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In stressful times, the ‘grandmillennial’ style provides comfort

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Design-Grandmillennial-Sarah-Bartholomew
Sarah Bartholomew, who designed this space, is a poster child for the grandmillennial style movement. Melanie Acevedo for The Washington Post

Justina Uram-Mubangu, a lawyer, wife, and mother of a toddler, is like many of us right now, living and working at home, trying to stay safe and balance it all. What keeps her at peace and happy is her surroundings. Her colorful home is full of items she loves: wicker, chinoiserie, and floral chintz. She collects Blue Willow china and ginger jars. She cherishes a crystal chandelier and an extensive collection of milk glass that she inherited from one of her grandmothers.

In fact, it was from her grandmothers that she got her love of what she calls “pretty things.” “Both of my grandmothers had parlors, fancy sitting rooms at the front of their homes that we could look at but never enter. These rooms fascinated me. I loved how quiet and peaceful they were, and, of course, how lovely they were.” Although she does not cordon off rooms in her own home, she does consider herself, like her grandmothers, a traditionalist or, as she likes to say, “a lover of timeless decor.”

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Justina Uram-Mubangu inherited this milk glass from one of her grandmothers. She considers herself “a lover of timeless decor.” —Justina Uram-Mubangu for The Washington Post

Uram-Mubangu of Fairfax, Va., is hardly the only millennial to reject the modern farmhouse look that many of her contemporaries emulate. (“Too much black and white,” she said.) Nor does the mid-century modern style popular among today’s design influencers speak to her. Instead, she is in favor of more traditional design. Uram-Mubangu and others like her have coalesced in group chats and shared hashtags — a modern-day knitting circle, if you will — and self-identify as “grandmillennials,” a name that was coined last September in an article by Emma Bazilian, a senior features editor at House Beautiful.

In a case of it-takes-one-to-know-one, Bazilian is a self-proclaimed “grandmillennial.” She is an avid needlepointer (a common pastime for grandmillennials), has a love of chintz, and is obsessed with skirted dressing tables. (She recently picked one up at a consignment shop and is using it as a desk in her parents’ home outside Philadelphia, where she’s staying until stay-at-home restrictions ease up.)

Last summer, Bazilian noticed a decorating undercurrent bubbling up on social media. “I would post an old House Beautiful article on Insta from the ’80s or a Laura Ashley ad, and all these people would comment at how much they loved the images, so I started to realize it’s not just me.” What Bazilian uncovered was an ant hill of 30-something-year-olds who collectively oohed and aahed over images of faded floral pillow shams and Mario Buatta-designed rooms from the ’80s — images that seem fresh and exciting to them, because they grew up in the more neutral, toned-down homes of their parents. By giving these like-minded traditionalists a name, Bazilian legitimatized a movement.

Southern blogger Katherine Medlin read Bazilian’s article and has since taken the grandmillennial taxonomy and run with it. On her blog, Pender and Peony (penderandpeony.com), Medlin has created “The Official Preppy Handbook” equivalent of grandmillennial style, with posts that cover everything from “affordable wallpapers for the grandmillennial” to “style tips for the grandmillennial’s dining room.” She lists the ingredients for the grandmillennial style: natural wicker, rattan, and bamboo furniture and accessories; floral patterns and chintz; monograms; all things chinoiserie; foo dogs; anything with a scalloped edge; lots of color (blue and green are favorites among every grandmillennial I spoke to); fringe; and fine china. The group’s design idols from the past are the aforementioned Buatta (the media crowned him “the Prince of Chintz” in the ’80s), Dorothy Draper, and Sister Parish.

Although inspired by these design icons and often their own grandmothers’ homes, grandmillennials have a fresher, more relaxed approach to design. Uram-Mubangu said her grandmothers preferred deep, rich colors and heavy, dark wood, but she prefers light, peaceful colors, such as whites, blues, and greens, and light wood and clean lines— design elements popularized by current interior designers such as Clary Bosbyshell, Sarah Bartholomew, Meredith Ellis, Amy Berry, and Celerie Kemble.

Liz Eichholz, the Savannah, Ga.-based cofounder and creative director of Weezie Towels (weezietowels.com), said that what also differentiates the grandmillennial style is that unlike the rooms of Uram-Mubangu’s grandmothers, “no space is off limits. We might love the design choices of our grandmothers, but we are bringing those styles into the 21st century, adding updates here and there. It is no longer feasible to have spaces in your home that are not suitable for everyday use.”

Grandmillennials also tend to show restraint; they might use a floral pattern for curtains, but they would not use it everywhere (walls, curtains, headboard, bed skirt, and chair) the way Buatta did. Part of this has to do with cost. As Medlin points out: “This style can be expensive to pull off.” She and other grandmillennials favor shopping at estate sales, auctions, and thrift shops.

But it also has to do with honoring history and the longing to imbue meaning in every object. Eichholz said: “Walking into a store and purchasing everything new at once is my worst nightmare. I love for things to feel layered and collected with a story behind each little element.” Eichholz said grandmillennials want items in their homes that tell a story or show their personality. This includes a mix of old and new, color and pattern, but always with a sense of calm. Uram-Mubangu added: “I try to be thoughtful and intentional in my design decisions.”

Roslyn, N.Y.-based grandmillennial Amy Fried, also a lawyer by training but now a stay-at-home mom, said that although the grandmillennial style is trending, the style is not trendy. The style is not about age; it’s inspired by age, so anyone — millennial or not — can be part of the movement. Fried said the universal theme among grandmillennials is “we want to be surrounded by things that make us happy and remind us of a different era, like that of our grandparents.”

This desire to honor history is not ironic; grandmillennials are searching for something deeper in their environments. They crave the happy, pretty elements of the past, because they find them comforting — particularly now. “The world is awful and scary and falling apart,” Bazilian said. “That was the case when I wrote my article last September, and now it could not possibly be more true.”

For Uram-Mubangu, the importance of honoring her maternal grandmother is even more pressing today. “She will be 85 next month, and she is currently infected with COVID-19 and fighting for her life in a nursing home in Pennsylvania,” Uram-Mubangu said. “It is so hard not to be able to see her, to hold her hand, to FaceTime with her, to give her my love and encouragement. I am her oldest grandchild, and she personally entrusted me with so many of her most treasured pieces. I honor her by displaying and using the things she loved the most.”

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