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Book Club

Nina Farmer Boils Down How to Retrofit Historic Homes for 21st-Century Lives

Words by Nina Farmer

With our Book Club series, we hand over the proverbial mic to our Experts—letting them share their work, their thought process, and their best tips, all in their own words. The following is an excerpt from Nina Farmer’s Timeless By Design, published this month with Rizzoli.

a living room filled with furniture and a painting on the wall

Reprinted from © TIMELESS BY DESIGN, by Nina Farmer, Rizzoli New York, 2023. Photography by David Mitchell.

No matter how much my designs for historic houses are borne out of a deeply felt desire to honor the past, I am always guided by the knowledge that I am creating space for busy twenty-first-century families living busy twenty-first century lives.

The interiors I create must make it easy for them to feel at home in the current day and age. Our homes are our most personal, sacred places, where we make some of our greatest memories, celebrate life’s milestones, and host our closest friends and family. No one wants an interior that asks them to play second fiddle to centuries-old architecture. A historic home has to work in harmony with its current occupants’ needs, just as it did with those of its original residents.

The best strategy for making that possible, I’ve found, is to have an open mind. Considering (and reconsidering), evaluating (and reevaluating) what history has given helps me to identify opportunities instead of challenges, and to see inspiring details and charming quirks instead of hard-to-overcome oddities. Out of these discovered opportunities can come the creative, contemporary design and decorating solutions that bridge a house from the past to the present, and carry it into the future.

a kitchen with a stove, sink, and a window

Reprinted from © TIMELESS BY DESIGN, by Nina Farmer, Rizzoli New York, 2023. Photography by David Mitchell.

Making Space

If you were to preserve the original purpose of every space in a historic home, you’d probably find yourself furnishing rooms just to collect dust. The drawing room. The parlor. The ballroom. Even without a conservatory or a billiard room, the floor plans of older houses can sometimes feel like a Clue game board—not particularly well suited for how we live now.

When I start a project, I like to remain open to rethinking what these most traditional of rooms might become and how they might function. It takes more than a little bit of imagination and energy, but it’s worth it. The alternative—gutting a building entirely to create a completely new series of spaces—means sacrificing original detailing, character, and atmosphere you’ll be hard-pressed to re-create. You end up losing much of what likely attracted you to the historic building in the first place.

Instead, I think about what else a room could be, often adding a second or even third purpose to a room type that contemporary living just doesn’t require anymore. In the homes I design, butler’s pantries become high-tech home offices, once-formal parlors become kid-friendly play spaces, and staff quarters become screening rooms. The ultimate goal is always to reimagine these rooms in ways that honor their origins while also ensuring they’ll be well, and frequently, used today.

a living room filled with furniture and a fire place

Reprinted from © TIMELESS BY DESIGN, by Nina Farmer, Rizzoli New York, 2023. Photography by Eric Roth.

Contemporary Art

Adding artwork from the late twentieth century through today can bring a real freshness and currency to older homes. This is especially true in rooms that need a little nudge toward modernity to make their present-day occupants feel at home. While some interior designers like to use contemporary art to add a minimalist splash or a bold pop of color to traditional interiors, I generally avoid such high-contrast juxtapositions. Present-day works can provide a sense of excitement without shouting.

For my clients, I prefer to pull in pieces that whisper their contemporary credentials, especially photography and sculpture. I’ve found people relate to these two art forms easily—photography because it often represents an immediately recognizable world and sculpture because of its tactile qualities. Both do a good job of merging past and present.

a kitchen with a checkered floor and green cabinets
a toilet and a sink in a room

Reprinted from © TIMELESS BY DESIGN, by Nina Farmer, Rizzoli New York, 2023. Photography by Jared Kuzia.

Custom Commissions

I come across interesting, highly talented contemporary craftspeople all the time, and I love exploring their work and incorporating their pieces into projects. Doing so invites a greater variety of materials, textures, and styles into a space than would otherwise be there. In fact, these artisans often teach me what is possible, and expand my understanding of what might be, as we collaborate. Over the years, I’ve partnered with a henna artist to create motifs for hand-painted wall panels and worked with the designers at the British wallpaper source Fromental to produce panels with the look of embossed leather.

Like the modern and contemporary art I select for historic homes, the bespoke furnishings that I have made by local and international craftspeople don’t usually look entirely of the moment, or even necessarily brand-new. I typically commission custom furniture, lighting, rugs, and fabrics to create something of a trompe l’oeil effect: I want to trick your eye into seeing something old where there’s actually something new—or at least to trick it enough that it isn’t sure what’s old and what’s new.

For example, I love sourcing incredible antiques, but there’s often something about them that needs to be tweaked to make them right for the projects I’m working on, so that my clients can get the best use and most pleasure out of them in their homes. Custom commissions let me create, say, an Art Deco table in the exact size needed by homeowners.

Bespoke furnishings are, by definition, custom-made; their uniqueness imbues them with a special quality that my clients very much appreciate. No one else has the same piece in their home, and they’d be hard-pressed to re-create it. This isn’t about bragging rights—or, at least, it’s not _just _about bragging rights. It’s about knowing something has been created just for you, sometimes with your very own input, and always by the hand of a highly skilled artisan mindful of your needs and how you live right now.

a living room with a couch and flowers on the wall
a woman standing next to a chair in a room

Reprinted from © TIMELESS BY DESIGN, by Nina Farmer, Rizzoli New York, 2023.

Photography by Stephen Kent Johnson; Design by Nina Farmer

Book a one-on-one consultation with Nina to get personalized advice for your own space, or learn more about her design philosophy in her book.