"A specific house can have a pull on you…"

When I was 29, I knew I wanted to buy a house, but I didn’t know that I’d end up in Water Valley, Mississippi, a town I knew very little about. My family left Oxford when I was 9, and I moved all over the country just to wind up around 20 miles from where I started. It’s funny how a specific house can have a pull on you. I told myself that I would figure everything else out along the way. I was drawn to the Victorian charm, from the original hardwood floors and the tall ceilings to the vintage cast-iron kitchen sink. Mostly, though, I loved the rambling circle that the house flows in, with one room connecting you to the next, only to end up right where you began. This place is small—only 1,700 square feet—so when my husband, Sean, and I found out we were going to have our son, Tom, we converted the sunroom into his room. Follow along to see how I create vignettes of my collections, display art in a way that allows for easy rotation, and make a home for all the items we find on our travels.

1890 White Cottage in Mississippi
The compact house's original character was maintained by making only cosmetic updates, like a fresh coat of Sherwin-Williams' Pure White (SW 7005).
| Credit: Erin Austen Abbott

Invent Storage Solutions

This house was built in the late 1800s without indoor plumbing. The traditional kitchen was added on years later, and it has not been updated since. The space doesn’t have any drawers, so we’ve had to get really clever with our storage. Vintage glasses house our silverware, and McCoy Pottery vases hold wooden spoons and spatulas. The open shelving was from my grandmother’s home, and it gives the whole kitchen a little more classic look to balance out the array of glassware. Limited space has forced me to edit down my collections. Now I stick with a theme, like sailboats, or a colorway of blue or white or pink.

Wooden Spoon Collection in Cream Vase
Credit: Erin Austen Abbott

Designate a Cozy Den

Just off the living room is what used to be the formal dining room. We converted it into our family den (shown at top). When I bought the house in 2005, this room had an ornate red-and-white wallpaper. I pulled that back to reveal original wood paneling. I wanted this space to be painted black (Sherwin-Williams' Tricorn Black [SW 6258]) and had custom shelves built to hold all my records. Everyone assumes they’re Sean’s, but they were mine first.

Design an Adaptable Living Area

The first space that you walk into is the living room, which is also the foyer and my office. I have had to work twice as hard to make it both inviting and functional. I’d salvaged a vintage mission-style desk during my time living in San Francisco and built the room around it because this is also where I write my books, work on my design jobs, plan the art shows I curate, and edit my photography. Giving the space natural divisions is how we kept it from seeming like all the furniture was dumped into this big room. The walls painted in Benjamin Moore's Simply White (OC-117) offers a neutral backdrop for the entire space.

White Living Room with Gray Couch
Credit: Erin Austen Abbott

Style Your Own Shelves

With a large bookshelf on one wall, I’m able to hide camera lenses behind the art. Design samples blend in with the books, and cameras are propped up as if on display. I bring pretty stacks to the edge of the shelves to hide any unsightly items. Office supplies like a vintage tape dispenser look good sitting there too.

Work in Layers

Art is a huge part of our home. I’ve layered it in a way that allows me to put on my curator hat. We can’t nail a lot into the plaster walls, so this approach treats all the pieces as one, often organized in piles and leaning on each other.

Gray Master Bedroom with Fireplace Mantel
Spaces feel more seamless when painted all one color. Here, the art and furniture pop off the gray walls.
| Credit: Erin Austen Abbott

Create an Escape

I wanted a retreat-like bedroom, so I painted everything—the trim, the mantel, the 15-foot-tall walls—in Benjamin Moore’s Gray Timber Wolf (2126-50). Travel is also a big part of our lives. Decorating with globes, suitcases, and the like was a quirky, fun way to bring the destinations home.

Author and Photographer Erin Austen Abbott
Erin’s new book, Family Field Trip (amazon.com), offers ideas for cultural activities to share with kids.
| Credit: Courtesy of Erin Austen Abbott