Family heirlooms, to keep them or get rid of them?

Lynn Yang upcycles an old sofa. (PHOTO: Lynn Yang)
Lynn Yang upcycles an old sofa. (PHOTO: Lynn Yang)

SINGAPORE — A recent report by Forbes announced that many people in the US just aren’t interested in keeping so-called ‘family heirlooms’ anymore. Apparently the Gen Xers, younger Babyboomers and older Millennials who are having to deal with the death of their parents, are increasingly unsure of what to do with all the stuff they leave behind.

When my grandmother passed away, my mother and her sisters squabbled over who was getting which antique table, or old vase, or old photographs. Luckily my mother got what she wanted, and now, when it’s her turn to go my sister and I have already decided who is getting what; basically I’m getting the lot and my sister doesn’t want a thing, well except for some jewellery.


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Yep, she’s one of the people who isn’t at all interested in any family heirlooms. She doesn’t want any of the furniture, or the Chinese ceramics, or the old photos or paintings, or even the antique lace tablecloths. She will take some of the jewellery, and a bit of crystal, but in general she’s not interested in our family heirlooms.

Me, on the other hand, well, I want everything. I love the aesthetic of 19th century and Mid-Century Modern furniture - of which my mother has quite a bit - and I also love her ceramics, her silverware, the 19th crockery and cutlery, the china, the paintings of ancestors and paintings bought when I was young. I like old things, and I also like the attachment to my family’s history, and my own personal history too.

Bombay style chinoisere chest. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
Bombay style chinoisere chest. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

The people in the Forbes report, and my sister, aren’t bad people, they just don’t want “other people’s stuff”, as my sister says. Her interior decor style doesn’t match and she already has a house full of stuff from her own family. As she says, she doesn’t have anywhere to put more stuff. The jewellery obviously is small enough for her to stash away, of course.

But not everyone is against inheriting things from the family.

Genevieve Marks, a Melbourne-based fashion designer, has appropriated some of her grandmother’s furniture and crockery to use in her new atelier.

“Who I am as a person, is reflective of the environment I have grown up in,” she explains.

“I greatly value these pieces as it's my family's story and it is my story. Collectively, we're craving authenticity and yet we don't look internally and at our families where we formed the foundations of our personality.

“Understandably some may not have some great memories of their childhood or would like to start fresh and create new memories.

“But for me, by surrounding myself with these pieces it reminds me that I'm apart of something bigger. The good and the bad, they're part of my heritage and that's what I'm trying to build on with my own pieces,” says Ms Marks.

She’s not alone in wanting to keep a part of her family history alive. Lynn Yang, a creative director, says she’s definitely for the idea of keeping and using her grandmother’s old furniture.

However Ms Yang is also a fan of upcycling, or using older furniture for environmental reasons: “Upcycling is a thing now, and why throw away something that has sentimental value? From accessories to furniture, it tells a story and it witnessed events.”

Vintage furniture. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
Vintage furniture. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

Ms Marks says that keeping and using family furniture in her business is also a way to incorporate her identity with her business, which is a bespoke fashion atelier.

“In terms of having family pieces in my office and home, I believe my business is an extension of me. Therefore an extension of my family. My memories and upbringing have determined my taste in furniture and clothing.

“It's only fitting to have archives into my life to see how I've come to like certain styles. How I determine what I keep is based on my memories with each item and if I have the space.”

When she was setting up her new office Ms Yang was going with a “vintage-nostalgic” style and remembered her family had kept her grandmother’s sofa.

“I remembered we had a 20-year-old Scanteak Sofa lying in storage. Gave it a good wipe down, new cushions and hunted out a set of black, white, grey geometric patterned cushion cover. It's the star of the office now,” she says.

For both Ms Marks and Ms Yang, and for me too, inheriting family heirlooms is something special, something we’ll make room for in our homes, offices and lives.

“Seeing things from a different light sometimes, really shows a different perspective. I used to think all things new is the best, but no, some things should be left to age like wine,” says Ms Yang.