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How My Mom’s Aesthetic Inspired My Love of Design

by Erin Austen Abbott

As a child, I was fascinated with my mom’s desk. It was a refractory table that was part of our living room. I was usually the first one awake at my house and I would sit in her seat and pretend to type on her typewriter or get out one of her legal notepads and start “taking notes” early most Saturday mornings — always with one of the same fine felt tip pens that filled a handmade pottery cup on her desk. I’d watch her early in the morning before school, working on her books, with her green ruler out, going over each line to check for mistakes before turning her work into her editor. After school, I’d sometimes go to her office, where I had a fort under her desk. Really, I was just emulating what she had on her own desk, in my fort, to try to be just like her.

It was more than that, though. More than just her desk where she wrote from. It was the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the wall. The wingback chairs that sat in front of the fireplace, power clashing in the best way. One was a blue gingham and the other was mauve, grey and maroon in a British fabric pattern I’ve yet to ever see again. She had a delicate shell lamp next to the front door and brass floor lamps on either side of the velvet sofa, long before they were cool. Her attention to detail was obvious to me, even as a child. Everything was displayed or arranged with purpose. Nothing was there just because. When I moved into my first home at age 18, in a sort of rebellion, my home was a hodgepodge of thrifted goods and hand-me-downs. It felt busy and hindered me from feeling comfortable. I didn’t want to be at home and as I began to peel back the layers of why, I realized that I hadn’t brought my mom’s aesthetic with me. I slowly started to edit my apartment, arrange it with purpose, and it began to feel more like home. My mom’s home. I started to think about how everything that I bring into my home needs a place to live. Otherwise, I might just not need it.

She has always been a great collector of art as well, often buying from young artists before they had made it big. She had the keen sense to see their talent long before they might have even known it themselves. My mom has continued to combine art picked up on her world travels with her everyday aesthetic, too. She carefully curated her walls the way she did the rest of the house, all things hung with purpose. I have been lucky enough that she’s gifted me some of her furniture and art over the years, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s those pieces and art that start the most conversations when people come over to my house. Even art that she’s bought for me that never hung in her home gets the most feedback. She has an eye that was never fully utilized. I often wonder what would have happened if she had taken the design route rather than the media route. I can only imagine what she would have created. While her walls are white, the art and goods that bring her home to life jump off the walls, bursting with color.

When I began working on my first book, I knew that I was going to need to have my desk in my living room, just like my mom did when I was a child. I wanted to carry on the tradition that my mom set up and also let my son see me working at my desk, secretly hoping that he’d be as intrigued as I was as a child. My mom, Dorothy Abbott, now lives just a couple of blocks from us, and her house — even though there have been several moves since I was a child — still has the same feel. Many of the same pieces have moved around the country with her, and the traditions have carried on. Scroll below to get a peek into my mom’s current house, and I hope you find as much joy in her aesthetic as I have all these years.  —Erin

Photography by Erin Austen Abbott / @erinaustenabbott

Image above: Dorothy’s collection of books has grown. Custom-made bookshelves line the converted two-car garage, giving her a library room on one side with a wall dividing the home gym on the other. 

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

My mom matched her home color from a tea bag that she loved the color of. Never afraid of color, the blue she chose gives the house’s exterior a tranquil feeling. A creek runs under her house as well. On particularly rainy days, she can sit on her back porch and listen to the rushing water.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Dorothy in her converted garage turned library.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

The view from the side door; you can see that the books wrap around the entire room. A vintage Charles and Ray Eames folding screen gives her a place to hang some of her textiles from her travels.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

The reading nook. The large cozy chair was picked up when Dorothy lived in San Francisco. Her record collection has a spot here, along with the books.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Dorothy removed the cabinet doors and lined the shelves with pantry staples in jars, for easy use. The baskets also work to hide a few kitchen items. The pot rack above gives the ceiling the illusion of more height.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Where a large cabinet once hung over the sink, Dorothy opted to tear it out to open up the room. She replaced a ceiling fan with a School House Electric light fixture. Various photographs are hung in a very unique way, drawing the eye to the art. She has Mississippi made Viking Range appliances throughout the kitchen.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Again, replacing a ceiling fan, Dorothy hung a George Nelson Bubble lamp over the West Elm dining room table. What was probably meant to be a living room, Dorothy has made instead the kitchen and dining room into one large room, while her second bedroom serves as both her office and the living room.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Viking Range appliances complete the open galley kitchen. The pottery has been something she’s had for over 40 years, always using it in different ways.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Just off the kitchen, in the laundry room, is a little nook. Dorothy keeps her collection of cookbooks here, and also uses the area to do a little writing.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Photos collected on her travels to India and Nepal hang over the record player. She and my son often have impromptu dance parties.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Her office is one of the first things you see when you walk into her home. She’s no longer using the same desk from when I was a child, but now uses my grandfather’s old desk. One of my photos hangs behind her desk, taken while I lived in Seattle. The light in the corner is a vintage lamp from Germany.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Another George Nelson Bubble lamp hangs in place of a ceiling fan. The art on the walls and the fabrics on the bed were all collected on her travels over the last 30 years. The desk was my grandmother’s. The velvet sofa is the same one that was in my home growing up, still looking brand new.

Dorothy Abbott on Design*Sponge

Books are everywhere throughout Dorothy’s home. This is something that I have certainly made a part of my own aesthetic as well. They give so much life and warmth to a room. My mom also taught me to be an avid reader, just like her.

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  • Alright, when can we move in?
    Warm, charming, real- what a place!
    Design Sponge what will we do without you?

    • My mom has such a good eye, no? It’s so real. That’s what I love about it!

      • My guess is that it is a true reflection of her. Interesting place. Interesting lady. Take care! :)

  • Hi Erin,
    Thanks for opening us up to your mother’s richly textured world. I love the post, love the flow of the home, love the books, love how she has everything so organized and functional without sacrificing beauty, style and grace. You two are so fortunate to have each other!

  • What a great home your mom has! I LOVE the library! All those books, swoon! Thank you for sharing her space with us. :)

  • You aren’t the only one that is truly inspired by your mother. Thanks to you and her for sharing this beautiful space.

  • I love your mom’s home — and it made me smile when I zoomed in on the photos and saw that I have many of the same books.

  • What a lovely home! It looks so comfortable, functional, personal, and interesting. I also enjoyed hearing how your mother’s style influenced how you live.

  • I want to settle into that dreamy book reading nook and read, write, dream…sigh. Thank you for sharing with us Erin and Dorothy!

  • Your mom’s house is amazing! Can totally see where you get your skills from!

  • I adore this aesthetic too. It’s layers of artsy, literary and boho influences combined with travel journal and autobiography. Love it!

  • Thank you (and your mother) for sharing her wonderful home with us. I love her natural eye for what goes well together – something I really struggle with. I’m absolutely green with envy over her library. My favourite part is her wonderful reading nook – the natural light, the chair, the cushion, the velvet sofa, the gorgeous rug, the books, the art …

  • Thank you for sharing Erin Austen Abbott. What a beautiful and inspiring story. I am convinced that we all need a room lined with books. xx

  • This is so wonderful – and the closest I have seen to my own home on a design blog (though I have a ways to go) . It hit me that this is what I have been missing in the design blogosphere – the houses of older people who have an aesthetic that has developed over time and has a depth and a richness that you just can’t replicate in a makeover or by following all the latest interior trends. So lovely – thanks so much for this.

    • That is the nail on the head of what I wanted to share through this post. I’m glad you could see your own home in this post.

  • What a lovely post and tribute to you mom! My mom’s own attention to detail and design style, especially through my school-age years had a big, if unconscious, influence on my own way of designing and keeping a home. Money was somewhat scarce, but we always had the most stylish house on the block! My mom was a whiz at seeing the potential in an old piece of discarded or second hand furniture and never shied away from transforming with a fresh coat of paint. I distinctly remember a 9 drawer MCM dresser that she painted a beautiful robin’s egg blue and gave a super shiny, almost laquerish-finish (this was the 70s after all ;-)). Though her style evolved in a more traditional way, I still look to those early days as inspiration.

  • I imagine your mother’s home reflects her and her life experiences and it appears to have been an interesting and lovely one. I also would like to spend an afternoon in that reading chair! Thank you for sharing.
    “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” – Cicero

  • Talk about saving the best till last, or close to last! I love your mom’s style; the books, the comfy chair, and the cabinet of food items with baskets above are all perfect. You are lucky to be inspired by Dorothy. Thank you for sharing her inspiration! This also made me think about what of my own mum’s style had inspired me.

  • So lovely and captivating and full of personality. Thanks for posting.
    Like the above comment, DS; where we will be wo you?

  • So many great spaces! The new lighting looks beautiful, but I would warn against removing ceiling fans until you have experienced summer/warm weather in your house. We have an old house and the ceiling fans make such a difference!

  • This is goals, top to bottom. Not just the aesthetic (which I LOVE) but the love between mother and daughter, the reverence for family heirlooms, the love of reading. I just love it all and can’t get enough!

  • Beautiful kitchen – I’m inspired how it’s been elevated with styling and the gorgeous display of artwork.

  • This tour makes my heart sing! This is a home so lovely it can only be achieved with time, care and a life well-lived.
    So many treasures here! It reminds me of my grandparents’ home- a similarly collected, well-loved space, full of familiar treasures, art and books. Thank you so much for sharing!

  • Let’s go see Dorothy when there’s time! I love her sense of style and completely see where you get yours, too! Relaxed, inviting, unique. From one desk fort to another,

  • This home tour tells me that Dorothy is someone I’d like to know! I can imagine how much her art-focused and cultured life shaped you as a child…how lucky you are Erin. Thank you for sharing this!

  • I love absolutely everything about this house and I’m just plain jealous of that library! I could get lost among all those books for days!!! Perfection!