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Credit: Photos: Courtesy of Gregory Han, Quinne Myers and Jiayi Ying, Graphic: AT

Forget Aesthetics—Comfort Decorating is the Nostalgic, Pragmatic Trend We All Need Right Now

updated Aug 10, 2020
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Twenty stories of objects and areas in people’s homes that nourish their souls more than their social feeds. Read them all here throughout August.

Just beyond the Instagram frame, everyone has items in their home they’d rather not broadcast to social media followers. That’s why you may have an animal-like instinct to hide your childhood stuffed animal from a bedroom shot or hide your beloved, tattered heirloom quilt in your storage ottoman before you have guests over. Some items in the home, as comforting or joy-sparking as they may be, just aren’t “aesthetic goals”.

But the same things that don’t “look” good have the potential to make you feel good, which can transform how you live and function in your home. Think of these nostalgic, sensory pieces like comfort food for your living space: They might not be trendy, but they’re certainly nourishing—and we need more of them in our lives, especially now.

“We’re spending so much more time in our homes now than we ever have,” says Grace Dowd, an Austin-based therapist “So it’s more important than ever to fill your space with things that make you feel like yourself, even if they’re not ‘Insta-worthy.’”

Nostalgia, which lends a sense of permanence everyday life doesn’t always give, is one reason the whole concept of comfort decorating—aka choosing objects that evoke feelings, vs. aesthetics—can feel so good. As the world seems to change at a pace that’s impossible to keep up with, a piece from the past is grounded in history and memories, which can never change. 

“With comfort decorating, we want to surround our space with beauty and meaning, and create a sanctuary away from the difficult realities of our current world,” says Jason Feinstein, a Phoenix-based psychotherapist, “It helps soothe us and provide that stability when the rest of the world can’t right now.”

Nostalgia is particularly comforting, Feinstein says, when it’s linked with an important person who may have owned the item, like a relative or friend. That tattered, old quilt from your grandparents’ house might remind you of your grandpa’s warm hugs or encouraging words, which can actually provide a sense of physical and mental calm. 

Credit: Anna Spaller

Lindsay Robertson, a California-based psychologist, says there’s a neuro-biological process at play when it comes to nostalgia in the home. Just as a “transitional object” like a stuffed animal or pacifier can calm a child, items in the home can serve as external sources of comfort and security. Think of how adults gravitate to comfort foods when they’re sick, how teenagers use photos of themselves with friends to build self-esteem and social belonging, or how a trophy or diploma celebrates mastery and soothes imposter syndrome. These objects symbolize something meaningful and, through the body, send messages to our brains.

“It’s the power of body and sensory memory that makes our sentimental objects so much more than intellectual reminders,” she says. “The objects themselves take on the power to communicate those meaningful truths, like a portal between two moments in time.”

For example, Kathleen Anderson, an interior designer and principal of Material Design, says she keeps weird doilies all over her house. Even though she says she wouldn’t want her whole house to be designed that way, and she’s nervous about what her high-end clients would think, keeping the doilies around is a non-negotiable. 

“One of my happiest memories is going to my grandma’s every summer, and she had doilies all over the place,” she says. “Seeing them in my space, I have an instant shot of this feeling of being loved.”

But not all comfort decorating is nostalgic. Sometimes, a fluffy throw pillow or a souvenir from your trip to Disney World just feel good, which is reason enough to keep them around. Of course, there’s a sensory aspect, too. 

Comfort decorating can surface feel-good memories, but objects that bring pleasure to the five senses are a powerful way to anchor yourself in the present—almost like a mindfulness practice. “Running your fingers along that tattered quilt or even smelling it can ground you in the present moment, which can help to alleviate anxiety about the past or future,” says Dowd.

There’s also the element of self-care. Sure, those knick knacks from a garage sale might not make the shelves at West Elm, but putting them proudly on display anyway reinforces to yourself that your joy is worth prioritizing. “These things can remind you who you are, that you’re fun or silly or creative,” says Alexis Moreno, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. “The meaning behind these objects is far more important than other potential factors, like judgment or criticism of that item.”

Plus, staying true to yourself with decor that brings you joy is straight-up fun for your brain. “The things we’re surrounded by, whether visual or tactile stimuli, are going to activate our memory and reward systems, so we get a nice flood of dopamine every time,” Moreno says. “So there’s a continuous biological reward you get when you put yourself first.”

As you might expect, scrambling to keep up with the Instagram Joneses has the opposite effect. Validation on social media or a compliment from a style-savvy friend won’t pale in comparison to the experience of living in a home that just feels like “you.” Interior designer Julie Arnold says she’s opted out of the rat race and instead focuses on outfitting her home—and her clients’ homes—with whatever brings the most joy. Even if it may never show up on the “For You” page. 

“As a design professional, I can say absolutely not everything has to look good, and I don’t think living this totally stylized, totally curated life is even realistic,” she says. “One Instagram picture with a boatload of likes is never going to bring me enough daily enjoyment as filling my life with ‘non-cool’ things that make me happy.”