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My Mother's Home
Sarah Van Arsdale

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but maybe it isn’t impossible to judge a person by her home.

Or so I have thought since my mother died.

My mother was in her late seventies, but, as I like to tell anyone who will listen, she was a very young 77, just as she was a young 76, 75, 74, etc. In fact, one reason her illness and death took me by such surprise was because she just didn’t fit the stereotype of the grandmotherly lady, with her hair curled and blued, sitting in her easy chair in front of the TV.

Nor did her home fit the stereotype. First of all, in her later years, she moved more than a few times – always of her own volition – so her home didn’t have the stuffy feeling that anyone’s home can get after accumulating season after season of books, tchotchkes, furniture, etc. Each time she moved, she would divest herself of a few items that she didn’t absolutely love, so each time she settled in to a new place, the belongings in it were pared down to the essentials that best reflected who she was.

Second, she steadfastly refused to conform to just about anything, but especially to other people’s expectations of what an older person should or should not do. For one thing, she kept working as a freelance photographer, until, at 76, her illness made this impossible. At 75, she was just beginning to suspect that people might not hire her because of her age, "but the hell with them," she said.

I am convinced that what kept her so young was her continuing curiosity about the world, and her willingness to change.

And this is what kept her home alive and young, too. When she moved into her last home, at about 73 years old, she had the carpet ripped out of the living room and installed big white tiles instead. A white sofa, a woven white rug, and white chairs completed the room, but rather than looking sterile, it looked bright and sunny, even on the cloudiest days. Furthermore, the room wasn’t just static white: the white just provided a neutral background for the bright spots of color which were the interior focal points of the room: a framed bright blue painting by my sister, a multi-colored woven felt bowl on a shelf, and of course her colorful worm collection.

Worm collection? Worm collection. "I honestly cannot stand to get one more bar of Lily of the Valley soap or another pair of gloves," she complained to me one year in preparation for the annual Christmas shopping debacle. "I’m going to start a collection of something impossible to buy for."

Within a few years, she had some stunning worms, ceramic, rubber, even the prize worm of the group, a gold worm on a little wooden stand.

The real centerpiece of the living room, however, was the view through the sliding glass doors. My mother knew that by keeping the interior simple and neutral, a guest’s eye would be drawn to the view, and the sightline would be fairly uninterrupted. And she knew that the natural world could provide a far better décor than the best interior designer.

But what made my mother’s home so great was that it was truly a reflection of her own unique way of seeing the world, and that, I think, is the lesson she taught me about interior design.
There’s something frightening to me in walking into someone’s home and realizing I know nothing more about them than I did when I was outside ringing the buzzer. A non-descript sofa, a coffee table, a lamp. A dining table the likes of which I’ve seen hundreds of times over, in fancy catalogues or furniture bargain barns. And perhaps most telling (or not telling, that is): no books.

What has led us to this way of life, in which even our homes don’t reflect our personalities? Is it the relentless advertising, and our belief that the taste-makers who produce the design magazine and who do the buying for the big national furniture chains know better than we do?

Design techniques can be learned: just look at the thousands of Sheffield graduates who have gone on to improve people’s homes. But what’s trickier is learning how to make your own place truly your own.

And ultimately, I think, that means being curious, and taking risks, and being willing to change – qualities my mother had in spades. Maybe tiling a living room floor with white tiles is too expensive a risk (especially if you have small children or large pets). But why not break out of the mold, and ask yourself what it is you really love, and then surround yourself with only those things? Go ahead: frame the drawing your nephew made, or the watercolor you yourself painted. If you prefer sitting on cushions on the floor to having a sofa, ditch the couch and start stuffing. If you don’t like curtains, don’t put them up. Break the rules, and follow your own design sense.

These qualities of my mother’s kept her young, and I only wish they had been enough to also keep her alive, because I can only imagine how she would have startled people at 87.

And may you too – at 77, or 45, or 28 – defy the conventions of your age, and follow your own unique vision for your home, your work, and your life. That my New Year’s Wish for all our readers.

Sarah Van Arsdale is a Senior Editor with the Sheffield School of Interior Design. Reprinted with permission from the New York Institute of Photography website at