For many people, finding a personal style and implementing that look in their home is a paralyzing process. Where do you start? And how do you avoid the "catalog look," where everything in your space looks as if it was ordered from one retailer, reminiscent of Tyler Durden's pad in Fight Club?


I attended a seminar this week at a cute local boutique here in Old Town Alexandria, Red Barn Mercantile. Owner Amy Rutherford and Jennifer Barger, editor of Fashion Washington, led a discussion on "New Americana," an emerging trend that is infiltrating many important areas of life, including interior design. One topic that was woven throughout the discussion was layered decorating, and the successful mix of old and new.

The discussion got me thinking. What is the key to successfully achieving a layered, collected-over-time, personalized space that doesn't look like a page from a catalog? And what design decisions have I made over the years to avoid this common pitfall?

I have no objections to purchasing items from chain retailers, nor do I mind if a friend or acquaintance and I have a piece of furniture or an accessory in common. But I live by one rule when designing my home or assisting others with their projects: ensure that each room has at least one unique or one-of-a-kind item.

Admittedly when designing our first apartment, I knew nothing of a layered look (except if you count the inclusions of cast offs from our family members). Nearly everything we purchased was straight from the pages of Pottery Barn, from the couch and chair to the mirror and accessories on the wall. Coupled with the fact that we were renters, barred from painting our institutional white walls, the resulting look was resoundingly vanilla. (But hey, we give ourselves some credit for having curtains at the age of 22. My brother, now closing in on 30, is still working on that.)  


With the purchase of our home came the additional freedom to make the modifications we wanted (and could afford). Sure I've made mistakes over the last eight years, and have even begun to tire of some of the decisions I made early on (I can see Alex's blood pressure rise every time I point out that I'd like to replace our custom kitchen curtains with something else), but the pieces that I continue to treasure are the items that are unique and special.

Here are a few examples of these "special" items in our home. Let's start with the antique wooden corbels in our downstairs hallway. I spotted these bad boys in the basement of a Cleveland antique shop. They were encrusted in chipped paint, spider webs, and about an inch of filth. With some TLC, Alex and I breathed new life into them, and now smile every time we're greeted by them when we walk in the front door. I think they're a great example of repurposing an uncommon exterior architectural element for use indoors.

Another unique item in our house is the painted red stool in our family room. This little gem, that I lovingly restored after rescuing it from a neighbor's trash, cost less than $25, but adds cheeriness to the corner of the room.


Or take our bed, a turn of the century Louis XV-style antique, won from an eBay auction after months of tireless scouring. Auction sites like eBay are a virtual treasure trove of one of a kind items just waiting to add interest to your home.

We can't forget about one of latest projects, transforming our old master bathroom door into a unique headboard for our guest room. I know, we keep talking about it, but we like it that much!

The last example is using a vintage item to showcase a personal collection. Several years ago I spotted this old oyster basket at an antiques consignment store in Lucketts, Virginia. Something about the crusty patina spoke to me, and when I realized it could serve as an interesting storage vessel for Alex's ever growing baseball collection, I knew it had to come home with me. (I gave it to Alex with the stipulation that his game-caught baseball collection cannot exceed the size of this basket. When living in a 15' wide house, some concessions have to be made afterall!) Adding personal touches such as this makes your home a reflection of you and your family, and less like a one-size-fits-all arrangement.


Each of the items pictured above contribute a greater level of interest to the rooms they reside in. They're the items people frequently ask about, and are the items we have a greater fondness for, regardless of their value. And they all have a story or memory tied to them to involving the chain of events that brought them into our lives. You can't order that from a catalog!

Where can you find one-of-a-kind pieces, you might ask? As you can tell, we've had great success with eBay, local flea markets, antique shops, salvage yards, and even with re-purposing items we had on hand/other people's trash! You might also want to check out Craig's List, garage and estate sales, auctions, and your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Just remember to be patient, sometimes you find the best items when you least expect it.

Decorating is a very personal, subjective process. The bottom line: be true to yourself. Don't feel your home has to showcase the latest trends or look like the pages of your favorite retailer. Surround yourself with items you love, have fun along the way, and try to evolve your home into a unique space that's a reflection of you, your family and your lifestyle.

Does anyone have a signature color, accessory, or piece of furniture that sets your space apart? What do people comment on when they visit your home?

Comments 6


MokYi Chow
5/20/2011 at 10:05 AM
This is a great tip.
Old Town Home
5/20/2011 at 5:34 PM
Thanks, MokYi. Glad you enjoyed it. Going to use some of the ideas in your place?
Amy Esmond Rutherford
5/20/2011 at 11:13 PM
Great post! I couldn't have said it better myself.
5/21/2011 at 12:56 PM
Wait a second! So Alex has caught like 50 foul balls at baseball games???
Yep, this is the case. I've loved baseball since I was about four and have always taken my glove to games. Sometimes I go early to watch BP, and have caught a lot during those sessions. We also typically sit very close to the field down the right field line, so we get a lot of stuff down there. In the picture you can see that several of the balls are stamped "Practice." Those are all from BP.

I'm so glad DC has a baseball team. I missed it for the first few years we lived here, but I've been a die hard Nats fan since 2005. Here is a video of one of my foul ball catches back in 2006.
5/23/2011 at 5:40 AM
Loved seeing the Barry Bonds video again, and the recent projects.
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