How to Pick Period Appropriate Finishes for Your Historical Home

There’s a fine line between a well-decorated interior and a space that’s trapped in the past—here’s how to avoid the latter.

Stepping across the threshold of a house is a chance to learn more about the people who live there—and it’s also a chance to learn more about the people who used to live there, and imagine their lives moving through the rooms. It’s a thrill to picture what happened in my house before I got there—was the kitchen the domain of a champion pie-baker? What kind of gossip was traded in an elegant parlor?

Bill Morache, a New York City-based historic preservation consultant has a simple explanation for why old buildings keep those of us who love them coming back: "I think it’s a way to feel a little more human," he says. "People like to connect with stories—we wouldn’t consume so much media and content if we didn’t. Old buildings are an immersive way to connect with history."

With the definition of "old" becoming more expansive each year—both because of the passage of time and because of our willingness to appraise even recent history with a more curious mindset—more and more of us are living in spaces with history worth investigating, contemplating, and celebrating. So how do you honor the roots of your house without turning it into a period room at the Met?

Go back to the beginning 

First, look around for original details—or use your imagination (and a Google search) to conjure up an image of what those original details might have looked like. "You don't like to see a contemporary light fixture in a Victorian," says Julie Brayton, lead interior designer at the Denver-based Brayton Interiors. "The worst thing is when you walk into a house and the way it is designed and decorated is completely disjointed from what that architecture is." That’s not to say you need to live like you’re in an episode of Antiques Roadshow, agonizing over whether or not a particular pendant light or doorknob is original or just kind of original. "You can edit choices to make them feel more playful, or a little more personal," says Brayton. 

Built a color palette 

Thinking about colors that might have been in your home when it was first built, or even colors that appear in paintings and pictures from the period your house dates to or the style it’s built in is a way to acknowledge history even if antiques aren’t your thing. Brayton’s team worked on a 1920s Craftsman house in Denver where one of the standout features was an original hand-painted mural, located in the dining room. When it came time to paint the rest of the house, they used the mural as inspiration, pulling out a particular shade of blue to weave into other parts of the room. That served not only to tie the space together, but to also bring back into the home a color that was hugely in style when the house was new. For Victorian houses, think about rich ochres and soft greens—in the later part of the 19th century, the idea was to focus on shades inspired by the natural world, bringing the outdoors in. If your home is a Craftsman bungalow with plenty of detailed woodwork, look to peacock blues and dusty mauves, both considered the height of fashion in the 1910s.

Embrace (or learn to love) wallpaper  

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While some of us never fell out of love with wallpaper, it’s definitely making a comeback amongst those who might’ve written it off as too fussy. It’s never been easier to find historic prints adapted for modern use—the moody florals designed by wallpaper pioneer William Morris, for example, are replicated by a number of companies. You don’t have to commit to doing an entire room in a historic print, either—as an accent wall, a swath of Dorothy Draper’s iconic banana leaf print, designed in the mid-1930s, brings Hollywood Regency-style glamor into homes built in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. 

(Some) change is good

The average residential building changes over time. The advent of plumbing turns a bedroom in a Georgian Revival house into a bathroom, or walls separating a parlor and formal dining room come down to make a larger sitting area for entertaining. Some houses get totally new wings, as families expand and needs change, and those additions can sometimes pose a conundrum: If my house was built in 1900 but totally renovated in 1955, what style feels most "original"? For Lindsay Jamison of Rumor Designs, the answer, on one recent project, was both—the house was built in 1908, with an addition constructed in the 1960s. The owners of the house "left a mid-century Modern table and faux-leather bench cushions in a built-in booth when the house was sold. I worked these elements into the design and painted the booths blue," she explains. She was also bold enough to embrace a color once reviled and now less harshly-appraised by many design aficionados: "The avocado green office chairs were left in the basement of the home. We cleaned them up and used them as dining chairs to continue with the mid-century repeated aesthetic." 

Window shop until you drop

The sleek, rounded lines and penchant for velvet-covered sofas of the Art Deco period made from some pretty spectacular furniture, and today, many of those pieces have price tags that stretch into the five figures. Just because you’re not interested in spending, say, $10,000 on a c. 1930 rounded sofa upholstered in pink crushed velvet doesn’t mean you can’t look. Spend an hour (or five) nosing around on websites like 1stdibs, spotting the best examples of iconic pieces from the 17th century through the 1980s. Once you have a sense of the details that denote a particular period, you can look for those features replicated in newer products, everywhere from makers who sell directly on Instagram to big-box chain stores. 

Even the smallest details are a chance to speak to the past

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There are so many small pieces involved in the construction and design of a house, Layton points out: "The drawer pulls, the plumbing, the doorknobs!" Each of those pieces is a chance to get in touch with the roots of your home, whether you’re buying new materials inspired by work of the past or you’re shopping directly for vintage. If you’re not ready to commit to a full historically-inclined reimagining, try replacing one thing throughout your house, turning it back into what it might have been originally: sets of brass and crystal doorknobs, popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries, can be found on Etsy for less than $50. Even if your kitchen has been updated a few times since your house was built in the mid-1950s, swap out your standard drawer pulls for ones that evoke a mid-century look that speaks to you, whether it’s a sleek, Modernist chrome bar or a more whimsical Flower Power daisy with blue and green petals. 

Make it your own

A Victorian-era settee is always going to look great in its natural habitat—a grand Victorian living room with an ornate fireplace and crown moldings to match. That doesn’t mean, though, that you can’t make the settee your own. "Maybe it’s a really special piece but it doesn’t feel like you—it’s okay to make changes," says Layton. "A really solid wood chair is something you can reupholster, or add cushions to, so you maintain the lines of the original piece while finding ways to align it with your own taste."

Put trends into context

It’s tricky to think about trends in home design—it feels like an insult to call a space "dated," but that doesn’t mean you want to live somewhere stripped of all time and history. It also doesn’t mean you want to take on a full-scale remodeling and redecorating project every time there’s a new Pantone color of the year. Delicate glass wall sconces with hand-etched scenes and starburst-style light fixtures might have, once upon a time, been considered the height of fashion and then, years later, dreadfully old-fashioned, but if they speak to the era in which your home was built, they’ll always feel right. They’ll feel, well—at home. 

Top photo by Samantha & Asa Ward, Picture KC

Some more history lessons:

How To Research Your Home's History