If you visit Betsy Chapin’s North Wilmington townhouse in spring and fall, you are bound to notice a difference. “I can’t stand to look at the same thing for a long period of time,” says the college professor.
Five times a year, she changes a few decorative elements to create a fresh, seasonal look. She doesn’t change the sofa, wall-to-wall carpeting or wall paint. She does, however, play with easy-to-switch area rugs and accessories, including table centerpieces, throw pillows, candles and dried or silk flowers.
“It’s an inexpensive way to change your environment,” she says. “You want to create a mood to make your home feel warm, welcoming and comforting—something you want to come to or wake up to.” Because her mood varies at various times of year, the same old-same old won’t do.
Chapin is in good company. As often as four times a year, Henry Francis du Pont switched the curtains, rugs and slipcovers in certain rooms of his Winterthur mansion to suit the seasons. Sometimes he even changed the ceramics.
In the famous Chinese Parlor, a grand room dressed with an ornate wallpaper depicting Chinese life and social strata, he selected green satin drapes with white floral sprigs for January, February and March. In spring—April, May and June—the windows wore dark green damask with a blue trim. Summer months meant billowy tamboured mulls with yellow taffeta valences. And in fall, du Pont selected both yellow taffeta valances and curtains.
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“He was changing and balancing colors rather than just taking up items inappropriate for certain seasons,” says Linda Eaton, curator of textiles for Winterthur Museum & Country Estate.
Switching out rugs, curtains and slipcovers nonetheless has a practical purpose, as well as a decorative one. Heavy drapes discourage drafts in winter, and rich, soft fabrics are cozier at a time when we “hibernate,” says Meredith Graves, a stylist and co-owner of the new shop Found in Centreville, which sells antiques and home accessories.
Come warmer weather, lightweight curtains let summer breezes cool a room and invite sunlight to spill into the space. Crisp, breathable fabrics are soothing against exposed skin. Unadorned floors are cooler on bare feet than heavy wool rugs.
Using items only part of the year also stretches their longevity. “Rugs do retain grit and debris,” Graves says. “Taking them up gives you time to clean them and care for them.”
The real advantage, as Chapin would agree, is that you can periodically give your home a different look. And it need not be expensive. Chapin, for instance, goes to Michael’s, The Arts & Crafts Store, where she buys silk flowers to hang on the horizontal, pegged coat rack in her dining room. For fall, she looks for woodsy pieces.
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Craft stores are also good places to find glass jars, which you can fill with seasonal items such as shells for summer or pine cones for fall. “I’m a big fan of accessories and clustering them in groupings,” Graves says.
For fall and winter, she suggests a gleaming mahogany box surrounded by paperweights and garnished with pheasant feathers gathered with satin ribbon. During summer she displays her collection of sterling silver nut dishes, shaped like shells, near a small seascape painting.
For a client who adores candles, she’s suggested slate blue in summer to match the rug. In fall, the candles are replaced by a thicker, dark burgundy version. To bridge the season between Christmas and spring, Chapin has decorated her table with deep red candles, which, when combined with glistening glass holders and ivy sprigs, create her “winterberry theme.”
Take it as far as you like. Exchange summer’s airy botanical prints and lithographs in fall with oil paintings, Graves says. She’s even switched chandelier shades for clients. All you need is a few large Rubbermaid containers for storage, and you can handily move between the seasons.
Traditionally, however, switching seasons involves textiles. Rumor has it that du Pont changed his drapes to complement the view beyond them at that time of year. Regardless, he certainly demonstrated a sophisticated sense of color.
The Port Royal Parlor, which has yellow walls, in summer had white cotton curtains with a purple print. In fall, du Pont switched to 18th-century yellow damask. By January, he’d moved to a green-and-gold floral silk, and in spring, he chose a Regency yellow silk damask.
Curtains, for many of us, are major expenditures, Graves says. At the most, homeowners have two sets, one for warm weather and another for cold weather. If you like the layered look at the window, switch things up with sheers placed on the back rung for summer and silk panels lined with flannel for fall. “It adds dimension and depth,” Graves says.
Du Pont also changed furniture slipcovers, but that is also cost-prohibitive for most people. Instead, consider inexpensive covers for dining room or ladder-back chairs, Graves suggests.
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Chapin sticks to area rugs and throw pillows, which she often picks up at Kohl’s. For a classic fall look, Graves recommends pillows with tapestry patterns or needlepoint. Use sparingly. “Gone are the days when people had 25 pillows on the sofa,” she says. “You can invest in good, quality things without going over the top.” Cottons and stripes are good for summer.
Mohair, wool or cashmere throws lend a luxurious touch—and they’ll come in handy on cool nights. “Just that pop of color can add a certain effect to a room,” Graves says. No room is off limits. She switches the towels in her bathroom, moving from sea green in summer to sea blue and hunter green in winter.
Don’t forget the bedroom. Graves packs away summer’s matelassé to favor fall’s darker colors and silks. She unfurls the hooked rug that she stored under the bed in summer. “Your bedroom should always feel magical and inviting,” she says.
And with a few seasonal tweaks, so can the rest of your house.
• You don’t need rugs sprinkled with falling leaves to evoke an autumnal mood, although they are certainly festive. For a subtle effect, incorporate fall colors, which include burnished oranges, rich reds, golds and browns.
• If fall colors don’t suit your palette, consider deeper hues of your existing color scheme or more ornate rug and pillow patterns
• Think texture as well as pattern. Chenille and cotton are fine for summer, but fall demands fabrics that are warm and cozy, such as brushed velvet, cashmere and wool.
• Exchange the bowl of seashells on the dining room table for a bowl of fruit, nuts or pine cones. Surround it with placemats and napkins that are more opulent than your summer linens.
• Switch candle colors and choose thicker, heavier columns.
• In the kitchen, let your area rug, mitts and dish towels promote the season. The kitchen is the place where a little kitsch—think smiling pumpkins or pilgrims—adds a whimsical touch, even in formal homes.
• Change door wreaths from summer grapevines to ones made of pine cones or autumn leaves for winter.