Organize & Clean

3 Important Decorating Lessons I Learned from My Mother

published May 10, 2015
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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

I credit my mother with firing my love for design at a young age. The home tours and antique malls she took me to, and the design magazines and books that were always around our house, started me down a path that would lead me to become an architect and, eventually, a writer for a different kind of magazine. It’s mothers’ day, so in honor of my mother, and of mothers everywhere, I’m sharing three little morsels of design advice that I gathered from the most important woman in my life.

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(Image credit: Nancy Mitchell)

1. Everything looks better in odd numbers.
Who can understand it? Who can explain it? Mysteriously, almost everything —vases, prints, chairs, you name it — looks more interesting and more dynamic in odd-numbered groups, as opposed to even-numbered ones. (Groups of three, I think, are especially powerful.) This is one of the few pieces of decorating advice my mother explicitly told me, as opposed to just leading by example, and it’s stuck with me. I can’t say why it’s true — it just is.

2. Disdain not the garage sale, the flea market, and even the curbside.
I’ll admit that when I was younger, I was deeply embarrassed by my mother’s tendency to go through other people’s trash. “Mother,” I would mutter uncomfortably as she investigated an interesting curbside find. “That is garbage.” Over the years, even more embarrassingly, both of my sisters have picked up this odd habit. But you know what? They’ve found lots of great stuff. My college apartment was halfway decorated with things my sister either got for a steal or found in other people’s discards. This is a great way to find interesting pieces for absolutely no money, and to come away with an interesting story, too. (Also, don’t underestimate garage sales and estate sales. You wouldn’t believe what my mother finds at garage sales.)

3. In the long run, it pays to buy quality.
How long my parents hold on to things has become almost a joke in our family. They have a blender someone gave them for their wedding, a tent that belongs in a museum, cabinets they bought from Ethan Allen long before I was born. I’ve learned, from watching my mother, that in the long run it pays to consider purchases very carefully, and buy high-quality versions of things you really love. This might seem to run counter to the garage sale-ing and dumpster diving advice, but I think the way it plays out is that saving money on most things gives my mother the justification she needs to get spendy on a few select pieces — things that will last and last and maybe, with a little luck, even become the heirlooms of the next generation.

What about you? What decorating wisdom have you gotten from your mother?