Inspiration Spaces

Making Modern Out of an Old House

Written by Kelsey

Period homes are so en vogue, with their characterful detailing and quirky throwback designs. Original crown moulding? Wall-to-wall hardwood parquet? Dumbwaiter to the second floor? Yeah, we’ll take it. But from early 17th-century colonial mansions to Edwardian flats, do modern occupants really want to fill their vintage space with stuffy old stuff? Not so much.

Fortunately, decorating your home is completely up to your personal taste. Nobody says you have to stock an older home with antiques or traditional reproductions–minimalism, Scandinavian influences and even the ultra-modern can take their rightful places alongside marble fireplace mantels and plaster rosettes. Here are a few ways to give those old bones a new, modern vibe.

Let old and new live together

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When mixing old and new styles, it’s your choice whether to emphasize one style more or let them live in harmony. In this colonial living room, the tall windows and high ceilings could easily be mistaken for a loft-like space, but the antique chandelier and fireplace belie a much longer history. The shiny elements (mirror and chandi) appear to be of the same period, while the rest of the furnishings have casually modern style with straight edges and lack of frills. Clean silhouettes and modern lines look great against ornate detailing, giving the space an almost museum-like quality that showcases your good taste.

Be mindful of shapes

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To inject modern style without tearing down any walls, work with the shapes your historic architecture gives you. Here, the window panels are echoed in the symmetrical gallery wall, while the rectangular furniture complements the squares. This all serves to highlight the typically 1920s arch doorway, which seems even more special and unique among the other straight edges. Trendy foliage adds another element of relaxed modernity, and chic planters are an unobtrusive way to echo your arch’s round shape without detracting attention from it.

Bug out on the built-ins

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Built-ins are a hallmark of architectural eras gone by, and modern home buyers are enchanted by these handy features. A coat of paint and a curated display of your favorite modern items bring even the fussiest cabinetry into this century without losing the historic character that’s–quite literally–built into a room. Books are nice to showcase as well, as long as they’re intermingled with other objects or grouped in stacks (this saves the look from becoming too library-like). If the display still doesn’t look quite right, consider swapping out old-fashioned handles or drawer pulls with more contemporary options for an instant face-lift. You could also paint the back wall behind the shelving in a contrasting color for an instant focal point.

Complement permanent fixtures

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Not only would it be a monumental task to tear out the herringbone flooring and original ceiling beams, it’s a shame to destroy perfectly good wood. Before tacking drywall and linoleum (shudder) over such features, see about refinishing and restoring them first. Then, when they’re living up to all their former glory, offset the antique feel with modern cabinets in an on-trend dark color. A Belfast or farmhouse sink ties in with the modern quartz counters, while undercabinet lighting can be installed to supplement the original overhead electrical.

Go all out for modern

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Finally, this room turns Victorian style on its head with super modern furnishings. Despite the formal symmetry of the room’s layout and the elaborate decoration on the original fireplace mantel, this room is an artistic expression of mingled eras. The low profile of the seating and tables contrasts with the straight striped wallpaper and sharp-edged mantel, while the asymmetric tables add an organic note that breathes life into the space. The color-coordinated stack of books where the fire should be finishes the effect with a whimsical sophistication suited for Wonderland.

None of these looks appear fussy, mismatched or disjointed, with color used in large blocks and (except for the last space) patterns employed quite sparingly. Another key to mingling different decor is keeping plenty of room around objects and vignettes–most modern style abhors clutter. There is something of an art to mixing styles, and there’s a lot of room for interpreting your own. It’s as easy as choosing what you love.

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About the author



When she’s not polishing up promotions as a web content specialist for Lumens, Kelsey is practicing how to properly pronounce Danish, if only to be able to say “home is where the ‘hygge’ is.” Aside from Scandinavian design, she spends a lot of time thinking about organic gardening, mini farms, honey bees and England.

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