Designing a Home You Love With Repurposed Antiques and Heirlooms

Have you ever ogled a vintage wooden toolbox at a flea market, but just couldn’t figure out what to do with it?

Are you drawn to the rarity and craftsmanship of antique furniture and salvaged fixtures?

Did you inherit boxes of your grandfather’s old photographs?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions — and even if you didn’t — the following tips will help you seamlessly incorporate antiques and heirlooms into your home design.

We talked to Twin Cities Interior Designer Tami Holsten about how to give new life to antiques and heirlooms of all kinds. Read on for her sage advice, including how to avoid that dreaded artsy-craftsy look.

Telling a One-of-a-Kind Story with Antiques


Refurbished 1930s fireplace and moose head with repurposed barn beam. All photos courtesy of Tami Holsten.

Tami Holsten of Bear Trap Design creates living spaces that tell a story. Not her own story, but the stories her clients want to tell.

As Holsten puts it, “When I design spaces, I don’t want people to walk in and say, ‘Oh, Bear Trap Design did this’ because it looks like every other design I’ve created.”

One of her favorite ways to express clients’ unique stories is with antique and heirloom objects, materials, and furniture.

From an old photograph to a cafeteria table salvaged from an old motorcycle plant, she has discovered many ways to creatively incorporate items of personal and historic significance into everyday living spaces.

But Holsten didn’t set out to become an interior designer. Her own one-of-a-kind story began when she and her husband built their own log house in 2002.

“I learned as I did it,” she explains. Soon visitors to the house started asking if they could hire Holsten to design their homes too.

In the fifteen years since, Holsten completed design school, started her business, and has earned more than a dozen awards for her residential designs.


An antique sled repurposed as a pot rack.

The Value and Thrill! of Antiques

Holsten designs for new construction, remodeling projects, and old homes, drawing from traditional, contemporary, and transitional styles as needed. While she certainly doesn’t limit herself to antiques, her love and appreciation for them often finds a way into her work.

According to Holsten, the true value of antiques and heirlooms lies in their history, or what we can learn from them about past people and ways of life. And the journey of finding and repurposing old objects is in itself fun, enriching, and inspiring.

What makes a hand-hewn beam from a 19th century barn priceless compared to brand new conventionally milled lumber?

Holsten boils it down to three things: Its history, the humans connected to it, and the thrill of hunting it down.


I’ve always loved history, and to me that’s what antiques are,” says Holsten.

Antiques bear witness to a forgotten past. An 1850s dough box hints at the outmoded practice of mixing and rising dough at home for your daily bread. And its wood, hardware, and craftsmanship reveal a lot about where the dough box was made and the carpentry of the time.

Old objects also carry an intangible kind of history, evoking a bygone era. With one look at an antique, you can imagine the lives, joys, and hardships of its first owners.

And, of course, inherited or heirloom items give you a physical link to your personal history.

Human Hands

Many objects and furniture made before the advent of modern manufacturing and automation required a great deal of hard work by human hands.

“These are handmade, one-of-a-kind things that people put their love and labor into,” Holsten explains. In this way, antiques are not only distinctive, but often of higher quality than their mass-manufactured counterparts.

Aside from how the item was made, antiques are usually acquired in local, human to human transactions. Unlike shopping online or at big box store, when we browse a yard sale, flea market, or antique shop, we have a personal interaction with the seller, sometimes sparking an ongoing friendship.

The Hunt

If her thirst for learning about history first drew Holsten to antiques, the thrill of the hunt is what keeps her hooked.

“There’s nothing better than going to an antique store or flea market and spending all day finding one little treasure,” she remarks. “And sometimes you don’t find anything, but you’ve met new people and learned new things.”

For many antique lovers, chasing the next great find has inherent value. Finding (and possibly restoring) a retro sign or primitive hutch is a pleasurable and stimulating challenge.


Salvaged church shutters become a work of art.

5 Tips for Choosing and Repurposing Antiques

Many people understand and appreciate the unique value of antiques, but aren’t sure how to find the right pieces. Or, they struggle to blend traditional styles and materials with their more contemporary homes.

If you want to incorporate antiques and heirlooms into your living spaces, use these five tips from Tami Holsten to help you choose quality pieces you will love living with for years to come.

Tip #1: Don’t Be a Hoarder

“I like things that are clean and concise,” says Holsten. “Your junk might be somebody else’s treasure, so I say get rid of the junk and keep only what you love most.”

It’s easy to amass antiques when you’re shopping thrift stores or Craigslist bargains. But Holsten warns not to buy something just because it’s a steal. That impulse purchase will likely end up collecting dust in the basement.

To avoid cluttering your home with antiques you’re not head over heels for, be patient and picky. “Be sure you have a place for it and a function, even if the function is simply to look pretty and make you happy,” advises Holsten.

Designer Inspiration: One example of a beautiful, functional antique that doesn’t create clutter can be found in Holsten’s own kitchen: She uses an authentic butcher block from a Minneapolis butcher shop.

Tip #2: Invest in Quality

“We’re such a disposable society nowadays,” Holsten laments. “Things that used to be made out of wood are now made of plastic, and a lot of it comes from overseas.”

It may surprise you to think of antique hunters as quality snobs, but many buy from a local antique dealer rather than Ikea because they want higher quality materials and construction.

“I would rather buy fewer things that will last longer,” says Holsten. If that sturdy old farmhouse table has a hefty price tag, you can take comfort knowing it will outlast a more “affordable” department store table.

Designer Inspiration: Holsten likes to take hand hewn beams off of old barns and use them as fireplace mantles. The beams can last a lifetime and never look dated.

antique door ornament

Repurposed antique door ornament.

Tip #3: Make Sure You Love, Love, Love It

“A core philosophy of my design work is that you have to love, love, love each piece,” says Holsten. “And if you don’t, we’re going to keep looking.”

No one intends to buy things they don’t love, but it’s easy to compromise out of convenience or be seduced by a bargain.

Yes, it may require lots of searching, but it’s worth it in the end. If you love, love, love something, chances are you will keep it forever, saving money and improving your quality of life in the long term.

“Go with what speaks to you,” Holsten suggests. “Life is just too short not to be around things you love.”

Designer Inspiration: Turn an old metal sign from a sentimental place, like the town you grew up in or the spot where you honeymooned, into a piece of art for your wall.

Tip #4: Do Get Personal

When she works with a new client, one of the first things Holsten wants to know is if they have any heirlooms that are deeply meaningful to them. Then they get to work finding the perfect way to display or make use of it.

“The one thing I don’t like is mass produced, cookie-cutter design,” says Holsten. I strive to find something unique that fits my client’s needs.”

An heirloom can be a visual reminder of your family legacy and cultural heritage. Even a found antique can tell a story that is personal to you. For example, reclaimed shutters found near your grandparent’s birthplace, or framed sheet music from your favorite 1930s composer.

Designer Inspiration: Holsten once framed an heirloom brooch and hung it beside a photo of the client’s great grandmother wearing the very same brooch. They hang inside a closet, in an intimate space that’s meaningful only to the client.


A repurposed cafeteria table from the Indian motorcycle plant.

Tip #5: Don’t Get Cutesy

Many enthusiastic antiquers fall into the “cutesy” trap, turning their finds into amateur artsy-craftsy projects.

“I have an old sled mounted in my kitchen and I hang pots and pans from the runners, but that’s about as cutesy as I get,” says Holsten. “You’re going to know it’s a sled.”

Cutesy experiments too often obscure the antique’s original purpose or the craftsmanship that made it special in the first place. For example, picture an antique hardwood chest that has been painted over to achieve a shabby chic look. While you may love shabby chic style, the original wood grain or finish, which gave the piece character and integrity, has been buried.

A good rule of thumb is to use things as they were intended to be used, or close to it. For example, you could use a trunk as a cocktail table or a toy box.

To steer clear of the “cutesy” aesthetic, you have to be highly selective, focusing on a few quality pieces with great personal significance.

Designer Inspiration: One of Holsten’s clients found a table frame from the cafeteria of the Indian motorcycle plant. Holsten had a table top custom made for the frame and embedded it with an Indian motorcycle belt buckle. By kismet, the client later found a picture of her grandfather sitting on an old Indian motorcycle and hung it beside the table.

Antiques and Heirlooms Can Enhance Any Home

Even if you prefer a contemporary or transitional design style, there is room for meaningful objects and touches of history in every home. “Old fashioned” materials and craftsmanship can bring a timeless warmth to everyday life.

Ready to design a living space you love, love, love? Bookmark these tips for the next time you go antiquing or digging your heirlooms out of the attic.