A small decorating change can be good for your mood or self-esteem.

June 24, 2019

As we age, it’s easy to let our décor petrify. When you see a room that looks like a time capsule, it makes you wonder if its owner is stuck in time as well. Interiors need constant updating: often many things you own are fine, they just need a tweak to make them fresh.  A small decorating change can be good for your mood or self-esteem. Discover why decorating is a healthy hobby that’s good for your mental health.

Ardent redecorator Michelle Slatella, US blog Gardenista’s founding editor in chief, former New York Times columnist for the Style section, recently wrote in her WSJ design column on the subject – “you are never too old to freshen up the living room. I will decorate until I die.” Read more, ‘Melissa’s Ultimate Guide to Decorating.’

So should everyone, she advises. “A few days after my memorial service, when my daughters are cleaning out my cupboards the doorbell will ring.” “Where do you want this sofa?” a delivery man will ask, “Your mother ordered it a couple of weeks ago.” “There must be some mistake,” my daughter will say. “Why would a 100-year-old woman order a new sofa?” The delivery man will consult a clipboard: “Says here she did specify an express delivery.”

You don’t want to get stuck in the era you grew up in. We’re saying this because decorating is good for your mental health.

Historic Montecito Estate designed by Atelier AM,

Environmental psychologists, who study how physical space affects our well-being, know that different sofas will make us happy at various points in our lives.

The foldout futon that made us feel so grown up in our first apartment gets replaced a few years later by a family-friendly sectional, which in turn gives way to a leather Le Corbusier three-seater that the grandchildren are absolutely not allowed to sit on in their bathing suits.

“People try to paint a picture of themselves in their surroundings,” said Chicago-based psychologist Sally Augustin, author of “Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture.” “As you move through the stages of life, it’s natural to want to redecorate to reflect those changes.”

When you see a room that looks like a time capsule from an earlier era—whether it’s a kitchen with 1990s granite benchtops or a den with wall-to-wall shag carpeting—it makes you wonder if its owner is in a timewarp. People often fail to see what is good and bad in their homes. Blame sentimentality or sheer force of habit. Many people worry what other people will think.

Historic Montecito Estate designed by Atelier AM,

We’ve all had older relatives who stopped redecorating. A cautionary tale is that grandparents’ 1980s-era living room, which looks like a movie set from the 1950s: a lumpy, slipcovered sofa that never moved a centimetre in any direction on the cut-pile carpet. A rickety bookshelf weighed down by a collection of hard-bound Reader’s Digests. And a vacuum tube TV, hidden behind the double doors of a mahogany cabinet. No one has turned it on for years; if you wanted to watch television there was a portable set with rabbit ears in the kitchen. Read more, ‘a

Why don’t they redecorate? This often isn’t about money, and besides, it costs nothing to rearrange furniture. In fact, they can run a classified ad in the newspaper to sell the grand piano no one had played since my Aunt Tiffany grew up and moved away. That would have opened up space to move your grandmother’s plant stand, and 200 African violets, to a spot under the other window. It would have been refreshing.

But somewhere along the way people stop seeing the possibilities. Or maybe no one tells them redecorating can be fun. After all, when we talk about changing the design or décor in older people’s homes, the discussion tends to focus on depressing topics like the need for grab bars in the shower.

Environmental psychologists know that different sofas will make us happy at various points in our lives. Manhattan Pied-a-Terre designed by Atelier AM,

At any age people should make decorating changes for aesthetic as well as for practical reasons. Our physical sense of colour, smell and touch changes as we get older, which means things that looked and felt good to us when we are younger may not anymore. “The lenses in our eyes yellow as we age, so colours in spaces actually take on a tinge,” Dr. Augustin said.

“When you paint the walls white at 50, the colour might look lovely and crisp. But to an 85-year-old, those same walls might look not quite right.”

The solution? Paint the room a colour that looks good to you, said Dr. Augustin. “A small decorating change can be good for your happiness and wellbeing.”

Bel Air Residence designed by Atelier AM,

Michelle Slatella’s personal decorating hero, and friend, is someone who embodies this philosophy. Doris Fingerhood, a Manhattan-based interior designer who is 90 years old, got her start in the business in the 1940s and hasn’t stopped decorating since.  One of her first jobs was fixing up her aunt and uncle’s basement (on a budget of about $12) to make a space where she could have her teenage friends over. Read more, ‘The 50 Best Decorating Tips of All Time.’

These days, most of the business of her firm (which she named Doris LaPorte Associates after marrying her first husband 69 years ago), is to help clients redecorate homes whose interiors she originally designed decades ago.

Chicago Penthouse designed by Atelier AM,

Her approach to decorating has changed as she and her longtime clients have aged. But her frugality is prized even more by people whom she’s worked with for many decades.

“If the design was a thoughtful job and not a quickie, you can keep the bones,” she said.

“Sometimes a new piece of furniture or a painting is all a room needs to change the whole look.” However, she cautions, be ruthless about updating worn-out rugs, upholstery, and curtains. “Replace anything that looks old or seedy, because your home is a reflection of your own personality,” she says. Read more, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Decorating Your Home.’

Historic Montecito Estate designed by Atelier AM,

Ms. Fingerhood recently freshened up the Park Avenue living room of a client she’s had for more than 40 years. It only required a few tweaks. “She had antiques and good pieces she still liked, so all we did was reupholster the sofa and get a new Oriental rug,” she said. “I think since the rug was so much more beautiful than the old one, it changed the whole room. Also we got new cushions, and that made a big difference.” We love this concept. A sofa, rug and cushions can work wonders for a space. Read more, ‘This Is How To Keep Your Interior Looking Fresh, Not Dated.’

We constantly tweak our own rooms with small changes – I am thinking about new dining chairs or reupholstering our existing ones. Plus the possibility of new fabric for our vast sitting room window seat. I like the one we have, but it is beginning to look worn.

We add a painting to a bedroom and are amazed at the difference.

Add a new painting to a space to up the ante. Bel Air Residence designed by Atelier AM,

A Few Quick Tips

Work on developing a good strong eye. Ask friends with taste and no agenda over to pick out what you should discard or display.

Be on constant patrol to keep clutter out of your home. When people give you something you hate and will never use, return it to the shop or throw it out. If you buy something that is just plain wrong donate tit to a good cause and learn from your mistake. When you inherit stuff that will never be your soulmate, ring an auction house. Keep surfaces clear. Too many people think they can fix things by buying something new. That might be an emergency bookcase or sofa bed. Never buy anything on the run – they’ll end up irking you for decades.

Change one group of accessories. Replace one group of old, mismatched accessories with a new lot in your accent colour. New cushions,  a pair of great vases, artfully placed, will make your house look like you’ve spend a lot more than you have. Read more, ‘Decorating on a Budget: Insider Secrets.’

If you can’t afford an extension, mirror a wall, It’s the quickest way to enlarge a space.

Lighten colour schemes with paint and fabric. Have loose slip-covers whipped up in ecru cotton to lighten heavy chairs and sofas. Take up threadbare carpets and whitewash or ebonise floorboards. Take down heavy curtains and hang sheer drops of fabric. Buy some crisp bed linen. Pack away objects that have been gathering dust.

Malibu Residence designed by Atelier AM,

related stories


Don’t miss the style set’s fave newsletter

Get Melissa's weekly rundown of where top interior designers source their things and find inspiration - that will instantly transform your pad.

Close and please don't show again