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Echoes of the Past: Contemporary Designs for Historic Residences

The high gloss blue-green walls in this room by Caroline Riddell Interiors
Caroline Riddell Interiors

The rich tapestry of history is woven not just in grand monuments and battlefields, but also in the intimate spaces of our historic residences and heritage buildings. Whether you’re transforming a charming Romanesque farmhouse, renovating a dilapidated château, or breathing life into a Fachwerk townhouse, these structures hold a unique character waiting to be unlocked. But marrying modern functionality with the soul of a bygone era requires a thoughtful approach. Here’s my guide to navigating the exciting world of interior design for a heritage building:

You’ve acquired a slice of history – a charming heritage building with character etched in every brick and beam – anything from medieval to Heimatstil. Now comes the exciting part: transforming it into a functional and beautiful space that respects its past while embracing the present. But where do you even begin? Fear not, history custodian! Here’s your guide to navigating the unique world of interior design for historic buildings.

Heritage home kitchen with modern touch
Bruce Hemming Photography

1. Respectful Research

Before a single paintbrush touches a wall, delve into your historic residences history. Research its architectural style, period of construction, and past uses. Was it a grand townhouse, a bustling marketplace, a serene monastery, or are you about to uncover an original Bauhaus? Understanding its story will inform your design choices and ensure you enhance, not erase, its architectural character.

Collect information by searching local archives, consulting with historians, or simply chatting to older residents who might hold forgotten memories. Whether it’s a neoclassical suburban villa or fashionable Jugendstil masterpiece, the knowledge you accumulate will become a foundation for many design decisions and might reveal some hidden inspiration.

Try to keep an open mind around interior design at this stage. It’s easy to get fixated on a particular style and miss out on what the building is trying to tell you. So, gather all the information; decide on the practical needs; then combine the two in your plans.

2. Consult with the Experts

At the same time as researching the history you’ll need to find out the legality of what you’re about to do. Some historic residences and heritage buildings are listed as national monuments, where every inch is protected or prescribed as to what you can and cannot do, even down to the color of paint you use.

Even many of the less notable heritage buildings come with some regulations and restrictions. Partner with a qualified heritage architect or interior designer familiar with the specific preservation guidelines in your region. They’ll help you navigate complex legalities, identify original architectural elements worth highlighting, and recommend reputable restoration specialists if needed. Mistakes at this stage can be wildly expensive to restore later so be thorough.

3. Embrace the Existing: Highlight Architectural Gems

Once you’ve got the legalities in place it’s time to identify exactly what you’ve got. Heritage buildings often boast architectural treasures – ornate moldings, exposed beams, frescoed ceilings, or stunning fireplaces. These elements are the stars of the show. Don’t hide them behind bulky furniture or jarring colors. Instead, use subtle lighting to accentuate their beauty. Consider built-in cabinetry that complements existing details or strategically placed furniture that frames a focal point.

Be prepared for hidden features to appear from behind false ceilings or plasterboard when work begins. One of the toughest challenges of interior design in an historic property is having the ability to quickly adapt design plans to suit newly revealed gems.

European Old World historic residences living room with contemporary furniture and lighting
Jean Stoffer Design

4. Breathe New Life into Historic Residences with Conservation

Some elements are going to require restoration. Approach this with respect for the original craftsmanship, and use specialist, skilled heritage tradespeople (local if you can find them). For instance, chipped plasterwork can be repaired with traditional techniques to retain its character – it doesn’t have to be replaced. An uncovered scrap of old wallpaper could be framed to make a unique in situ artwork. Don’t be afraid of the marks of time – they add depth and tell the story of this home.

A good tip when working on any heritage property is to keep everything you rip out – it might come in useful elsewhere.

5. Material Magic: Blending Old and New

Unless you want to live in a museum, the key to successful heritage interior design lies in creating a harmonious dialogue between the old and the new. For the main surfaces opt for natural materials like stone, wood, and metals that echo the building’s inherent solidity and give you the perfect canvas for your design. If you can’t exactly match the original materials don’t be afraid to directly contrast new against old, rather than try to fake it.

Flooring: Original floorboards can be sanded and revarnished, revealing the warm glow of aged wood. If replacements are necessary, choose reclaimed wood that complements the existing style. Stone floors, a common feature in many old buildings, can be deep cleaned and polished to a timeless shine.

Walls: Exposed brick or stone walls add texture and warmth. If plasterwork is present, consider restoring it to its former glory. Paint colors should be chosen carefully. Opt for subtle, muted tones that won’t compete with the architectural details. Look at the buried layers of paint and paper for inspiration – you might uncover something remarkable.

Windows: Don’t replace historic windows with modern alternatives – it usually looks awful. Invest in proper restoration to maintain their character and energy efficiency or get a joiner to build new windows using the original design.

Natural light is a gift, especially in older buildings. Maximize it by cleaning and restoring original windows where you can. Gothic and art deco designs often use stained glass, maybe you can recreate this feature. Consider discreet placement of skylights or strategically placed mirrors to enhance light flow.

6. A Palette of the Past with a Modern Twist

Heritage buildings often have a natural color palette – think muted tones reminiscent of aged stone and weathered wood. You can use these as a base, adding pops of color that speak to the building’s history or the surrounding landscape. For instance, a Tuscan farmhouse might benefit from terracotta accents that echo the local pottery, while a Venetian palazzo could incorporate pops of teal that reflect the canals. Look outside as well as inside for ideas.

Heritage and contemporary living room with wooden ceiling and modern furniture
Decoholic Home Decorations

7. Finding Furniture: A Curated Collection

Furnishing a heritage building requires a curated approach. Here’s where your research comes into play. Did your building have a specific historical period? Look for antique or vintage pieces that complement that era. You don’t need to swamp the rooms with antiques, just a few nods to that era will look great.

Don’t be afraid to introduce a touch of modern minimalism. Sleek lines and clean silhouettes can create a pleasing contrast with the ornate architectural details and highlight original features.

Furniture selection is a conversation between past and present. Vintage pieces add a touch of history, while modern furniture provides clean lines and functionality. Consider reupholstering classic pieces to update their look and ensure comfort. Mix textures and materials – a sleek leather sofa can sit harmoniously next to an upcycled rustic wooden coffee table.

8. Textiles that Tell a Story

Fabrics can add warmth and personality to your space. Consider luxurious fabrics like velvet or silk for upholstery and throws, especially if your building has a more opulent past. Explore traditional patterns or local artisan textiles to add a touch of regional character to rustic homes.

Texture adds visual interest and depth. Incorporate natural materials that complement the building’s age. Stone, wood, and brick floors offer a timeless foundation. Woven textiles like linen and wool add warmth and texture, while exposed brick walls or natural stone accents create a connection to the building’s raw materials.

9. Lighting the Way: Modern Solutions with a Historic Touch

Lighting plays a crucial role in creating atmosphere. Use a combination of ambient, task, and accent lighting to showcase architectural details and create different moods. Consider restoring original sconces or chandeliers, or incorporate modern lighting solutions that echo historical styles. Track lighting can be cleverly disguised behind beams to highlight artwork or focal points.

When it comes to artificial lighting, choose fixtures that complement the architectural style or can be hidden away. Scour brocantes and Flohmarkts for chandeliers and wall sconces to add a touch of period charm, while modern recessed lighting can discreetly illuminate specific areas.

black and white checkered flooring
Architectural Digest

10. Art that Reflects the Past

Artwork can further connect your interiors to the building’s history. Try to find antique prints, tapestries, or sculptures that reflect the period or region. Modern abstract pieces can also work if they complement the existing architectural elements through color or texture.

Accessories elevate a space and tell a story. Incorporate vintage finds like antique maps or family heirlooms that connect to the building’s history. Locally sourced crafts and artwork can add a touch of personality and reflect the region’s cultural heritage.

11. Embrace Imperfections: Celebrating the Passage of Time

Don’t shy away from the building’s imperfections. Minor cracks, slight unevenness, or signs of wear and tear add character and tell a story. Embrace these imperfections as a testament to the building’s rich history.

Don’t worry about creating a little tension. A juxtaposition of modern and historical elements can be visually stimulating. A contemporary abstract painting might find its perfect home on a centuries-old stone wall. A sleek chrome lamp could add a touch of modern elegance to a rustic space. The key is to ensure the contrasting elements complement each other, not clash.

12. Modern Amenities with a Discreet Touch

Heritage buildings need modern conveniences too. The key is integrating them discreetly. Pick under-floor heating for a comfortable yet invisible solution. Modern appliances can be tucked away behind custom cabinetry that matches the existing style.

While respecting the past, don’t feel obligated to recreate a period setting. Modern appliances are essential for comfortable living. Strategically placed power outlets can accommodate contemporary gadgets without compromising aesthetics.

If you can’t hide it, showcase it: There’s no such thing as a Baroque or Renaissance shower room, so retain what exists and install ultra-modern sanitary ware for a truly chic effect.

historic residences with contemporary wood tones in a heritage house kitchen
The fox group

13. A Final Note for Historic Residences: A Sustainable Choice

Restoring and repurposing historic residences is a sustainable design choice in itself. You’re preserving a piece of history while minimizing the environmental impact of new construction.

Work with a team of specialists – architects, conservators, and experienced interior designers – who understand the intricacies of heritage buildings and will help you obtain necessary permits before making any structural changes.

Prioritize sustainable practices – use energy-efficient lighting, locally sourced materials when possible, and consider upcycling vintage pieces.

Conclusion: Your Dream Awaits

The process of designing a heritage building interior can be an enriching journey. By respecting the past and embracing the present, you’ll add to the legacy for future custodians.

By following these tips, you can breathe new life into a heritage building, creating a space that honors its past while embracing the future. You’ll not only be creating a beautiful and functional home, but also become a custodian of history, ensuring this legacy lives on for future generations.

“An interior should be informed by the life that is lived in it.”
– Sandra Hinton, Founder –