Design Timeline: A Survey of My Homes Over the Years

Design Timeline: A Survey of My Homes Over the Years

Carolyn Purnell
Aug 27, 2015

Recently on Elements of Style, editor and interior designer Erin Gates listed the things that she considers "No Regrets" purchases in her home. It got me thinking, both about the things in my home that I love and about the things that I might not.

I'd like to share with you some reflections on my own design journey as a way to crack this "No Regrets" nut. But in the comments, please feel free to share your own experiences. First and foremost, let me say that I've made plenty of design mistakes.

These are images of my first apartment out of college; it was the first place that I really had a chance to decorate. I took some money that I won from an essay contest and spent it in thrift stores, craft stores, and hardware stores. The desk was the same one my parents bought me in third grade; the armchair was purchased from a sample sale; the printer stand was my dad's nightstand when he was a kid; and my mom and I made all the pillows. (In case you're wondering, the cage belonged to my pet sugar gliders, SallyField and Sophie.) After these photos were taken, I did acquire a bed frame, but let's just say that this apartment still never reached the pinnacle of stylishness.

I can look at these photos and see that the artwork is in the wrong scale, the layout is awkward, the rug is too small, and there are plenty of choices that, if I were decorating it today, I certainly would not have made. But I wouldn't call any of these things "regrets." I was beyond proud of this apartment and all the work I put into it, and it really was my first testing ground for ideas and personal style. Without those mistakes, I would have missed out on some important lessons about myself. Fashionable? No. Regrettable? I'm still going with no.

The same goes for my second apartment, which was a two-bedroom I shared with a boyfriend several years later. I collected free books, slips of paper (that I considered "art"), and alley finds to fill the place. Looking at it now, it's hodgepodge and overcrowded, but again, this was an instance in which I got to stretch my creative legs, thanks to our tight budgets. A night spent with double-sided tape and dictionary pages, curtains made out of thrifted bedsheets, painting dollar store picture frames- all of these things taught me the value of making a home and making it my own.

Then I moved to France for several years, and I sold almost everything I owned. I lived in two furnished apartments, both of which were cozy, but which definitely weren't "my style." Knowing that I would be moving back to the U.S. after my fellowships were complete, I learned to pare down and to buy only the things that I truly loved.

When I moved back to the States, I had very few belongings, and when I moved into my boyfriend's condo, most of our furnishings were his. No offense intended, but much of his furniture was of the "I'm living alone and will just buy this set" sort, and I don't tend to like sets of any type of furniture. The couch was overstuffed, and it was so deep that I couldn't put my feet on the floor when I sat back on it. But since it was perfectly good furniture, even if it wasn't entirely my style, I learned to use accessories, textiles, and accent pieces to make the space less of a bachelor pad and more of an "us" pad. Plus- and this was a game-changer- it was the first time I had the chance to paint, and I experimented with dark colors in the bedroom and dining room.

Now we own a house, and I'm still learning tricks and (I'm sure) making mistakes as I gain new skills like unifying a color palette across a larger space. When we bought it, the house was filled with builder-grade features that we didn't like, but the price was right, and over time, I know we'll change those things to our liking. It's a slow process but one that I'm relishing.

So all in all, while there are mistakes that I've made and things that I've fallen out of love with as my style changed, there's nothing that I can really say I "regret." To me, regretting something means being stuck in the past with it. But I think that mistakes such as the ones I've shared can teach us something about the future. If anything, I've learned that limitations have a huge capacity to teach us, not only about design, but also about ourselves. In each space, I faced different types of limitations: budget, space, landlord restrictions, a knowledge that it was temporary, etc. And with each limitation came a process of trial-and-error that taught me that mistakes aren't just okay- they can actually be good. It's all part of a process of growth.

That said, I do believe that regrets can exist. I haven't ripped out 100-year-old millwork or painted over a 1920s mural, but if I had ever perpetrated such acts, I would definitely consider them regrets. Or if I spent lots of money on a renovation that flopped, I might regret it. So what's the line between a design regret and a design mistake?

Do you have any design regrets? And if so, what's the best way to move on from them?

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