Thoughts on Home Décor

SAM BURNHAM

How a home is decorated communicates the essence of the people living there. Even the briefest of glances can give a visitor insight into the personalities, religion, family ties, perhaps even the political inclinations of the inhabitants. A closer look can tell that same visitor even more. People tend to take a special pride in how they decorate their home. A long glance at a particular item can initiate a conversation about its meaning and purpose, what it symbolizes, or why it is there at all.

While the décor of a home can make it a more inviting place to host visitors, that is not the primary reason people decorate. Visitors are not the people who spend every day in a home—the occupants are. How we decorate tends to communicate more about us to ourselves rather than to others. That is why the way we decorate our homes can be an important contributor to our well-being. Items are placed, pictures are hung, books are placed on a table; the inhabitants are those who appreciate them most.

A young teenager is more likely to hang a poster of a favorite band, movie, or recent vacation destination, because they identify with the scene portrayed. They may have pictures of cities they wish to visit or live in, sports teams they wish to play for, activities that bring them joy and fulfillment, cars they wish to own one day, or celebrities that serve as their heroes. These items, while often looked at with disdain by their parents, serve as daily reminders of life’s goals and accomplishments while also inspiring the dreams of the next generation. These are kids discovering who they are. They may, and probably will, outgrow this stage. Their taste in décor will mature as they do. The question is whether motivation of their décor changes with that taste.

Consider then our choices as adults. A home totally devoid of décor makes for a bleak existence. The thought of spending a day in a home of empty pale walls might seem like a neat and clean experience, but it leaves the inhabitant bored and uninspired. Likewise, an overdone décor, where there is too much for anyone to focus on any one thing, can leave the inhabitant with a similar feeling as the blank space.

Russell Kirk once wrote an essay on “What Pictures Do You Hang?” that made the case that how we decorate must be a thoughtful, conscious act, reflective both of our present but also of our aspirations, models, and history. That is why many homes of religious people have religious pictures: for reminder and comfort. Others may hang secular equivalents, but the reason is the same: to have the outer, physical presence mirror the values we want, or wish to aspire to, within.

That is where pictures come in. It is not a new idea to hang pictures on the wall. Research suggests that framed pictures date back at least as far as ancient Egypt. Landscapes, still life images, and portraits grace the walls of museums and castles. The most ordinary of places, items, and people have been captured in enduring and acclaimed art. Portraits of royalty offer us a window into the regal soul. These items feed our hunger for being, celebrating both the life we know as well as the life we might aspire to.

That window metaphor can be used for pictures in general. One of the most important displays of pictures might be from loved ones. Any walk through a grandmother’s parlor or kitchen is bound to turn up photos of her children and grandchildren. These are people in whom she takes pride. School portraits, Little League teams, dance recitals, graduation from schools or military training—all remind her of the people she loves, her legacy. They give her that feeling that her life has meant something to someone and that the world is a better place because of her. They offer her a window into the lives of those she loves. Their images catch her eye throughout the day and they bring a smile to her face. They offer that same window to a visiting friend who in turn learns about the many ways an individual delights her host.

Likewise, pictures of those who have passed on can inspire us. We can look to ancestors, recent and more distant, to remind us of where we came from, of lessons we have learned, and of what lessons we wish to pass on to the next generation. These pictures can be a teaching aid in passing down our familial heritage. An image of a grandfather or great-grandfather who was a successful businessman, worked honest days in a cotton mill, served our nation in battle, who thoroughly loved one woman all his life—these are the faces of heroes. There may be a picture of that uncle who served more as a father. There might be the first family member to come to America via the Mayflower or Ellis Island. These are more than images. They are stories that pair with a family’s history, passed down by the generations.

Without décor that reflects the past of those living in a home, families can be trapped by what Eliot called “the provincialism of time,” lost in a never-ending now. Having such pictures of distant or deceased family or friends can strengthen our own sense as part of a community of the living and the dead, and can support us from the temptations of the market or popular culture, which seek always to separate us from those connections. The hours that someone puts into genealogy research can be graciously rewarded by the discovery of a photo. To lay eyes on a face that goes with a name makes the experience more personal, more real. We connect with a face more than just a census record. And a picture in our home gives us that window through which we can connect with others.

For the same reasons that pictures hang in a museum of art or history, we benefit from pictures on our home walls. A walk though the galleries at Jamestown in Virginia or, on a smaller scale, at Wormsloe in Georgia offers many depictions of our beginnings. The first settlers, the Native Americans, the slaves, the nobility, even the places involved find a place on the walls. They provide a window into the heritage of diverse people who often find their heritage mingled with each group involved. These pictures tell us of our history in beautiful and inspiring art. A private collection can add this to a home and a home can be a better place for it.

A home can be where we make it. Making a home depends on much more than living inside of a structure. One way we can make a house a home is by adding beauty, history, heritage, familial pride, and an understanding of who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed. May we never take these windows for granted.  

Sam Burnham is the founder and curator of All the Biscuits in Georgia, an online journal that seeks to celebrate and preserve Southern history, culture, localism, and agrarian ideals. He is a recurring guest on multiple radio programs and has been published both online and in local newspapers. He is a longtime resident of Georgia and can be found on Twitter at @C_SamBurnham

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