The Things We Treasure

11 Design Experts Share the Meaning Behind Their Cherished Objects

From family history to cultural storytelling and racial identity.

September 26, 2020
Photo by Olaniyi Swarn

An object is often worth more than its material form. It can bring with it cultural echoes, family history, and personal memory. In The Things We Treasure, writers, creatives, and design experts tell us about their most priceless possessions—and the irreplaceable stories behind them.

Interior stylist Olaniyi Swarn’s family tree has put down roots in her Chicago-area living room. At least that’s the impression one gets from the collection of old family photos that sit atop the bed of river rock on her coffee table. This “bowl of stories,” as she calls it, always grabs visitors’ attention and is often a conversation starter.

Like Swarn, many homeowners personalize their homes with heirlooms, meaningful art and other thoughtful decorations. In an age where we devour content with gleeful gluttony, though, it is far too easy to overlook these sentimental design moments. Today, we take a pause and dive deeper into the homes of some of our favorite creatives to reveal the stories their decor tells.

A “Beautiful” Reminder

Photo by Rachel Fox Kipphut

One could easily assume Rachel Fox Kipphut prizes her colorful Anthony Burrill poster for its attractive form. It’s the meaning she derives from the print, however, that she cherishes most. “Our oldest daughter Eva (8) was born with Down Syndrome,” Kipphut says. “Over the last six years, I have committed my work to promoting inclusivity and accessibility in advertising and media, and promoting inclusion in our community and schools. Every day, that print is a reminder of where our advocacy started with Eva. Every day, I gain a new perspective on what the word ‘beautiful’ means. Although it hasn't happened yet, the day will come when Eva will ask us why she looks different than others. Each day, I am a little more hopeful that the conversation will not end in tears.”

Keeping Tradition Alive

Photo by Jessica Metcalfe

“This blanket is by my friend and colleague, Tessa Sayers. She and I are from The Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians,” begins the owner of Beyond Buckskin Jessica R. Metcalfe, PhD. The blanket depicts the origins of their North Dakota tribe. “The central design references our Creation Story and how our world was built on Turtle’s back. It reminds me that we have an important oral history and our Indigenous knowledge systems have much to offer the world,” Metcalfe tells us.

A Symbolic Gesture


If you ever want to know what interior designer and shop owner Whitney Jones is thinking, take a peek at the modeling hand that sits in the hallway of her New Orleans, LA home. “I love that I can reposition the fingers to reflect my different moods,” she says. “Right now, with all that's going on in the country, I have positioned the fingers into a fist to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.”

The Power of Portraiture


“When I look at it, I see elements of myself. I see someone who is complex,” says Seana Freeman of the Kathi Graves portrait that dresses her North Carolina home. It hangs amidst a stair-stepping gallery, and when paired with the portrait to its left, gives a face to the anonymous group of people in the piece near the staircase’s foot.

The Family Custodian


A hand-sculpted bust from Tanzania stands watch over the Oakland, CA home of Aquilo Interiors’ owner Carmen René Smith. “I call it my wisdom warrior. It was in my family home for 20 years, and was passed along to me when I moved to the Bay Area from Maryland. It reminds me of my family, our ancestry, and our culture,” she explains.

Far Away, but Not Forgotten


The Maryland home of xN Studio founder and CEO Nasozi Kakembo features a linocut her aunt made in 1984. “Several members of my family either have this piece or another work by the same aunt, so even though we're all over the country and world, we're always connected through her work,” Kakembo says.

History Repeats Itself


Ariene C. Bethea, founder of Dressing Rooms Interior Studio, inherited this 1960s-era painting by Robert Lawson from her mother after she passed. It lived above the sofa in her childhood home, and it now hangs near the sofa in her own home outside Charlotte, NC.

Kindred Souls Meet at the MET...


Interior designer Minetta Archer loves how this frenetic artwork in her Harlem, NY home embodies the buzz of the city, but its origin story is what makes it truly significant. “I found this piece outside the MET (where lots of vendors set up shop),” Archer begins. “One artist, Adama Oualbeogo, really stood out from the others. An immigrant to the US from West Africa, he tells his story through his art. As an immigrant myself, I'm keenly aware of the struggles of Black immigrants attempting to make a meaningful life for themselves. Having this piece in my home holds so many different meanings for me beyond just its beauty.”

Tethered to the Past


The term “gallery wall” takes on a new meaning in the Chicago, IL home of interior designer Jessica Blue. The portrait of her grandmother that enlivens her dining room is a replica of the original, which hangs in a museum in Poland. “In 1951, Polish artist Hieronim Skurpski happened to see my grandmother walking in Olsztyn, Poland and could not help but ask her if he could paint her portrait,” she tells us. “Years later, after Mr. Skurpski gained fame in the art world, and after my grandmother passed, a fan of his art reproduced the painting and gifted this to my grandfather (who then sent it to Blue). Although melancholic, there is an old-world charm that makes it so beautiful. Most importantly, she is with me every day.”

Representation Matters


The musical artwork overlooking the living room in interior designer Michelle Martel and her husband’s Montréal, Canada home has been with the couple since they first met 28 years ago, so naturally, it’s quite special to the pair. Martel adds, “I love this piece as it is a strong, creative, beautiful representation of Black men, which is very important to us. Representation matters now as it did when we raised our children. They grew up seeing artwork depicting Black people in all their glory.”

Which of your home’s decorations mean the most to you? Let us know in the comments below.

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Garrett Fleming

Written by: Garrett Fleming

Interiors Editor & Art Director