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Coming to Terms With One’s Design DNA

Coming to Terms With One’s Design DNA
April 2021

A writer ponders what gets passed down, both the tangible and intangible elements of style

Oriental rugs, antiques, and plenty of plants were hallmarks of Susie Hunt’s classic style; she’s pictured (right) in her Chattanooga home with her mother, Claire Petrie, in the mid-1980s.

The measuring tape was put to good measure. That’s how my recent adventure in dismantling my mother-in-law’s house and re-envisioning my own started: with 32 inches marked off here, a 47-inch-high chest noted there, an Oriental rug orienting in at 10 by 15 feet—the measuring tape slithering in and out of its snail-shell holder to calculate the length and breadth of a life lived amid thoughtfully acquired antiques and beautifully arranged rooms. But in truth, I had started this process decades before my mother-in-law, an amateur decorator extraordinaire, died and left us to parse out the family portraits, the roll-top desks, and crushed-velvet club chairs.

From the first time I set foot in Susie Hunt’s elegant home some 30 years ago, I was as smitten by her confident sense of style as I was by her handsome eldest son, my college beau (now husband). I would “ooh” and “ahh” over the hand-lacquered secretary in the foyer that had belonged to my husband’s grandmother and imagine if it might ever look as stately in my humble abode. I’d eye certain mirrors and admire mahogany chests, realizing one day they might migrate my way. I’d marvel at how her tabletop arrangements of candles, vases, vintage books, and family photos looked photo shoot-ready and try to recreate them with my piddly HomeGoods finds.

I was equally intimidated by and envious of my mother-in-law’s innate ability to “pull a room together,” a talent that has never been in my repertoire, unless stacking books and piles of mail in various corners counts as decorating. My own mother made her living selling Baker Furniture, helping clients outfit their homes with quality craftsmanship. She and Susie shared a similar design sensibility, and so the two women I admired most must have looked around my house and wondered where the décor-DNA started unraveling. When I began writing home stories for fancy shelter magazines, surely they wondered when someone would pull back the Target curtains and reveal that the empress had no clothes, no Brunschwig & Fils slipcovers.

The author (left), many moons ago, in Susie’s kitchen with her husband and sisters-in-law

Despite the fact that I barely know toile from chintz, I’ve successfully impostured my way through interviews with some of the world’s top interior designers—from Britain’s Veere Grenney and California’s Peter Dunham to East Coast classicists like Carolyne Roehm and Charlotte Moss to Florida minimalist Julia Starr Sanford, not to mention Charleston’s bevy of talent (Cortney Bishop, Amelia Handegan, and Jenny Keenan, to name a few). I’ve plied them for how-to tidbits, plumbed their trade secrets, dug deep for that je ne sais quoi that makes a room sing, and this I can tell you: fugetaboutit—it’s a mystery. You might as well ask Lady Gaga how to hold a high C just long enough to break your heart. It’s a matter of feel, intuition, artistry, training, trial and error, trust. There may well be a recipe you could follow, a YouTube you could watch, but there’s always something more, too; something ineffable, and—as I learned from dismantling Susie’s home—something personal.

That personal touch, dear reader, is the essence of homemaking. I know: no big news there, but it’s so easy to forget, so easy to be swayed by professionally styled magazine spreads, by smoke and mirrors, especially those black and gold Art Deco mirrors I dragged back from Susie’s that my daughter says look “a little too Hollywood” for our low-key living room. Yes, architectural detail matters, and yes, the just-right Farrow & Ball hue can work some magic, as can the “good bones” of high ceilings and great light, but what was most beautiful about Susie’s beautiful rooms was who we were in them. Once we boxed up the vases and candlesticks, unplugged the lamps, and rolled up the carpets, those memories, those treasured vignettes, remained. It wasn’t the antiques themselves that were the valuable time capsule, but the yellowing photos we found inside them, the handwritten letters, the grade school awards.

Susie’s house was well-loved and cared for because she loved and cared for the grandchildren, family, and dear friends she welcomed there. I’ll always be slightly baffled by the materialistic veneer of interior décor, but the story behind the rooms, the people who find comfort and inspiration there, the way a home harbors one’s hopes and dreams, yearnings for love, security, and a good smelling candle, this is decoration I can understand.

It’s what a good interior designer tacitly taps into. It’s what Susie so tastefully mastered, and now, as my house is cluttered with remnants of hers, I’ll be calling on my designer pals to help me do the same.