How To Choose Furniture For Your Heritage Home

Editorial By: Johanne Yakula | Photography By: Dr. Christopher Cooper

Restoring the “envelope” of an historic building requires many skills. Not only does the restorer need to know about the various trades, but must also approach them from a historical perspective. A successful restoration is one in which the building appears as it has always existed exactly as the onlooker sees it. In spite of the amount of work such a project can entail, however, eventually the building becomes a backdrop for the “softer” elements of interior decorating. Such is true of window treatments, wall coverings and paint techniques, accessories and furniture.

Choosing furniture that is appropriate to a restored building requires an understanding of historical styles, furniture basics and scale. Before you begin, however, there are two questions you must answer:

What was the socio economic status of the original owner? Was the original owner a prosperous business leader or a modest farmer? What is there about the house that would lead you to believe that? The answer will act as a guideline in your making your choices. As a board member of our Municipal Historic Designation panel, I often see homes “restored” way beyond the original house because the owners had the money to do so. There is a strong allure to making a house “better” than it was by adding superfluous details.

What year will you choose as your “set” year? A set year is the year you choose as the benchmark for decorating your home if your intention is to recreate a specific era. Just as we do today, our ancestors acquired their furniture over many years. The set year identifies the latest year in which furnishings would have been bought for the home. I was given the opportunity a couple of years ago to create a parlour setting in a 1905 house for a documentary. I chose 1915 as my benchmark and used furniture from 1870 1915.

You are now ready to do your research. Your task is to determine the types of furniture that were available to the owners of your home in your set year. Consider style, wood type, and color of stain or paint. Adapt old pieces for 21st century needs but do so in a way that does not destroy the value of the original piece. A reproduction is a better alternative if a piece requires serious alteration, and may prove to be a good choice in those situations where very little authentic furniture is available. Be sensitive to the size and look of the early pieces when having furniture custom made and refrain from creating faked ageing on these new pieces. Don’t overdo — it simply isn’t authentic.

The type of furniture you place in a room will be influenced by the room’s “gender”. Victorians were fond of ascribing masculine or feminine characteristics to certain rooms. The latter included the front and back parlour, children’s rooms and nursery, and guest bedrooms, and the former, the dining room, entrance, den, library and “master” bedroom. The 1920’s era is a treasure trove of revival styles from the heavy, masculine, carved Tudor styles to the feminine Rococo with its curves and gilt wood.

Living with antiques or purchasing appropriate reproductions and successfully incorporating them into your heritage home also requires an understanding of scale. Scale is the relationship between an object and its immediate or broader environment. A massive, dark oak breakfront heavily carved with birds and heraldic images is more at home in a large room with beamed ceilings such as a library or den, than in a delicate gold and white bedroom. A distressed leather wing chair is in scale with the oak piece, whereas a curvy parlour chair will suit the style and scale of the bedroom.

There are many sources you can access in your research. Libraries, house museums, archival photographs, restoration workshops, antique dealers, and other heritage homeowners will all provide you with information or advice about furniture that is most appropriate for your heritage building. If authenticity is important to you, request a guarantee of age and provenance (if available) from the seller.

If the thought of research and dealing with the various sources sounds too much like work, consider hiring a Heritage Home Design Consultant. Ask for references and discuss the types of heritage projects the Consultant has been involved with.

Successfully incorporating the right furniture in the right space will have the same effect as a successful exterior restoration the furniture will look as if it has always belonged exactly where you placed it.

Side bar:

Here are a few tips to help you deal with the issue of scale:

If you have several smaller pieces, “mass” the pieces together. Leave empty space around the grouping. The eye will read the grouping as a whole and it will have more impact.

If the furniture piece appears too large for the room, do the same. Leave blank space around it, and don’t add small pieces that are out of scale.

If you are trying to add visual weight to a piece of upholstered furniture use a bolder pattern or brighter color. If you are trying to minimize the size of the piece, do the opposite. Choose a fabric covering that is the same colour as the wall.

Make sure you have one piece that acts as a focal pint in each room. Usually the tallest piece of furniture or the fireplace creates this distinction.

If you have several furniture pieces with legs, “anchor” them by placing an area rug beneath them.

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