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Heirloom At Home

Heirloom At Home

Are we replacing old items too often? Our culture has made it easier for companies to create disposable goods–or items designed to have a short life–that it’s hard to separate what we need, from what we want, from what will last. Then there are changing styles and trends. Can stuff be designed and built to be durable, beautiful and affordable enough to last generations?

This is where the term “heirloom design” comes in. This has been a huge challenge in the design world. Products should be well made, attractive and affordable. Period. We only have to look at electronic technology and the automotive industry to know that this challenge has not been met. How many computers, cell phones and cars have you had in the last 20 years?

Earlier this year, I attended the Greener Gadgets conference, where I first heard the term “heirloom design” discussed. Saul Griffith proposed the concept, which he describes as design that is intended to last for generations. He’s putting the challenge to the test. This World Changing article explains, “Griffith said he’s planning to give his soon-to-be-born son a Rolex and Mont Blanc pen … and then tell him that these would be the only watch and pen he could use for the next 100 years.”

Think he sounds a little out-of-touch by suggesting Rolex and Mont Blanc are green? “[Y]ou have to design things and experiences that will last a very long time that have been thoughtfully designed and are very beautiful,” defends Griffith in the World Changing article.

The article also makes an interesting note that World Wildlife Fund gave the world’s largest luxury companies terrible sustainability ratings. Griffith’s examples involve large initial investments of cash, and may limit heirloom-quality products to people who can afford it. Can we make beautiful heirloom products that are also affordable to everyone?

I decided to bring the issue home. I walked around my house to see if I had some items that where either passed down or acquired, that could pass as heirloom quality and that I could hand down to the kids. This was harder than I thought, so I asked my kids (24 and 20) what they considered heirlooms in our home. Here is our combined list:

– A 1960s chair and couch – While the chair I found is not quite as sturdy as the one I grew up with, it should last the test of time with some ongoing repairs. The low curved couch was dragged out of a friend’s pool house.
– The cast iron and All-Clad pots and pans – Some of the cast iron pots are already 100 years old.
– Waffle-maker – My husband’s grandmother used this in the 1800s. It is so sturdy that is should be cranking out waffles for my children’s grandkids.
– An Artwork collection handed down from my mom – Particularly, we all enjoy the Bjorn Wiinblad posters. They make my 80 year-old mom, me and my kids smile.
– Dishes my husband’s grandmother painted – They are beautiful and can’t be put in the dishwasher, so they’ve already lasted 100 years.
– The amazing tables and furniture made from fallen trees on our property that my husband crafted.
– Musical instruments — We have a piano, guitars, flute, clarinet, and drums.

We all have stuff and we all want a more sustainable future. As my little home-research discovered, our goods don’t have to be Rolex or Mont Blanc to qualify as heirloom, but they do have to be taken care of. And perhaps this might be a challenge to many of us who are accustomed to our throw-away culture.

What items do you consider heirloom-quality in your home?

Read more: Conscious Consumer, EcoNesting, Home, , , , , ,

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Ronnie Citron-Fink

Ronnie Citron-Fink is a writer, editor and educator. She has written hundreds of articles about sustainable living, the environment, design, and family life for websites, books and magazines. Ronnie is the creator of Econesting, and the managing editor of Moms Clean Air Force. Ronnie was named one of the Top Ten Living Green Experts by Yahoo. Ronnie lives in New York with her family.

24 comments

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11:06PM PST on Mar 1, 2014

Vintage is nice. Thanks for sharing.

2:32PM PDT on Aug 26, 2012

thanks

12:32AM PDT on May 1, 2012

Thanks for sharing

3:35PM PDT on Mar 27, 2011

Thanks.

3:52AM PDT on Aug 22, 2010

Most of my furniture was recently purchased from Craigslist. All of it was used, but I wouldn't consider it "heirloom" quality. Although, everything is made of real wood and the lamps are solid brass, so they should last a good long time.

However, I do have two occasional tables ( a coffee table and an end table) that were made of solid cherry in our high school wood shop class thirty years ago by my younger sister, who is now deceased. I hope that they will remain in the family when I can no longer use them. I do worry that their design may be too traditional for the next generation. On the other hand, I recall that I once thought the same thing. It's funny how opinions can evolve with life changes and the passage of time.

11:21PM PDT on Aug 6, 2010

Furniture and clothes last a long time at my house. I don't follow fashion. I wear what I like and I wear it until it wears out. I buy furniture that I like and I use it until it wears out. My children are always trying to pull me into getting some new things; but, I always point out that the old one still works.

7:28PM PST on Feb 11, 2010

Thanks.

2:29PM PST on Dec 15, 2009

I have an stove/oven from the sixties that still works like a dream. Since I don't cook very much it still makes sense from an environmental viewpoint to exchange it for a more energy efficient stove. Also most of my furniture is old furniture from the late 1880s or early 1900s. If they have lasted a 100 years in great condition they will for sure last another 100 years, unlike much of the cheap stuff one finds today that breaks down after a couple of years of moving it once (read Ikea and the like). It makes good environmental sense to buy items that lasts decades and not only a few years if you are lucky. And the best part is that almost every single piece of furniture I bough is less expensive than the "cheap" Ikea-like furniture and of superior quality, and has far more personality.

9:25PM PST on Nov 22, 2009

What a neat way of thinking about the reasons for buying sturdy, useful things. I'd remind people too that nephews and nieces or cousin's children can be worthy recipients of durable goods to pass down.

6:53AM PST on Nov 14, 2009

I treasure our families heirloom items such as: our 1903 piano brought to the US prior to WW2 from Germany, Cocktail tables that my grandmother purchased at an antique store over 50 years ago etc. These items connect our family to past generations and are a part of who we are today.

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