking like a hodgepodge of your “early attic” years?
“It’s all about juxtaposition,” says Donna Maselli, a New Orleans decorator who lives this eclectic-but-pulled-together look in her beautiful Uptown home. “Just as in literature where there are foils to the good guy, one highlights the other.” In her well-appointed living room, she points to a Sheridan secretary, with its elegantly simple lines; a modern wrought-iron-and-glass coffee table; a Louis Philippe gilded mirror; a wall of antique and new books; and a sea-grass rug. It all works.
Living with antiques doesn’t mean going fuddy-duddy. Maselli recommends that each room hold at least one or two antiques to anchor the room. Once these have been carefully selected, a homeowner can punctuate the room with more contemporary furniture, art or accessories. “Go for the unexpected: a massive modern glass cocktail table works beautifully with frilly French chairs,” she says. “Or a painting of simple modern art placed over a formal English chest looks wonderful! Believe me, if you do a room in all antiques of the same period, your room will be stuffy and uninviting, more like a furniture showroom than an interesting house.”
Maselli says the most important part of decorating with antiques is the editing process. Too many homeowners save grandmother’s big brown stuff out of sentiment and end up with a house that looks like Granny decorated it. She says to hold onto only the pieces you truly love and then blend in your own look.
In a recent redecoration she did for a client in Natchez, Miss., Maselli was faced with a room anchored by a four-poster Mallard tester bed (draped in miles of fabric) and filled with heavy antiques. The floor was covered with a dark Oriental rug. Despite its size, the massive bed was lost. To the owner’s horror, Maselli emptied the room of all draperies, antiques and the rug. She immediately eliminated five large antiques and carefully added end tables and a delicate French iron daybed at the foot of the Mallard piece. She then painted the walls a soft neutral color, covered the windows in vanilla linen draperies, removed all fabric from the bed and added a simple Leontine Linens piqué coverlet. She covered the floor in a sea-grass rug. The result: The Mallard bed became the eye-popping focus of this tailored, simple room. The owner was thrilled with the new cutting-edge twist to her antiques.
Karla Katz, owner of the eponymous store on Magazine Street, agrees that too much of a good thing can destroy a look. “The biggest mistake in decorating is a room that tries too hard,” says Katz, who has collaborated with Maselli on past projects. Just as too many antiques can make a room stuffy, too many modern elements can get too sleek and angular, making a room feel cold. Katz also urges a serious editing process at the beginning of the project, followed by slowly adding rich, warm antiques and modern art and accessories to the mix.
She also recommends avoiding what she calls “goop,” the furniture you don’t love but buy anyway. “Find pieces you want for life, then use them; don’t hodgepodge more stuff to accumulate more dust,” she advises.
A well-loved home is always a work in progress. Both Katz and Maselli admit their own homes are never finished because they both love to collect good pieces, but throughout the process, they buy and eliminate or switch furniture and art around to different rooms. Most important, they always buy good quality. “In living with antiques, don’t gild the lily,” cautions Maselli. “One good piece can stand by
itself.” Then the homeowners and their decorators can slowly and carefully take it from there.