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Interior designer Holly Holden is an expert in old-school design. For more than 25 years, she has been creating pretty, classic and tailored spaces for clients around the world. Then two years ago, her daughter, Alexandra, asked her: “How do I furnish my new house to look like a ‘big girl’ house?” Holly knew this question required more than just a simple answer; it elicited lists, tips and design advice “peppered with words like ‘pretty’, ‘proper’, ‘polished’, ‘refined’ and ‘well-proportioned’,” she said.

Now, after years of compiling examples, photographs and time-tested advice, Holly has created the handbook for creating an authentic living space, The Pretty and Proper Living Room. Here, Holly guides readers through the subtle qualities of creating this type of space while sharing the must-know no-no’s.

The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

“Classic interior design, like good manners, never goes out of style,” Holly says.

The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

This living room’s theme: elegant European refinement; old meets new and East meets West.

I spoke to Holly this week about her new book and her love of traditional design. Here’s what she had to say.

Kayla Kitts for Design Happens: Have you always been drawn to classic, traditional design? What makes this style so appealing to you as a designer?

Holly Holden: I was introduced to this type of design by my parents from day one, so on a personal level it is familiar and comforting to me. Speaking more objectively, this style of design is elegant and inviting. The finished product is a room that is memorable, but also comfortable — a room that guests do not want to leave! Additionally, there is a timelessness to this style of decorating, both in the sense that it has stood the test of time and in the sense that it is not going to fall out of fashion in the future.

The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

Holly’s Fox Hall living room is designed for intimate conversation in an elegant environment.

DH: What’s the best piece of design advice your mother and/or grandmother gave you that you still use to this very day?

HH: In the introduction of my book I included a section called “Holly’s Thirteen Secrets for Old-School Interiors” which lists some of the founding principles of pretty and proper. The second secret on that list was passed on to me by my mother:

  • Use Your Best Pieces Every Day — A house is to be lived in and not treated like a museum. Use your fine china and silver on a daily basis; this is not pretentious, it is elegant. With use, your serving pieces will develop an authentic patina. Let them become worn and used; do not save them solely for special occasions. A little wear contributes to their charm.
The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

The crystal decanter of sherry is a permanent fixture in Holly’s living room.

DH: When giving clients’ spaces a pretty and proper makeover, what’s the very first thing you do or tell them to do?

HH: I think that you are posing the age-old question, “where to begin?” The first thing I do is ask a client if he or she has a piece of art, a carpet or a fabric that they would like to work around. The themes and colors of these pieces can then be carried over into other elements of the room. For instance, if the client has a favorite piece of artwork, the color of the walls might be chosen specifically to complement and highlight a color from that artwork. Then, I ask the client if they have a predisposition to curvy or straight lines. Straight lines are going to lead to a more masculine room while curved lines lend a more feminine aura. The pretty and proper style is very curvy! Consider some common items found in a pretty and proper living room: serpentine, camelback Chippendale sofas, bow-front Hepplewhite chests of drawers, and swag and jabot curtains; they all prominently feature curves. I find that most old-school furnishings subtly embrace curves.

The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

This living room seating arrangement features a side chair, wing chair and an ottoman.

DH: Looking at your own home, is there one particular heirloom piece or antique buy that means the most to you?

HH: Whether it is something that was inherited or something my husband and I have collected, every piece in Fox Hall, my 1803 home, has a personal story behind it and has special meaning. I will share two stories with you:

My first personal story involves an antique sculpture we named “Team Holden.” Have you ever seen something in a store that was simply too irresistible to pass by? My husband and I were leaving Paris and on our way to the airport in a taxi. While at a stoplight we looked into a store’s window and spied an enchanting antique bronze horse sculpture. We knew we had to have it! We asked the cab to pull over, did some hasty negotiating and had the sculpture wrapped in newspaper and rope. It was at this point that we realized we had a large problem: the sculpture weighed more than I did! Hercules had nothing on my husband that day as he lugged the sculpture through airport security (where he was taken into a secret back room and interrogated for bringing a massive metal object onto an airplane). Suffice to say the sculpture did not fit in the overhead bin, but we got it home with us and it currently graces a marble pedestal in a corner of our front hall. Ten years have passed and we still smile when we look at Team Holden and remember our Parisian adventure.

My second personal story is about a rug I inherited from my mother (who in turn, had inherited it from her mother). I can remember playing on this rug at my grandparents’ house. Wherever my parents and I moved in the world, the rug came with us. Currently, the rug is a dramatic stage for the furniture in our front hall. I quip in my book that inheritance is the single best way to acquire antiques.

The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

Team Holden, one of Holly’s favorite pieces.

DH: What are some of your most surprising tips to clients, readers or friends?

HH: People always seem to have difficulty choosing colors. I have a sensible and simple tip that has surprised many people over the years: do not agonize, just look to your closet. Choose colors you love to wear! They are guaranteed to be colors you already enjoy and are comfortable with.

DH: What advice do you have for young adults (20-somethings) that are furnishing their first home, maybe even a temporary home (apartment/loft) that want to incorporate this look into their space?

HH: The Pretty and Proper Living Room began as a list of design advice to my daughter, Alexandra, who had moved to Germany and asked for my assistance decorating her first “big girl” house. I told her that it is better to do without than to acquire something you do not love or are not proud of. Collect with the intent that you will keep the item for many years. Do not buy disposable furniture. Keep seating arrangements close for intimate conversation. Have a drinks table near every seat. I could go on and on, and I did, for 378 pages!

The Pretty and Proper Living Room Holly Holden

Lilacs from Holly’s garden adorn her daughter, Caroline’s, monogrammed baby cup.

DH: What are the best places to shop for quality pieces to create a classic, timeless look?

HH: That’s easy! The three best places to shop for timeless, classic, pretty and proper pieces are: auctions, Auctions and AUCTIONS! The timeless look that you are referring to relies heavily on antiques and if you are looking to stretch your design dollars, an auction is the perfect place to acquire them. Best of all, an authentic piece purchased at an auction will often be less expensive than a newly-made imitation. The act of going to an auction, finding something you love and bidding on it is an exhilarating experience. I am on a mission to take the intimidation out of auctions. The first Appendix at the back of my book is titled “Auction Primer,” and it is meant to help readers become savvy auction attendees. I’d like to offer one caveat: auctions can become addictive!

The Pretty and Proper Living Room is available and ready to make its way to your bookshelves.

Photos courtesy of Dean Greenblatt for Holly Holden

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Kayla KittsKayla Kitts is an editor for HGTV.com. You can find her doing at least one of the following: shopping for home decor at local vintique stores, picking out produce at...

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