Look around your home and I’m guessing that whatever your age or size of your abode there are pieces that have travelled with you from student places to forever spaces. Things that signify, to you, that you are home – in that peculiarly British sense of the word – meaning the emotion of comfort and belonging as much as the physical bricks and mortar. Today I thought I would outline some of those things so that you can start, or recognise, your own collection. I’m not talking about sofas and beds – of course we need those but they will change over time as taste and more importantly space permit. No, I’m talking about the rug that once spread out makes you feel you have truly moved in, the vase that, once on the shelf, means friends will know it’s your place. To employ an over-used phrase it’s sort of your desert island pieces but it’s a collection that can start at any time and carry on as long as you want.
1 AN ACCENT CHAIR
I say accent advisedly as it doesn’t have to be an armchair. And, as I said above, a sofa may be too big to move usefully with you but an accent chair can start off in a small sitting room, then move to the corner of a bedroom, or even find a home on a good-sized landing. Find one you like and keep it for as long as you need before you perhaps pass on to a child leaving home. It may have to be re-upholstered over the years and look quite different but it’s still your chair. Find one you like and love it forever.
2 A RUG
Big rugs are expensive but worth the investment and small rugs can always be layered up. I have two rugs I brought back from a year in Senegal (west Africa) that are now so threadbare they are used as throws but from the age of 22, they were laid on the floor of every flat I ever lived in. In fact, writing this has made me think I should make them into cushions as I still love them but they don’t really qualify as rugs any more. I do also have a small collection of Persian rugs variously acquired from family and shops that have also been in every house and every room.
3 A BIG MIRROR
Nearly 30 years ago when I was a journalism college in Darlington, I bought a huge mirror in a car boot sale. It had clearly once been attached to a piece of furniture – some sort of dresser or dressing table – but its lower half was long gone. It’s terribly heavy and for the following years in rented flats it had to be propped against the wall. But when we bought our first flat we were finally able to drill holes in the wall and fix it in place. Now it lives in the hall and is one of my most treasured possessions.
4 A PAIR OF CANDLESTICKS
It’s the small accessories like that this that are eminently portable and real signifiers of home. I don’t actually have a pair as such, but The Mad Husband has a wooden one he has had since he was a student and which currently lives on the kitchen table although it has been variously on the mantelpiece, the bedside table and in the bathroom.
5 A TABLE LAMP
A table lamp is another portable piece and one that, with a change of lampshade, can follow you faithfully from house to house and live in any room with a socket. We have a tall silver one that’s not dissimilar to a candlestick in style which is actually what makes it so versatile – it’s tall and narrow and doesn’t have a huge shade so it will fit into a small corner without needing too much space. I have another lamp – the much loved and now discontinued Habitat Spindle – but the shade is so huge that it takes up almost as much space as an armchair. This means it’s spectacular in a big room but is currently residing in the 20 yo’s room with the shade at its feet as we haven’t the space in the current layout arrangement.
6 A SIDE TABLE
Coffee tables can come and go according to the space available but there’s always room for a side table – especially if you fall in love with one that can double up as a stool so you always have extra seating. By the way, I use the phrase “fall in love” advisedly – these are pieces you buy for love not just necessity because they are the ingredients of your home. Without them you might just be in house. Unpacked and laid out it’s become your home.
7 A TRAY
A good tray is hard to find but so useful. It’s not just about carrying stuff from room to room but trays are so versatile. Stick one on top of an ugly rented table to hide it, style it with your favourite objects on any old coffee table or use it to keep your make-up or jewellery in one place. I’m still searching for the perfect tray – my Grandmother had a large round wooden one that was used for afternoon tea every day and I didn’t manage to get to it in time before the house clearance after her death. I have a number of other trays which I use every day but my perfect collector’s piece eludes me still.
8 A VASE
I was given a vase for my 21st birthday by my Grandmother. I imagine she felt it was one of those rite of passage presents. It was glass and very simple and she was right. A vase is always useful, never goes out of fashion and when filled with your favourite flowers or branches won’t fail to make even the dreariest of rooms feel jollier and more cared for.
9 A GREAT PIECE OF ART
Obviously this is very personal but by “great” I don’t mean expensive. It can be a framed poster of a gig you went to as a student or a postcard from your favourite holiday spot but the point is that art (as well as books) makes your home belong to you. It’s one of those personal signifiers as the Financial Times likes to call it and simply seeing it on the wall when you come back from work, holidays longer term travel will instantly make you feel that you have come home.
10 A SMALL, YET VERSATILE TABLE
As a teenager, we lived in a small house with a small kitchen table made from antique pine that my mother had picked up at a local junk shop. When we moved to a slightly larger place, it was in the spare bedroom with the sewing machine on it before ending up in another kitchen in another house. Eventually, after a few years in the garage wilderness, I took it for my first rented London flat where it was our dining table in the corner of the sitting room. Later it became a desk – for me and later for my sons. An incredibly useful piece of furniture it was in use for nearly 40 years before we eventually passed it on as neither boy (at the time) wanted it in their rooms. A decision I feel sure they will come to regret as their start to furnish their own homes over the next few years but sometimes there just isn’t the space to store things for “one day”.
One more? Don’t rule out a set of cushions that you love. Some of mine are over 18 years old – they don’t tend to wear out although these are a little threadbare – and again they can make every rented sofa familiar. The other thing you will notice about this collection is that all the pieces (with perhaps the exception of the last one – the small table) can fit together to create the perfect corner so should you find yourself in shared accommodation you could create your own personal corner either in a sitting room or in the corner of a bedroom but as you move so the pieces can spread out around a bigger house or come back together in a smaller one.
What a lovely post – I felt rather emotional reading it along with the other comments. Certainly a lot to think about, particularly the sense of items gathering meaning in their journey through your life. A welcome antidote when things can do often be seen as disposable
When I think about the pieces that my husband and I have dragged from place to place, it’s all about the stories. The china hutch that we “liberated” from a house the night before the bulldozers showed up. The stupidly heavy, overdyed sarouk rug that the shop owner let us take a year to pay for, because he remembered being a broke college kid. The art done by my husband’s parents’ best friends. The little brass swinging candle holder that my husband adores.
The stories outlive the changes in taste, style, and size of house.
Thanks Kate. This is so thoughtful and wise. I have all these things, but although I have considered and remembered their origin and journey through my flats and houses, I’ve never thought about them collectively. I think I am going to go away and compile my own list of objects, as I am obsessed with the objects in my home telling a story.
Many years ago when we were selling our flat in Edinburgh it was featured in a tv property programme (not the famous one, a cheaper copy!). The people on the show didn’t want to buy our flat as it didn’t meet their requirements. But the couple said it felt like a lovely welcoming home. That was the best compliment anyone could have given me.
Rugs – I’m so glad someone discusses their importance not just for home keeping purposes but also for their sentimental value. We have a collection of rugs from all of the countries where we’ve lived and travelled. As we plan our new home, the rugs are actually the starting point that the rooms are planned around.