Let Your Home Tell Your Story
Your home is your oasis, but it's also a spectacular canvas to celebrate your history.
photos by David Kelly
Carrie Nardini chose the soft shade of turquoise for her Brookline kitchen for more than just its beauty. It’s the iconic color of a range of Pyrex mixing bowls used by American moms — including Nardini’s beloved grandmother, who died in 2008 — since the 1950s.
All these years later, Nardini went one step beyond simply keeping that bowl as a memento. She took it with her to Lowe’s, set it down on the counter in the paint department and asked the staff to match its hue exactly in paint. Then she spread it all over her kitchen walls, a unique celebration of every birthday cake and bowl of Jell-O her grandmother mixed up in that porcelain vessel.
One final touch completed this decorating homage to the woman who taught her to cook: Nardini mounted her grandmother’s favorite cooking spoon in a shadow box, framing it as a piece of art. It now hangs on one wall of Nardini’s perfectly Pyrex blue kitchen, watching over a new generation of family breakfasts, lunches and dinners.
Savvy decorating? Sure, but it’s more than that. This room now tells a story about Nardini, a writer, marketer and co-founder of the craft pop-up I Made It! Market. The tangible connection it provides to the women who came before informs Nardini’s daily experience of motherhood in ways big and small. When friends visit, it’s a room that helps them to know her better and maybe see her in a different light.
We are surrounded by stories each day, nearly all of them marketed to us by people who want our time and our money. Take a look around the next time you’re dining out. The casual-dining restaurants that have popped up all over the Pittsburgh region surround you with artificial mementos. Their goal is to suggest that a cookie-cutter chain restaurant actually is an intimate neighborhood hangout. Beauty magazines sell the story that women are in need of extensive fixing, then conveniently offer advice on which updates should be made. Every ad you hear on the radio while driving in your car is telling you a story about something you supposedly need or want.
What about your story?
You may tell pieces of it in your Facebook page and on Twitter. You may share your travels — to exotic destinations or the grocery store — on Instagram. You may publicly document milestone weddings and births on carefully tended web pages. But you can’t hold those stories in your hand. You can’t come home to them at the end of the day.
The seeds of your own story probably are embedded already throughout your home. Some may exist in plain sight: At Jennifer Baron’s house in Dormont, the cozy centerpiece of the guest room is a wooden bedroom set made during the 1930s. Its style is wildly different from the sleek 1960s furniture she and her husband favor elsewhere. But her grandparents used it for a lifetime in their home, so Baron has made it a cherished piece of her own.
In another room, one wall displays pieces of Baron’s vast collection of vinyl record albums. It speaks of her love of music, of her own performing career — her current band is The Garment District — and of her passion for album-cover design. It connects her with the music of the past and encourages her to record new music.
At Joe Maiocco’s house in Cranberry Township, the living-room walls are lined with posters from punk rock concerts and stand-up comedy shows. On his coffee table, vintage photo albums are stuffed with handbills from shows at storied Pittsburgh music venues that long since have shuttered their doors, and ticket stubs from performances Maiocco remembers vividly.
He’s not just a fan: Maiocco has done stand-up comedy and works as a graphic designer. He designed some of those posters for up-and-coming artists — a step along the path of his career and theirs. By living with this particular art on his walls, he’s seeing where his work has taken him and gaining inspiration for where he might go next.
These are the pieces no one can miss. Other pieces of personal story — perfect for use in decorating with a bit of creative thinking — may be quietly stashed away in the dark of a closet for now. That sweater that kept you warm through all four winters of your undergrad but no longer fits like it once did? What if it became a pillow cover, given a place of honor on the sofa and new life as a conversation piece?
On the pages that follow, you’ll find ideas and resources for embracing your home to tell your personal stories and advice on how to embed tangible pieces of your history amid your newly purchased couches and coffee tables.
Your home is your refuge, your break from the chaos of the outside world. It’s also a potentially powerful canvas for the story of who you are and where your life is headed. Within its walls, which stories will you tell, and how will you do it?
What Have You Got?
You’d be surprised to discover the cool treasures that may be lurking in attics and basements around your neighborhood, says Sen. John Heinz History Center President and Chief Executive Officer Andy Masich. Each year, nearly 2,000 Pittsburghers bring dusty old items out of shoeboxes and down from closet shelves to inquire about their worth during the “Pittsburgh’s Hidden Treasures” program on KDKA-TV.
What makes our region unique, Masich points out, is that many Pittsburgh families have been here for generations. When families move around the country, they often jettison items that have lost their usefulness. When families stay put, they tend to build up remarkable collections of vintage toys, photographs, military memorabilia and more.
Any of these items can “make a stunning presentation” in your home, Masich says, especially if you choose pieces with a story behind them. “A story about people,” he says, is even better.
Get creative with photos
A collection of framed photos can look beautiful, especially if you mix shots from different eras and group the whole batch together in similar frames, says interior designer Diana Miller from Design on Main in Hickory.
You also can go beyond the frame. Upload a personal photo to spoonflower.com or designyourwall.com and have it printed on custom wallpaper or upholstery fabric. Imagine recovering an old chair for your child’s playroom with fabric printed with her drawings, or papering one kitchen wall with a tiny repeating pattern that’s actually a photo of your extended family at a backyard barbecue circa 1975.
Put a modern spin on a family photo from generations ago by zooming in on just one section, cropping it and blowing it up as an oversized print. Old photos can be surprisingly high-resolution. Just be sure to scan carefully or have the original professionally scanned for the best possible clarity.
Another option: Has your family done a summer beach vacation every year for decades? Instead of leaving photos stashed in an album or on your computer, choose images from memorable trips, print them, then glue them on weathered pieces of wood that evoke the planks of a beach boardwalk. Using a thin paintbrush and a selection of summery paint colors, mark beneath each photo the year and location where it was taken. Then hang the planks together on one wall (perhaps connected by a bit of weathered rope) or scatter them around a room.
By reproducing cherished snapshots and decorating with them in new ways, you can protect the original images (even by keeping them in a safe-deposit box) while enjoying their beauty and sharing their stories with visitors to your home.
Find strength in numbers
A single hand-me-down cooking utensil from the 1960s may seem to be a candidate for recycling. Gather several on a shelf, prop up a few vintage cookbooks behind them (easy to find on eBay or at yard sales/flea markets), and you’ve got yourself a display. Ditto for vintage toys.
Do you have a single piece of military memorabilia from a relative — perhaps a service medal — tucked away in a drawer? Seek out vintage newspapers and coins from the years of your relative’s service (again, eBay is a gold mine) and perhaps a map from the same era. Place them on a shelf together, or go one step further: “There are people who choose to make a museum-type case for their collection,” Masich says. “In my own home, I have a vitrine — which is just a fancy word for a plexiglass top for a case or pedestal — with antique toy soldiers arranged in a battle scene.”
A custom-made case will help to show off your favorite pieces while also protecting them from damage. “If done well, it doesn’t have to look like just a dusty shelf of toy soldiers,” Masich says.
Reassess (and even reproduce!) old furniture
You might be surprised at how decorative your great-aunt’s old sideboard can be, says Diana Miller. Ask a friend or hire a decorator to assess hand-me-down pieces for their style potential, or try moving an old piece to a new location in your house to see it in a new light. Perhaps give an antique piece from your family a modern facelift — paint an old wooden cabinet a glossy red or other bold color. Don’t buff away old scratches or dings. They add to the charm because they’re part of the real story.
And if you have a single old piece of family furniture — say a stool or chair — take it to a carpenter and inquire about having copies made. That old seat can become part of a collection of chairs for your kitchen, with the original holding a place of honor at the head of the table.
Use your words (or those of someone else!):
Did your grandfather have a favorite saying that summed up his philosophy of life? Does a quote from your favorite book capture how you see the world?
You can tell your story and beautify your walls by stenciling. Many popular phrases are available as removable decals or pre-made wall plaques in stores or at Etsy.com, but it’s easy to make your own with a paintbrush and stencil cutouts.
The options are endless: Sprinkle inspiring quotes from famous Pittsburgh athletes on one wall of your TV room or quotes from Pittsburgh authors on a wall near your favorite reading chair. Paint a wall with chalkboard paint and let family members inscribe an ever-changing array of their thoughts or favorite quotes for all to see.
For a fresh twist on a family tree, try stenciling the names and birth dates of each successive generation of your family down a staircase. Or, if you’ve moved or traveled often, stencil the names of cities you love along your stairs or on a wall amid framed photos.
What’s For Sale?
At WHO NEW? Retro Mod Decor on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, co-owner Jeff Gordon often sees customers’ faces light up when they recognize an item reminiscent of a piece from their childhood. With a bit of hunting at vintage decor stores and flea markets, you might find items that remind you of visits to your grandmother’s house or come across the same type of coffee pot or serving platter your mom used. Items from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s still are in circulation today because household goods were made to last back then, Gordon says.
Vintage barware and lighting fixtures are great ways to bring the flavor of past eras into your home, he says. Don’t worry about following rules of design. If an object brings some joy or whimsy into your home and you love it, you can mix it in with any decor.
Subjects You Love
For literally every facet of your history and interests, there is a fabric to match, says Bridget Lawson, showroom manager and designer at LOOM Exquisite Textiles in the Strip. If Paris is your favorite vacation destination, she suggests seeking out French floral prints, fabrics covered with French street maps or even “a stunning wallpaper mural of the Eiffel Tower.” Her online store stocks textiles themed with everything from “Downton Abbey” to “Star Trek” and “The Big Bang Theory.” You also can surf the web for fabrics from colleges you’ve attended or patterns that evoke your hobbies or ancestry.
At places such as Penhollows Design Center on South Highland Avenue in Shadyside, Pittsburghers find books that relate to their cultural history and personal passions. During the holidays, Penhollows design center manager Zach Mitchell says, “a gentleman came in whose grandfather was a long-time big-game hunter.” Mitchell helped him to find a book on big-game hunting in the American West with dramatic illustrations of game animals — an addition to the grandfather’s home that is a beautiful object as well as a celebration of a piece of his personal story.
Historical docs and pics
Celebrate local connections by adding old maps and historical photos from your Pittsburgh community to your home decor. John Schalcosky, president of the Ross Township Historical Society, says the University of Pittsburgh’s multimedia archive is a great place to start. You may find photos taken on the street where you grew up, perhaps even showing the house where you were raised. Other great research spots for photos and documents: The Heinz History Center’s Detre Library and Archives (sixth floor of the center) and the Depreciation Lands Museum in Hampton Township (appointments are needed to search its archives, but you’re welcome to photograph anything you find there).
As interest grows, more local organizations are heeding the call: The Historical Society of Mt. Lebanon recently has begun developing a plan for allowing residents to access their photo archive. Check lebohistory.org later in the spring or summer to learn when the archive will become accessible.
New Pittsburgh photos
There are so many incredible photographers in this city. Go to a showing at Silver Eye Center for Photography (1015 E. Carson St., South Side) or one of the many other galleries featuring local photography. When you find a photographer whose style speaks to you, or someone who has photographed your neighborhood or the towns where your parents grew up, ask if the work is available for private sale.
Pinterest overflows with ideas for turning broken, old ceramic pieces into beautiful mosaic tiles. Got talented friends who paint or sew? Even if they don’t generally craft as a business, ask if you may commission a custom-designed piece of their work.
Or try one of these projects yourself:
- Stitch pillow covers or quilts from your favorite old shirts and sweaters to keep pieces of your past nearby while turning them into stylish, colorful bits of decor. There’s lots of advice on Pinterest, or Shelly Picard of Neighborhood Blonde (neighborhoodblonde.com) can do it for you, as can Jen Primak at Upcycled Designs.
- Decoupage vintage comics or magazines that evoke your childhood or Pittsburgh’s history onto dishes, tabletops or other surfaces.
- Buy a map of the world that fits your style — from elegant and ornate to rustic and simple — and add pushpins or other markers to note the places you’ve been or where your ancestors once called home. (Or check out the many handmade versions that can be custom-designed on Etsy.)
Your Super-Stylish Pittsburgh Sports Room
Pittsburghers love to fill a family room with Steelers (or Penguins or Pirates, or all of the above) gear in celebration of their hometown teams. The challenge: decorating a sports-themed room that’s as stylish as the rest of your house. It may be tempting to “plaster your walls with Fat Head stickers of Crosby, McCutchen or Roethlisberger,” says Bridget Lawson of LOOM Exquisite Textiles. But “if your room isn’t going to be primarily inhabited by teenagers,” she says, there are much better ways “to keep your stylish Pittsburgh spirit alive.”
Lead designer Zach Mitchell of Penhollows agrees: “You can pay homage to the team without literally putting the Steelers everywhere,” he says. Mitchell and Lawson share this advice on how to create a room that’s full of team spirit but also beautiful.
Classy colors: “Easing the brightness of the Pittsburgh gold,” is a good idea, Lawson says. “Paint the walls a soft shade of gold. Not pastel but a saturated warm tone. Pair it with classic black and shades of grey.” Glidden Paints offers official paint colors for MLB, NFL and NHL teams for those who seek perfect accuracy. But its version of Pirates yellow is one of the brighter shades used by the team, so consider going with a mustard or a deeper gold from Bucs history.
Vintage swag: New, plastic memorabilia can look tacky. Hunt for old sports magazine covers or old books on football or baseball, or gather old ticket stubs and programs (preferably your own, but you can find them on eBay or at estate sales around Pittsburgh). Occasionally, old items such as stadium seats come up for sale at Construction Junction. Mitchell suggests adding “a vintage map of Pittsburgh framed on the wall,” perhaps from a particular era in Steelers or Pirates history, and “old photos of the steel industry.” These items are “a great way to pay tribute to your favorite team,” while keeping the style of the room classic.
Subtle fabrics: You can use fabrics in patterns that include your team’s colors without using a Steelers print. Add weathered brown leather upholstery on a couch or chair that evokes a football without being obvious, and your room is complete!