How to Tastefully Update a Period Home for Contemporary Living

Period homes (generally defined as any home built before WWI) tend to have high ceilings, beautiful detailing, and architectural features you don’t often see in new homes.

For many homebuyers, the creaks, the cracks, and the repair costs of a period home are well worth it.

You might wonder how an interior designer like myself would approach a historic property. I think it’s disturbing to obliterate the interior and redecorate in a minimalist style. Of course, there’s no need to turn your house into a museum, either.

Here are some tips for decorating a period home in a way that’s sympathetic to the house’s history but still looks current:

Start by doing research on how homes in the period were originally decorated, then pick and choose the elements that look the most timeless. Don’t be afraid to use soft, contemporary paint colors in a Victorian house. If you use saturated wall paint colors, keep the period detailing (such as the cornicing) in more understated tones for contrast.

One of the advantages of period homes is the high ceilings. You will probably want a large lighting fixture, such as a chandelier, to take advantage of the extra height. On the other hand, one downside to period homes is that they sometimes have dark, narrow hallways. Hang mirrors in hallways to reflect more light into the space.

When it comes to furnishings, I think juxtaposing modern and traditional elements is best. If you’re using traditional art and wallpaper patterns, mix contemporary furniture into the room. The simple lines of the furniture will stand out beautifully against the traditional backdrop. Likewise, if you use a lot of antique furniture, you may want to use updated colors for the walls and contemporary art, which adds an element of surprise.

An alternative to buying a period home is to work with a classically trained architect (like Larry Boerder, Richard Drummond Davis, or Robbie Fusch, to name a few), who can build you a new home in a period style.

If you already own a period home and need help deciding which parts should be kept as is, restored, or torn out, it might be time to consult an interior designer. A professional designer can help ensure your renovation doesn’t go too far and will have connections with lots of restoration experts who can help breathe new life into the home.

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Margaret Chambers

Margaret Chambers, a registered interior designer (RID) and member of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), leads Chambers Interiors and Associates. Her colleague Caitlin Crowley helped edit this column. Find more design advice at

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