Knowing When to Reuse, Reinvent or Remove

Most of us have had that moment when our parents ship, mail or load up our car with "treasures" that they've saved or collected for years. The torch is being passed and what was theirs is now ours.  Sometimes there are welcome relics like a beloved grandfather's old desk.  Other times there are boxes of old term papers and high school biology books that we wonder what in the world to do with.  Nevertheless, these "treasures" have found a new residence and it's up to us to figure out what to do with them next.  We're delighted today to have talented San Antonio designer, Mary McNelis of Mary McNelis Interiors, share her wisdom on the subject and help guide our decision on whether to reuse, reinvent or remove inherited pieces. BACKGROUND: Mary McNelis works with clients to create functional rooms filled with beauty and grace. “People often ask me what my ‘style’ is, but that is irrelevant. I help my clients discern their own tastes. Ultimately my goal is to create rooms that make their daily lives easier, reflect their passions and nourish their souls.” Based in San Antonio, Texas, Mary McNelis Interiors provides full service decorating, color consulting and sourcing for furniture and home goods. To schedule a consultation please call 210-215-1815.


Knowing When to Reuse, Reinvent or Remove

Mixing antiques with fresh modern colors and shapes helps bring them into the 21st century.

As a decorator, one of the most frequent dilemmas that my clients struggle with is how – or whether – to incorporate outdated or inherited objects into a new design scheme. Life’s changes - whether the comings and goings of children, the death of a loved one, a new home or a new lifestyle - often bring with them collateral furnishings, art or decorative objects that may not seem, on the surface, to mesh with our own style. But because we sentimentally instill objects with memory and meaning, we often hold on to them well past the point where they have any relevancy in the way we currently live. The chaos and clutter this can create in our homes and our lives can become hard to live with over time. I’ve struggled with this myself and know that the decision to keep or unload something can trigger deep emotions. As an only child I inherited antiques from a beloved grandmother, which I dutifully moved from home to home through the years, though they contrasted sharply with my increasingly modern choices in décor. I longed to replace the traditional dark wood dining set and sideboard with a sleek contemporary table, but felt somehow that I was dishonoring my grandmother.

An older chair and traditional nesting tables are given a new life against a bright green wall and vibrant curtains in a home office.

When I married a decidedly modern-thinking guy and had two kids within two years it was clear the table would have to go – to storage I assumed. Then one day I realized I was holding on to something that we would never use again – a good quality antique that another family could enjoy more than we ever would. I lovingly polished the wood, recovered the chairs and sold the set to a dealer, using the proceeds to buy a sleek and sturdy farmhouse table that has hosted many a family meal. I let go of the guilt because, after all, Nana would have enjoyed those discussions around the table much more than she ever loved that dining set. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to tell us its ok to let go of an object that no longer works in our life. Conversely, a fresh eye can also find beauty, inspiration or new potential in an overlooked object that was headed for the yard sale. Here are a few of the guidelines I’ve followed to help clients decide if something can be reused or repurposed or needs to go.

 Outrageous blue side tables and luxe Chinoise fabrics transform a bland guest room. The existing neutral curtains and headboard were refreshed with red trim and nail heads.

1. Beyond sentimental value, does it have an inherent beauty, charm or aesthetic that is timeless? If something is really exceptional – a valuable piece of art, furniture by a notable designer or just a really beautiful china teapot - it can always find a home in your home. In recent years designers and homeowners have increasingly understood that mixing different eras and aesthetics is a much more interesting and authentic way to decorate. Juxtaposing an antique coffee table with gorgeous lines into a more modern or transitional room is chic and sensible.

This lovely old chair was worth recovering in fresh green velvet.

2. Is it possible to paint, recover, re-purpose or re-imagine the object in some way that will help it fit in an updated room? And is it worth doing? Sometimes recovering or repurposing an object or piece of furniture makes a lot of sense – and sometimes it doesn’t. If a chair is a classic that can work in any interior but is looking a little shabby, then by all means find a new fabric and bring it up to date. But recovering a sofa every 10 years or so can get expensive – and if the furniture wasn’t great to begin with it’s a waste of money. If you do have a good upholstered piece that you want to recover, be sure you have your upholsterer rebuild the pillows and retouch any woodwork that looks worn. Adding a fresh wrap of down over a new pillow form will improve both the look and comfort of an older piece.

The chaise lounge in this tween girl's bedroom was a faux-suede 80s leftover before being recovered in linen.

Thanks to the DIY craze, a lot of homeowners and decorators are throwing caution to the wind and painting old furniture every color imaginable these days. I am all for a sleek lacquer job on an old flea market find, but I don’t often recommend painting over good quality antiques. If you have to turn it turquoise for it to fit into your house, then you’re probably trying to hard. Let go of the guilt and help your fine antique find a better home where it will be loved as it is.

An older couch and sturdy coffee table find a new home in a boy's playroom.

3. Is there another place to use the piece that would work better? For example, I’ve recovered older side and dining chairs - which tend to be a smaller scale that today’s open-concept rooms call for - and used them to great effect in bedrooms and hallways. Breaking up sets and using the pieces individually as accent pieces throughout a home can breathe fresh life into the “matched” groupings favored in earlier eras. Old side tables make great bedside tables for example. Could you use an old dining table as a library table or console behind a couch? Again this is where a fresh eye can help you find new homes for your older objects.

A few antique accents and reproduction antique iron beds give this boy's room a vintage feel.

4. Does the object “match” or compliment other objects? Can it be grouped together to form a collection? Just as breaking sets up can work, creating new groupings of related objects can give a lot of impact. This works especially well with older artwork and decorative objects. A well-planned gallery grouping of eclectic art collected over the years is much more interesting that a wall with one key piece on it. Don’t be afraid to mix modern and contemporary pieces with much older items – as long as colors and frames complement each other they’ll work well together.

An eclectic mix of old and new, hard and soft objects freshens up the corner of a bedroom.

With decorative objects, grouping complementary pieces together on a mantle, library shelf, sideboard or entry console is a great way to add interest to an area. For example, if you have disparate vases scattered all over the house, try grouping them together in sets of three or five and filling them with flowers of all the same hue.

A great use for all those old legos floating around.

This is another great way to display those precious mementos from childhood – yours or your children’s. Frame three or four pieces of a child’s charming art work and hang together with fine art on a feature wall or in a hallway. Or group all those silver Christening cups together down a dining room table or along a mantle. The effect is sweet and much more modern than individual pieces placed alone.

A traditional window seat is transformed by a new fabric into a cozy retreat for a teenage girl.

If you are debating the fate of an object and the answer is “no” to all these questions, then its time to give yourself permission to let go and move on. If the guilt is more than you can deal with, donate the piece to a charity or use the proceeds to do some good. I’m pretty sure that the gods of furniture won’t strike you down and you may find that the feeling of freedom you gain is the greatest gift of all.


Mary McNelis Interiors



(Images: 1-Photo Credit: Trish Rawls /Design: Mary McNels Interiors; 2-Photo Credit: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors ; 3- Photo Credit: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors; 4-Photo: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors ; 5-Photo: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors ; 6-Photo: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis ; 7-Photo: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors ; 8-Photo: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors ; 9-Photo: Trish Rawls / Design: Mary McNelis Interiors ; 10-Photo Credit: Trish Rawls /Design: Mary McNelis Interiors

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