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Interiors

10 Family Heirlooms That Tell Stories

by Bethany Joy Foss

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

One of the things that makes family heirlooms so special are the stories they collect over time. Objects give us the ability to recall adventures that have been told and retold, or spark the memory they carry. Cherished items often cross oceans, countries, and generations to create their stories, probably with a few scratches and bumps along the way. It’s as if these treasures traveled down the branches of our family tree and ended up in our living rooms.

Heirlooms often represent a beloved person or memory that tells us a little bit more about who we are. They don’t have to be on trend or in good condition to add warmth and personality to our homes. Not every heirloom has a fantastic history, but they all create a sense of family and belonging that serves as a reminder of the journeys that have brought us together. Here are 10 family heirlooms from the archives that celebrate history and family. —Bethany

Image Above: Nasozi Kakembo shares how important it is to showcase images and reminders of her family and Ugandan heritage for the benefit of her son in their Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn brownstone tour. This wall-hanging comes from Nasozi’s family, purchased in Liberia by her mother in the 1970s, “although the design provenance is Ivory Coast.” It is an example of her deliberate decorative process to instill a global and empathetic worldview in her son through the objects she places in her home.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

This steamer trunk, belonging to Anne Sheldon-Duplaix, traveled back and forth with her grandparents between New York and Europe, holding all their possessions until it was passed to her parents’ home in Northern France, and then on to her. She used it to store a carefully curated fabric collection and her dreams of becoming a clothing seamstress. One day, Anne opened the trunk and began sewing clothes for her daughter, which led her to open a children’s clothing shop by constructing clothes from the fabric stored in the steamer trunk at her East Village, NYC home.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

Nick Huff is the proud owner of this Navajo tapestry, made by hand and gifted to his grandmother by her best friend, Midge. In turn, the gift was passed on to him. This piece is a meaningful reminder of the connection Nick had with Midge and his grandmother. “I always value the human connection over anything that might be in the home,” he shares about his approach to decoration in his duplex in Omaha, NE.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

Farah Malik lived in seven countries before landing in the United States. She admits to a penchant for heirlooms and admires their power to promote a pass-down-from-generation-to-generation culture. Having grown up in England, Farah keeps multiple pots for tea, including this Moroccan kettle handed down from an old friend’s grandmother in Marrakech. Other expressive pieces from Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Kenya, China, Pakistan, Zanzibar, Cyprus, and all over Europe — just to name a few — encourage a broad global awareness in her Brooklyn home.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

An apartment in Helsinki, Finland houses this 300-year-old, restored “Könni” wall clock. It was handed down to Ulla-Maija by her mother’s family — still chiming every hour on the hour as it would centuries ago. She believes a home is made gradually over time through pieces that reveal one’s true past, present and future. “You add to it as you go, and little by little it becomes a reflection of who you are and where you’ve been.” Ulla-Maija’s decorative ideology is represented in a space full of meaningful family heirlooms, including a family tree gallery wall of portraits dating back to the 1800s.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

Dana McClure keeps her grandmother’s Chantilly Lace, along with other family heirlooms like this gold framed mirror, jewelry boxes and display trays resting on her great aunt’s Dorothy Draper dresser. “I never wear [it], but the smell brings me back to being six years old and playing dress-up in her bedroom.” This is her favorite spot in her New York state farmhouse to wind down after a long day and fill her heart with warm memories of her childhood.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

The den in Kris Drayovitch’s home in Plano, TX is full of furniture that originally belonged to her grandparents along with other family heirlooms, like this vintage Suzani above the couch from her parents’ trip to the Mediterranean. She shares, “I love having pieces in my home that have a history and remind me of loved ones every time I walk into the room.”

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

Hildegard Haave’s home in Selbu, Norway showcases a handful of family heirlooms like this mahogany dresser from her grandparents. She explains that it used to live in their home office where she would play with her grandfather’s typewriter while he worked.

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

Resting on an inherited buffet in the dining room of Anne and Rad’s Richmond, VA Victorian are a pair of turquoise, porcelain foo dogs. Anne shares, “My husband’s grandmother bought them in Vietnam before Vietnam was the name of a war.”

Family Heirlooms on Design*Sponge

Kristen’s Storied Home in Kansas City is full of furniture and jewelry passed down from family members, but she is particularly sentimental about this buffet made by her grandfather and great-grandfather in 1963 (and considers it one of her most precious possessions). She uses the made-up word anemoia from John Koenig’s Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, meaning “a pang of nostalgia for times you’ve never experienced,” to describe her love affair with objects that tell stories of the past.

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