Emily Henson is on a mission. “I want to pull back the curtain on these perfectly staged photos of homes that you see in magazines and on social media,” says the London-based interior stylist. “Because that’s not real life.” For Henson, “real life” is a home that isn’t afraid to be a little bit messy, one that doesn’t hide the tangle of wires tucked under a desk or the stack of bills strewn on the kitchen counter. With her new book (and her blog of the same name), Life Unstyled, she’s out to show the world that real is beautiful, too.
In Life Unstyled, Henson is turning the idea of a “perfect” home on its head by showcasing modern, eclectic spaces that put creativity over perfection. We asked the author, who has styled photo campaigns for clients ranging from IKEA to Anthropologie, why everyone should strive to make their homes a true reflection of themselves, warts and all. Here’s what she said:
“Of course we all want homes that are tidy,” says Henson, but that doesn’t mean we need to tuck away every odd and end that gives us pleasure. Maybe you’ve amassed a large collection of vintage glassware, or your children love to bring home buckets of seashells from the beach: No matter how high- or low-end the objects, if they say something about what you love and who you are, you should be proud to display them.
There is an art to it, though: “Play around and group items together so they don’t just look like a bunch of stuff sitting on your mantel,” Henson says. Try arranging them by height, scale or color, and see which scheme fits your space best. “One homeowner profiled in the book had accumulated a lot of ceramics, and instead of hiding them away in a closet, he put a free-standing glass-fronted cabinet in his kitchen. There, the dishes looked more like a statement — almost like a museum cabinet.”
Most people have some area of their home that they don’t love — a room or a piece of furniture that calls out for a new coat of paint, for example. But instead of rushing to redecorate, try to look at that peeling plaster or rickety antique chair with fresh eyes. “Old doesn’t have to mean old-fashioned,” as Henson writes in her book. Indeed, it’s the crack in the ceiling or the fading wallpaper in a foyer that writes a home’s history, giving it a character unlikely to be seen anywhere else.
It’s easy to buy stuff, but the rewards that come from repurposing something you already have can be much greater, says Henson. “There’s nothing wrong with buying something new, but a one-of-a-kind piece that someone made for you or that you found in a junk shop — even if it’s slightly flawed — is what gives people a feeling of your personality when they walk into your home.”
For many of the homeowners profiled in Life Unstyled, outfitting their rooms with objects that felt uniquely personal came from hours spent scouring the Internet and thrift stores. “It does take time and dedication to create a personal look,” she says, “but it certainly doesn’t have to take a lot of money.”
While there’s no shortage of intentionally distressed goods on the market these days — from brand-new jeans ripped just so to artfully mismatched upholstery and pre-worn rugs — there’s also never been a trend that’s kinder to an authentically lived-in home. And you don’t have to go full shabby-chic to benefit. “It’s really all about layering, isn’t it?” says Henson, who’s drawn to spaces filled with overlapping textiles and fabrics. Now is the time to give that favorite frayed-edge curtain a second chance, warm up to that cozy throw your friend crocheted for you in college, or bust out that heavy old china cabinet you inherited from your grandma — the one with the peeling finish and tarnished drawer handles. After all, the best kind of patina is the one you don’t pay extra for.
“Some people just want to decorate and be done,” Henson says. Not her. As a stylist, she has, admittedly, amassed great piles of cool furniture, art and accessories. But that doesn’t mean she keeps all her possessions on display at once. “For me, it’s not about redecorating entirely, but about adding new things to the mix while taking out others,” says Henson, who keeps plastic bins in her basement full of bits and bobs that will make their way back up — eventually. Lifestyles change and tastes change, she says, and the best way to honor that might just be making it up as you go along.
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