You are here

Designers Share Their Mothers' Best Design Advice

They got it from their mamas

Written by Anna Logan

There’s no stronger memory than your childhood home. Close your eyes. You can still picture your childhood bedroom, or how your mother decorated the living room. Years spent in that space impact how you move forward in the world of design.

Taste and design skill are fostered over years of practice, but many inclinations, like color preference, are second nature. Others, like how many pillows truly belong on a bed, are learned. Many are a combination—but it’s hard to forget your first impression of design rules.

In celebration of Mother’s Day, we turned to three designers with amazing taste to pilfer advice from their first design mentor: their mothers. These tid-bits were oft spouted out while children ran amuck through the house—but, they stuck with the designers and have impacted the work they continue to do today.

Simple Elegance

Mothers remind us to pace ourselves. Don’t eat too fast. Don’t run so much. Don’t ruin your dinner by snacking too much. Good designers must take this same even keeled approach to decorating a room.

“During my childhood, my mother always stressed that the simplest things were usually the most elegant,” says Paloma Contreras. The Houston-based designer learned early on that layering and maximizing space takes a deft hand.

“Hearing that during my formative years encouraged me to pay attention to detail and taught me the power of editing at a young age,” she says.  “Sometimes what you leave out of a space can be as impactful as what you put into it.”

Contreras with her mother in 1983.

There are a few rules to make a home seem elegant. Don’t over decorate. Blue is always a safe choice. Fresh flowers make a happy home.

The last piece of advice comes with a stipulation from Manhattan based designer Thomas Jayne. His mother always warned him to “never put flowers in a dirty house,” he says. “My mother had many pieces of advice about how to live and arrange one’s home,” but only the most memorable have stuck with him over the years. The biggest piece, perhaps, was an adage on décor and decorum.

Good manners, good design

“Good manners make people feel comfortable, and this idea carries over to how one should arrange their rooms,” Jayne often remembers his mother saying.

Thomas Jayne with his mother.

Jayne, always the best dressed in any room with his friendly smile and fresh suit, is the king of good manners. It only follows suit that those good graces would flow into his design philosophy.

Good design manners are as simple as making your clients or guests feel comfortable in their home. A comfortable living room is a must for Jayne—valuing above all else the privacy it brings, he says.

The key to a well-designed home then would be a comfortable and clean space flush with flowers—but, greenery shouldn’t extend to only the flowers. “Green is a neutral color,” Jayne’s mother insisted.  

The love of that iconic shamrock shade can be seen throughout Jayne’s portfolio of work—especially in his latest book, “Classical Principles for Modern Design: Lessons from Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman.”

True design aficionados might recognize those names as the writers of “The Decoration of Houses,” the 1897 book that was the ultimate guidebook to home decor, revered in an almost religious sense by designers.

Jayne’s book, on stands now, interprets the 1897 codification of good design in a modern sense. He illustrates his points with classic photos and photos of his own modern designs, like the images below with his mother’s favorite neutral color on full display.

This classically designed room appears in Jayne's new book and illustrates his love for green

Item Iconoclast

In many households, there was a definitive distinction between pieces for everyday use and pieces for celebration. Arbitrary dictations, like using the silver only on special occasions or breaking out the set of china for holidays, ruled the roost.

Not so for designer Danielle D. Rollins. Her mother, Jan Deaton, imparted a practical and rule-breaking sense that items are meant to be used. “No matter how precious an object is, if it’s not used in a relaxed and easy manner, it’s not worth having,” Rollins recalls her mother saying.

Designer Danielle D. Rollins

Her mother was quite ahead of her time in this aspect. Iconoclastic in her disregard for the idea that certain items are too holy for everyday, Deaton believed that “items are meant to be used, not revered.”

Danielle Rollins makes sure to use her fine china and dinnerware all the time, taking her mother’s advice to heart that décor is meant to be used.

Rollins, the graceful hostess that she is, will often breakout the “good” china for a simple dinner party. Embracing the idea that life should be celebrated every day, we could all take a note from Deaton and use the beauty around us instead of hiding it away for special occasions.

From all of us at Traditional Home, Happy Mother’s Day to the women in our lives who helped make us better people and better decorators.