In 1975, my father traveled to Iowa City to spend a weekend with a fraternity brother and his family. During the visit, he came across a buffet that the family was throwing away. There appeared to be no damage, and the asking price was a whopping $50. The buffet had been in the family for three generations, so it was strange that this valuable heirloom was being discarded. My father decided then and there to restore the piece to its original glory, carefully refinishing it with mahogany stain.
My entire childhood, this antique buffet was the focal point of our living room. I have vivid memories of my father arriving home from work to perform his evening ritual of pouring a drink from the cognac set displayed on the buffet. Behind its cupboard doors, generations of family table linens and crystal candle holders lived. The right-hand drawer housed our candle snuffer, an object of pride each time I was deemed mature enough to extinguish the candles after dinner.
When I moved out to a place of my own, I was gifted the buffet. I knew exactly how I wanted to give it new life and blend the piece with my own aesthetic. With the help of my father, a master in refinishing furniture, we stripped the mahogany stain to reveal beautiful burl oak veneer. I was so in love with the natural wood grain that I decided a simple coat of polyurethane was all it needed. New knobs incorporated my quirky style, which I recently updated yet again to reflect my evolving taste.
Since then, the buffet has been a part of all my homes in four different states. It served as a TV stand in earlier years, and has now been repurposed to its original function as a bar/dining cabinet. Guests always ask about its rich history and are charmed by the story behind it.
A house filled with history and items you adore is what makes a home cozy and comfortable. So how do you incorporate family heirlooms into your own house?
- Refinish/repair to your own aesthetic. So many antiques have the signs of wear and tear that show their age. Breathe new life into your piece by refinishing it in a way that will fit your style. You’ll never be happy with something that is a perfect replica of the original, but sticks out like a sore thumb in your home.
- Repurpose. You don’t have to limit yourself to the original function of the piece. If you have a nice, sturdy table, why not attach casters and use it as a kitchen island? Or turn a small book case into an oasis for your house plants, or an open wardrobe.
- Don’t force it. Let the original design of the piece shine through. You can still do this while balancing a vintage piece with contemporary décor, or updating old upholstery with bold fabric. Have fun with it!
Writing and Photos by Anna Vining