Right at Home: What Would Your Mom Say About Those Throw Pillows?

Invite your mother to your house for Sunday brunch, and you may find yourself anxiously waiting for the comment about your curious choice of wallpaper, or inexpertly hung artwork, or the insane amount of clutter that has taken up permanent residence in the living room.

Or maybe it’s not anxiety but relief that you feel when you visit your mom and sit on her plaid sofa with a crocheted blanket draped over the back, wondering how you managed to escape the odd decorating choices that defined your childhood, like decorative frogs. Yes, frogs.

Trisha Leitch grew up in a three-bedroom house in central Washington that at one point was overrun with more than 200 frog-related objects, because her mother loved frogs and when you have a quirky appreciation for a cute critter, people give you paraphernalia. There were frog pillows, place mats, dish towels and toilet seat covers. There was even a figurine set of Camelot, complete with King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Guinevere — each a frog in medieval garb.

“You name it, you put a frog on it, she had it,” said Ms. Leitch, 42 and living in a six-bedroom house in Boise, Idaho, with her family and not a decorative amphibian in sight.

Ms. Leitch, who described her mother’s style as “very hippie eclectic,” prefers a neater aesthetic, keeping surfaces clear and possessions tidy. She also avoids all things kitsch, and refuses to commit to any one creature. When she received a ceramic rooster as a birthday gift, her children suggested she get a few more to create a farmhouse motif in the kitchen. Ms. Leitch quickly put the kibosh on that idea.

“I don’t want 82 owls in my kitchen or 4,000 chickens because I once said I like chickens, and everybody says, ‘Let’s get Trisha something with a chicken on it,’ ” she said.

For better or worse, the expectations set by our parents creep into the homes we build as adults, influencing how we decorate and maintain our space, and setting a standard that we either strain to meet or try to flee.

Your mother’s decorating sensibilities may linger, whether or not you want them to. Your tastes in colors, fabric and style may differ, but some underlying principles will keep whispering in your ear, reminding you to have as many seats in the living room as you have at the dining room table, or always to tidy a room before you leave it. If you fall short, you might feel like you’ve failed to reach some unachievable goal. But dismiss your childhood rules entirely, and you may feel a twinge of nostalgia.

“Every child is fighting for their independence, even if they’re 60,” said Fawn Galli, a Manhattan interior designer. “They want to embrace their aesthetic education, but they also want to break away from it.”

It can be hard to be your own adult, especially if your mother — or your father, if he was the one in the family with the eye for design — had good taste, and you’re not so sure about yours. Your home and its décor can be a constant reminder that you haven’t met some undefined target, and perhaps never will.

Whenever Yvonne Robbins looks at the family photos hanging in the hallway of her four-bedroom house in Prague, Okla., she can’t help but think her mother would disapprove.

“Every time I put a nail in the wall, I’m thinking, ‘God, I wish my mom was here to move this some way or make it look right,” said Ms. Robbins, 42, whose mother, Arlene Hamilton, died in 2014. Where her mother had a knack for arranging a gallery wall, Ms. Robbins finds that hers come out looking chaotic. “I’m a hot mess,” she said.

When Ms. Robbins was growing up in Modesto, Calif., her mother, a single parent, often attended interior-decorating parties with her friends, investing in quality furniture pieces meant to last decades. Ms. Robbins inherited none of that design instinct, and hates furniture shopping. “I don’t know if I’m just harder on myself,” she said, “but I still feel like I’m a teenager putting posters in my bedroom.”

Her oldest daughter, Vashti, 7, seems to have inherited her grandmother’s interest in décor. A few weeks ago, Vashti spotted a hot-pink area rug in a carpet store as they drove past it. She pleaded for it until Ms. Robbins bought it as a birthday gift.

A few days later, when Ms. Robbins attempted to hang a baby picture of Vashti on the hallway gallery wall, her daughter insisted it go in her bedroom instead. “There were tears,” Ms. Robbins said. As a compromise, Ms. Robbins let her daughter hang a picture in her bedroom that had belonged to Ms. Hamilton, “but she still wasn’t happy.”

She can already imagine what Vashti’s future home will look like. “High fashion, lots of soft textures and shine,” she said. “The kind right out of a book.”

Those of us with older parents attempting to downsize have encountered the unrequested (and usually oversized) hand-me-down. Maybe it’s a china cabinet full of, well, china, that you don’t need and have nowhere to store.

In recent years, it’s begun to dawn on baby boomers that their millennial offspring, living in smaller homes and swayed by minimalist trends, have no space, or desire, for all those heirlooms. All it takes is one ornate wardrobe to undo a carefully curated midcentury modern look. But how do you break it to Mom that “Antiques Roadshow” is not your look? Maybe you don’t.

Jeffrey Bilhuber, a Manhattan interior decorator, thinks we should embrace, not reject, the past. “Most clients will come to us saying they want a fresh start,” he said. “I’ll be damned if they don’t have something which means something — their Rosebud is lurking somewhere in their house.”

When clients come to his office, Mr. Bilhuber asks them to bring photographs of pieces they may want to reupholster or refinish. Then he sends them to the fabric library to pick out a texture, color or print that they like.

“I don’t think anyone should repeat their mother’s style,” he said. “But they did invest in nurturing your sensibility and building a foundation from which you can soar.” In other words: Why not give a nod to Mom?

Even Ms. Leitch found a way to appreciate her mother’s love of kitsch. When her mother crocheted her a set of “Star Wars” figurines, she happily accepted. “They’re stupid cute,” she said of the statuettes of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, each measuring about a foot high.

She displays them on a shelf in the TV room where guests rarely go, and her family can marvel at them, privately.

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Published at Fri, 10 May 2019 13:00:00 +0000