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How Interior Designers Furnish Historic Homes for Modern Life

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It’s all about subtly acknowledging the building’s past

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

A few weeks ago, after speaking with architects about how they update the layouts of older houses for modern lifestyles, we started thinking: Isn’t the architecture and layout of the house only part of the story? A house is its structure, of course, but it’s made personal, at least in part, through its furnishings.

So the particular task of outfitting an older home presents its own challenge: honoring the history of the space while also fitting each room for the needs of a 21st-century family. How do interior designers tackle this challenge? We set out to get some answers.

We spoke first to interior designer Sarah Magness, of Magness Design, who says she always considers the building’s history to help inspire her approach to the space. For a circa-1910 Mediterranean-style mansion about 60 miles east of New York City, she immediately looked to the house's past to inform its future. "The house was built for an opera singer, and the ballroom was a space where he gave concerts," Magness said. In the early 1920s, the house was featured in House & Garden magazine. "We had all of these black and white photos of what the ballroom originally looked like," she said. "Its furnishings were very austere."

Magness’s design scheme for the grandly proportioned space involved splitting the ballroom up into three seating areas to make the room more relaxed and intimate. But one aspect of the room remained constant: "The new owner plays the piano and has a really beautiful Steinway from about 1892—we made sure to put the piano in that room," Magness said. "I wanted to maintain the idea of the room as a concert space."

Something similar can be said of New York-based interior designer Garrow Kedigian, who thrives on prewar details: "When you walk through an old space, you can spot certain parameters for why you are attracted to it—its character and its charm," says Kedigian. "The trick for me is identifying those elements that give a place its character. I make sure to preserve and protect them."

For Kedigian, who recently completed a large-scale renovation of his Neo-Georgian vacation home in Montreal, that meant furnishing the house with items that have a "streamlined traditional aesthetic." His style is a mix of modern pieces—like a glass-topped dining room table—and more traditional ones, like upholstered chairs with carved wooden legs and a fringed banquette. "You should never design a room entirely in an old style—that’s too stiff and forced," says the designer. "A lot of the furniture in my house is indeed classically inspired, but the pieces are new interpretations of classical language."

Sometimes older houses, though, are replete with beautifully carved decorations. Both designers integrate them into a balanced decorative scheme with more reserved furnishings. When Sarah Magness is faced with the task of complimenting opulent moldings with decor, she lets the architecture speak for itself. "I see those ornate details as the jewelry of the house," says Magness. "That’s the wow-factor of the space, so I make sure the furnishings are more subdued to complement the decorative elements of the house. And vice versa! If the house is more modern, I might introduce opulence through the furniture."

The relationship between architecture and interior design can be daunting to approach, especially when the existing woodwork is intricate and overwhelming, like a project Kedigian took on in Manhattan's famous Ansonia apartment building, built in 1904. The apartment was rife with molding, he told us. "Traditionally, everything would have been painted different colors, but that creates a fussy space."

Kedigian decided to apply a singular color scheme to the woodwork to simultaneously unify and tone down the decorative moldings. "By applying a singular color tone to the room, we reeled back the opulence a bit."

Similar to architects approaching the renovation of a historic home, interior designers look to honor the past life of a space while accommodating the 21st-century needs of their client. "In today’s modern world of living, the way people connect and socialize in a space is completely different from the way it was in the past, especially the Gilded Age" says Magness. "Today’s client appreciates quality and beautiful craftsmanship, but they don’t live nearly as formally as before."

And while, quite understandably, the satisfaction of the client is of central importance during these renovations, we can’t help but appreciate that the house—and its history—shares in the attention: "I always say for any house that I work on that I hope the house breathes a sigh of relief when we’re done," said Magness. "It’s almost as if the house says ‘Thank you. You brought me back to what I was supposed to be.’"