3 Golden Rules for Decorating That I’m Learning to Live By


On Saturday I had the rare chance to spend all day with a friend tooling around Frederick, Maryland, a town near here known for its antiques.

The danger of rare opportunities is that they sometimes make me rush into spending money — because who knows when I’ll be able to get back? As if the universe had sensed my need, just before my outing I came across a few maxims in the May issue of House Beautiful magazine that sank to the bottom of me and acted as anchors.

Before I share them with you, I wanted to touch upon why I think creating beautiful interiors is a worthwhile pursuit. I am not good at drawing, or painting, or making movies, but I think I create art through the everyday meals that we cook, the little parties we throw, and the way we decorate our house.

Of course functionality and comfort are important, but beauty is too. Beauty brings peace, it inspires creativity, and it tells everyone who encounters it: we care.

1. “Have fewer things, but better things.” — Suzanne Rheinstein

House Beautiful, May 2012

House Beautiful, May 2012

When I saw the Manhattan apartment in House Beautiful that Suzanne Rheinstein had designed, I felt a sense of calm. And I don’t think it was just because of the restrained use of color — it was the choice of furniture. Furniture that Rheinstein said would see the young homeowners “through their lives.”

“Obviously, it’s a long process. It’s not 10-minute decorating,” concedes Rheinstein. “If you buy one good thing a year, in five years, you’ll have five really good things.”

Finding furniture that is not only well-made but that has a timeless style is a challenge. Each piece would require the thought and money of an ‘investment.’ That’s the way our grandparents used to think of furniture: yes, it’s expensive but you only have to buy it once. These days we expect lower and lower prices on everything, so we can buy more and more. Furniture-makers and fashion designers keep the trends changing so we are almost forced to keep tossing out and buying new.

But maybe furniture should be elevated to the level of real estate: you trade more of your life for it because you plan to love it and use it for a long time. You don’t always have to pay with your money; you could pay with time, like I did this weekend.

My trip to the country winding through room after dizzying room of antiques yielded one great find: this 1850s chest from a farmhouse in Maryland’s Middletown Valley on sale for $315:


It was exactly the piece we thought would look great in our new foyer, but we never imagined we’d ever find it, much less at this price.

Having better things is possible but it demands a lot of us: patience, time, and conviction.

2. “Live with what you love.” — Austin Varner

My grandmother's candelabra below pottery from Mexico and Italy

My grandmother’s candelabra below pottery from Mexico and Italy

Just because something is in style or everyone else is doing it (think stainless steel appliances), doesn’t mean it’s right for us.

For one, we all have different budget constraints, we all have different lifestyles, and different priorities. If you’ve ever renovated a kitchen (I haven’t), you probably will identify with this post by one of my favorite writers, Meagan Francis: In defense of the over-the-range microwave, or why I need to worry less about what other people think.

The edict of “buy what you love” is complicated. I’ve often had to ask myself: do I love this because I’m seeing it in all the magazines, or because deep-down I really like it?

One thing we need in our newly-renovated foyer is a light fixture to cover the naked bulb that has been dangling from the ceiling for a couple of months. I love chandeliers. I’ve always been attracted to glittery things, but I have restrained myself (most of the time) over the past couple of decades when it seems like everything from address books to change purses to candle sticks are encrusted with jewels. Now I have a real need (not just a want), and I would love to be able to marry form with function.

Here’s the tricky part: I am drawn to houses that are decorated with a mix of old and new and rough and fine: what they are calling “transitional.” Because most of the other elements of the foyer are traditional, I feel like the ceiling light needs to be modern to shake things up a bit. On my shopping day, I saw a bunch of pendant lamps that would technically fit the bill — funky and modern, or industrial and raw — but I couldn’t bring myself to buy them because I didn’t feel the love. Which means we will probably go another few months with a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. To which — if I want to follow my new golden rules — I must say, “Oh well!”

(The flip side of the “live with what you love” coin is that not everything in the room can be fantabulous; too many movie stars in one room is overwhelming. I need to remember, as my mom has been telling me, that silk curtains need to be balanced with something like a plain Jane natural rug, which is also something I love — just not something I would dream about.)

3. “Authenticity rules!” — Annie Brahler

A mirror my mom stored in the barn now leans against our new chest

A mirror my mom stored in the barn now leans against our new chest

When I heard designer and owner of Euro Trash, Annie Brahler, say in an interview with¬†House Beautiful, “I have an aversion to anything reproduction,” it was like I was wiping the steam off my own reflection in the mirror. I have to admit, this realization also kind of made me want to give that glass a good crack, because it explained quite a few furniture-purchasing mistakes I have made over the years.

When I buy something that is trying to be something that it is not — a chair that is made to look old with fake distressing, a particle-board bookshelf masked by a thin wood veneer, or a bench that is made with “pleather” — I fall out of love pretty quickly. This short-term infatuation makes me feel good at the moment — “Great, I’ve found something in my price range that looks great!” But in the long-run, all I want to do is leave him and find Mr. Right.

“Authenticity rules” does not mean “something has to be a rare antique,” explains Brahler. “It could be a tin can with rust on it — that’s real patina.” (Brahler, by the way, has crystal chandeliers in every single room of her Jacksonville, Illinois house, claiming, “Overdoing it with one thing is kind of not overdoing it.”)

This real-materials idea helped me keep walking when I came across bins of what looked like antique hooks (something else on my list). Even though they kind-of fooled me, and I had to look really close to determine that they were objects made to look old, I knew that deep down inside they would not be satisfying to me.

The handmade lace that I had been saving finally found a home in our attic guest room

The handmade lace that I had been saving finally found a home in our attic guest room

If the “realness” of stuff matters to you too, but you can’t find a real vintage piece, one option is to go unabashedly modern. A Lucite chair, for example, is not trying to be an antique; however a traditional chandelier made with plastic crystals is trying to be a chandelier with glass crystals. I was presented with this exact issue when I saw the globe chandelier I have been lusting over at a third of the cost. Even though it was affordable, I remembered that it’s not just the idea of the thing — it’s the texture and feel and the way the light is refracted through the glass onto the rest of your house.

The result of all this is that, yes, I now have a handsome entry chest for our foyer, but — that’s about it. Besides the claw-foot table that once belonged to my grandparents, we have no lighting, no rugs, no curtains, chair, or window cushions. (And don’t get me started on the living room — we literally have to apologize every time we have people over, it’s so bad.)

Unlike the young homeowners in the magazine who apparently filled their apartment with fine furniture in one fell swoop, we will have to be the one-by-one people. No more decorating in a flash (as we did when we were moving around a lot) and then getting on with life.

The upside is that we won’t have to try to simulate the “collected over time” look; we’ll be doing just that.

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  • Vidya @ Whats Ur Home Story June 11, 2012, 12:09 pm

    Didn’t know there were so many bloggers in this area. Should have a meet or something. :)

    • Amy June 11, 2012, 11:06 pm

      Hi Vidya,

      It’s great to hear from you. I see that you are a DC-area blogger too. I was thinking the same thing about organizing a group of women bloggers — great idea! I like how you are personalizing your home with such passion and energy. That’s the best way.

      Thanks for writing in,

  • Vidya @ Whats Ur Home Story June 11, 2012, 12:08 pm

    Came here form WaPo. Great posts. Reading through every thing now.

  • Sarah May 23, 2012, 12:46 pm

    Amy, you positively wrote down my husband’s and my philosophy for decorating our first home (which we, incidentally, just bought after 12 years of marriage…so we know the art of patience!). We vowed not to bring anything into the house that we a) couldn’t afford b) didn’t love or c) was of poor quality. That means, for the time being, living with no coffee table, bare windows and our son’s mattress on the floor instead of a frame. We are learning to embrace the slow and gradual nature of decorating our first home. I also love the “no fake stuff” rule! I get the willies when I see new furniture with faux aging, and we try to avoid Ikea at all costs since we want to invest in unique, long-lasting pieces. Thanks for reminding me of why we have this somewhat non-mainstream approach to our “stuff”!

    • Amy May 24, 2012, 9:50 am

      Hi Sarah,

      This is so cool to hear about your slow decorating! I love the three rules you gave yourselves, and that you had the commitment and unity of vision to agree on them.

      Congratulations on your new house — when you wait so long, it feels really special, right?

      I hope you’ll stop by more,

  • emily young May 16, 2012, 6:19 am

    I loved this post! I just got back from a mother daughter, girls day in Brimfield, Mass. We had a ball!! I came home with a very long chicken coop feeder. I plan to put it down the center of my dining room table and fill it with vintage plates. I am a true believer in using what you love. You will make your home a happy place by surrounding yourself with expensive and free, old and new, perfect and imperfect. Beautiful piece you bought!! A great find!! Emily

    • Amy May 19, 2012, 9:53 pm

      Dear Emily,

      Wow, I love the image of your chicken coop feeder on your table filled with vintage plates! And I also like your confidence in the idea of living with what you love, and how that makes for a happy household. You are so right: some things will be expensive, some will be free; some old and some new.

      Thank you for piping up with your thoughts!


  • Daisy May 16, 2012, 4:37 am

    I definitely agree with “Have fewer things, but better things”. I have recently cleaned out my house to sell it. I packed away ornaments and photos and I don’t miss them. I like to just have a few of my nicest items out. I’m going to be very selective about what comes with us to our new house!

    My main tip for decorating is to stick to a colour scheme. I think the room will still look put together, even if the individual elements aren’t that great.

    • Amy May 19, 2012, 9:40 pm

      Hi Daisy,

      It sounds like you are making great progress on getting your house ready for sale — you’re already at the putting away photos stage! I have to say that, as insensitive as this seems, I don’t miss my photos either. I had been given quite a few picture frames, and then I bought quite a few myself (they’re just so darn pretty sometimes), so I had quite a collection. Even though the photos were meaningful, all the images and frames added up to a lot of busyness and visual clutter. I still have those memories: I just don’t advertise them to the world anymore.

      Thank you for sharing your idea about sticking to a color scheme. I can totally see how that would make everything seem more pulled together, instead of haphazard and disjointed.

      Thanks again for your input, Daisy!


  • Meagan @ The Happiest Mom May 15, 2012, 9:45 am

    Love this post, Amy! And I am DROOLING over the dresser you got. What a score!

    • Amy May 15, 2012, 9:55 am

      Hi Meagan,

      Great to hear from you! I’m so glad you love the dresser as much as I do. Thank God I had my friend there to tell me that buying it was the right thing to do.

      Thank you for stopping by,