What My Mother & My Daughter Taught Me About Home Décor

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and though I am a mom and will celebrate with my daughter, my own mom passed away almost seven years ago. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the influence she had on my life (mostly good, some annoying, wink-wink), and I’d give anything for one more long talk over Friday night dinner (dad’s bowling night), followed by our weekly shopping escapade.

Mom and Erin in the early 2000s.

My mom was an stellar homemaker and caretaker, even though we didn’t always see eye-to-eye. And lately I’ve been mulling over how she actually did influence my interest in interior decorating and design.

One of her favorite expressions when we disagreed was, “Someday, you’ll have a daughter of your own, and you’ll find out!” Ha-ha!! She was right about that one, which also got me thinking about how my daughter has influenced my ideas about decorating.

So I thought it was time to take a look at both sides of the mother-daughter coin and see how having a mom and being a mom impacted the dilettante decorator me.

5 décor principles I learned from my mom:

1. Green is a neutral. Use it with abandon.

She never said this, mind you. But she ADORED green, and it was EVERYWHERE in our lives. We had mostly green cars, green carpet, green walls, green upholstery, green draperies, and on and on. So much so that I hit a brief period as an adult when I didn’t want any green anywhere in sight.

My loss, of course, because green is everywhere in nature, and wherever it appears INSIDE it brings with it nature’s liveliness and depth.
Our green living room fireplace / Mike Watkins Realtors

The home Chris and I owned prior to our current condo was colonial revival in architecture, and that’s how we decorated inside as well. I got the idea to paint all the woodwork a color (very early American) and settled on a lovely, warm sage. Everyone—even my mom—thought I was nuts when I talked about it. After all, woodwork is supposed to be stained or painted white, right?

Well, I forged ahead anyway, and later my mom told me that was the single best change I made to that house. It looked particularly beautiful on the fireplace, contrasting with the brick, and on the stairs, contrasting with the mahogany stained treads and rails.

Our green stairway and dining room. / Mike Watkins Realtors

Years later a friend bought a home with pink carpeting in one of the bedrooms and asked my advice on what to do with the room until she got around to changing it. “Add green,” I advised, “a print with green AND pink for the window treatment, shams and bedskirt, then stick with your white duvet.” It looked amazing, all thanks to green.

2. Marry someone with home improvement skills to execute your décor plans.

Mom never said this either, but she did hint at it a great deal, largely because my father (who had many other fine qualities) was utterly useless around the house. Mom did the interior painting and took the lead on just about every other home repair and/or improvement.

Dad was an accountant, and when called upon to hang a picture got out his T-square. An hour later, the picture still would not be hung. My oldest brother is just as useless around the house, and my middle brother can do a few things though not as well as he thinks.
Chris and Erin, mid-1990s. Chris designed and built the redwood garden bench they’re sitting on.

My husband Chris, on the other hand, can fix just about anything and through the years has built several pieces of furniture for our home. In the photo of our old living room, the end table, the coffee table, and the hanging wall cupboard were all projects of his.

Chris designed and built these bookshelves into our previous house. It was his first woodworking project.

Chris endeared himself to my mom when the stripped-out screws in her 40-year-old dining room table gave way during Thanksgiving dinner one year, and he was the one who fixed it like new. My brother who thinks he’s handy wanted to put three-inch screws into it and bolt them, but, of course, the tabletop was nowhere near three inches thick, so you see the problem.

Whether it’s installing shelves, repairing the drawer in a vintage vanity, or replacing the garbage disposal, Chris is the guy to get it done right. Sometimes he hesitates a bit with my ideas and I must talk him into and through a project, and often revise my initial plan, but we make a great team.

3. Danish modern is a style that deserves greater consideration.

Danish modern is probably the first décor style I learned to identify. When I was 10 we moved into our first house with a formal dining room, and the furniture my parents bought was Danish modern—all the rage in 1966. The set was solid walnut and included a table, six side chairs, two armchairs, and a glass-doored china cabinet.

I never really had an opinion about Danish modern, one way or the other. My mother HATED antiques—said she grew up with old stuff and didn’t want any of it in her house. So I naturally gravitated toward what was unusual to me—all that old stuff she despised.

But after 20 years of emulating a Williamsburg look in our previous house, I was ready for a change with our condo. It took me reaching AARP application age to finally be ready for the clean lines of Danish modern. But by then it was too late to inherit that dining room set. Mom replaced the chairs and table soon after it broke (see #2) and sold the china cabinet when she and dad moved into assisted living in 2007.

Oh well! As I further embellish my current midcentury modern dwelling, I do it with pleasant reminders of mom, what she liked, and how she decorated the homes I grew up in.

4. Sewing is invaluable in creating a unique home on a budget. 

Mom was quite a seamstress, and I wanted to learn how to sew like her long before my foot reached the pedal. She made my clothes, her clothes, my doll clothes, curtains, pillows, slipcovers, bedding—you name it—and she taught me most of what she knew, though I was impatient and often didn’t do it her way.

Long after I gave up sewing my own clothes (time was a factor when working), I still sewed for my home—window treatments, pillows, sometimes bedding, and always shower curtains.

I owe my fabric fetish to my mom, who kept a storage bench full of scraps. Rooting through the remnant pile at Newberry’s was a mother-daughter activity I relished, and sewing is the single most valuable skill mom taught me.

Today I have less space to store my fabric finds than I did at the house, but I’m working on that. My own daughter was never interested in sewing—too easy for her to get me to fix it or make it—but she has a healthy respect for what I can do with thread, needle and my machine. Almost too healthy, if you know what I mean (more on that later).

5. Shop clearance first. 

I do love to shop, and I come by that love naturally via my mom, who was a first-class bargain-hunter. I sometimes doubt she EVER bought anything for full price, especially when it came to home décor stuff.

When I furnished some of my first apartments, mom helped me scour clearance tables to find matching valances for a kitchen, powder room and mudroom, as well as find fabric I could afford to make a daybed cover for my living room. She scored some free chairs from the dress shop where she worked and showed me how to recover them with fabric we found on clearance.

We shopped the after-Christmas sales for decorations, and the off-price outlets for sheets and towels. And I always had the hands-down prettiest Christmas tree of anyone I knew—everyone always said so!

5 décor principles I learned from my daughter:

1. If you love someone, cultivate consideration for their tastes. 


I think back about the highly personal home-décor gifts I bought my mother—a bedding set and a set of dishes come to mind—and I never asked her beforehand what she would have liked. I wouldn’t want someone picking out those same items for me, and I’ve learned from my daughter Erin not to do it that way with her.

As I’ve learned her tastes—which are quite different from mine—I’ve also learned to find surprises for her that she usually likes. But it’s always a crapshoot, so I make sure she knows she can return anything I get her and pick out what she likes.

Truth is, I’ve helped her move so many times that I’ve found a lot of stuff I bought her long ago, unused, still in the packaging. She didn’t like it but didn’t want to hurt my feelings by saying so. What bothered me more was the money wasted on such presents! So now we have an agreement to come clean when we don’t like something the other buys us and NOT be offended when the tables are turned.

2. Decorating with white, beige & gray is just as valid as lots of color. 

I’m an introvert—just slightly—and I get my energy from being alone. That said, I like my home environment filled with stimulation in the form of color. After all, I work from home, and all the color and pattern is what fuels my creative process.

Erin is an extrovert and leads a hectic life. Home is her refuge from the world at the end of a busy workday. She likes it calm and serene. That’s what works for her. She always appreciates my input—she says I have good taste and good ideas—but we’ve followed different paths when it comes to palette.

I’ve always said I wouldn’t make a good interior decorator because I’d just want to design everything to look the way I liked. But in helping Erin, particularly with her first house, I’ve learned to stop suggesting color and come up with ideas that incorporate her preferences for neutrals and lighter hues, which brings me to #3…

3. How something looks on an inspiration board & in a room doesn’t always align. 

When Erin was considering what color area rug to buy for her living room, I mocked-up room after room with brightly patterned choices. She finally said, “I think I want white.” I mocked that up, too, and it looked bland, bland, bland, as I expected it would.

But after her new furniture came and the drapes were hung and she started accessorizing the room with other white accessories, I realized the mock-up lied. A white rug would look BEAUTIFUL. She knew what she was doing—a chip off the old block, if I do say so myself!

4. There’s a time to DIY & a time to buy new. 

Maisie-Cat tries out Erin’s new chair cushion while I work on the matching ottoman cushion.

When we bought our first house, Erin was 6. I’ll never forget her “helping” me as I finished some barstools I’d bought unfinished. As she handed me what I requested—steel wool, rag, brush, etc.—she looked baffled. “I’ll be glad when we’re not poor anymore and can buy our furniture finished,” she said.

“But we’re not poor,” I replied. “We’re not rich either. We do save money doing it ourselves, but we also have the joy of living with something in our new house that we helped make ourselves. And we have the memory of doing it all together.” She wasn’t buying it.

Just a few years ago she wanted me to make all her draperies, duvet cover and shams for a rented apartment. I declined. “Let’s see if you can find what you want already made up first,” I said. “That’s a lot of fabric yardage for me to cut and sew in our now-smaller home.” We compromised: She selected over-the-counter draperies and bedding, and I recovered a small chair she uses in her bedroom to match the ready-made items.

5. There’s a time to match & a time to mix. 

Matching up furniture, colors, textures, metals, and profiles is one way to provide continuity in a room or home. And it’s a valid way, particularly when you’re just learning how to decorate. After 40 years of putting together a home, I’m a mix-master. I love ALL the colors, all the woods, all the metals, many styles, and I have a pretty good eye for getting it all to work together.

But I haven’t had as much luck convincing Erin to do this. She wants things to match—living room tables, picture frame molding and finishes, all the metals in one room the same, etc.

I finally realized I was the same way during that period in my life. It comes from having a lot of crappy stuff combined with hand-me-downs as you start your independent life. When you finally can afford to buy new, having things that FINALLY match spells success.

Granted, some people never progress from that point, but at least they can be counseled toward cool matching stuff versus tacky. And Erin’s got it down pat in that department already.

In wrapping up…

Over the years, we either learn to be harder on ourselves and more set in our ways OR we learn to be easier on ourselves (and others) and experiment with new things. I’m rooting for the latter.

Erin and I, summer of 1989. She was 3.

Have a happy Mother’s Day, and enjoy the time you have with those you love.

Believe me, it passes all too quickly.



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