The secret code of old-school interior design revealed

Fads in interior design come and go, but old-school “pretty” and “proper” decor stands the test of time, conveying a sense of calm and permanence. It is a style that gets inherited, not reinvented, and it is passed down from generation to generation like a secret code. In her book The Pretty and Proper Living Room, interior designer Holly Holden reveals this code, providing a recipe for creating a graceful, genteel living room (and home) with timeless understatement.

The Pretty and Proper Living Room started as a list of suggestions for her eldest daughter, Alexandra, who had recently married and wanted guidance from her mother on how to create her “big girl” house… one without disposable furniture. After she reached a hundred pages and a few hundred photographs, Holly decided it was time to hire an editor. Today, The Pretty and Proper Living Room is a 373-page primer filled with more than 1,000 detailed photographs, time-tested advice on which items to collect and how to display them, secrets to smart buying and refined living, and what not to do… the forbidden faux pas.

“If pretty and proper had a recipe, it would be: add one full measure of British Understatement; stir in equal parts Southern Gentility and Manor House Elegance; finally, garnish with a dash of Preppy Whimsy. Serve from silver… of course.” – Holly Holden 


Image via Scully & Scully
The Pretty and Proper Living Room is broken into three primary sections, much of which is applicable to the entire home, not just the living room:
1. Aristocratic accessories:
pretty porcelains and pottery, polished picture frames, charming collections and petite vignettes
2. Old guard furniture and rugs:
regal rugs, sumptuous seating, fine furniture
3. Stately lighting and wall art:
classic chandeliers and wall sconces, lovely lamps and candlesticks, magnificent mirrors and wall art

Images from the book below are by Dean Greenblatt…

The living room at Fox Hall, Holly’s historic home, circa 1803, in Farmington, Connecticut.
Here is a closeup of her beautiful mantle!


Holly loves decorating with silver baby cups, which make a splendid gift to mark a baby’s birth or Christening. Here the drinks table in her front hall has a silver baby cup filled with flowers from the garden.
She also loves Staffordshire dogs, silver picture frames (preferably engraved), and exquisite handmade silk lampshades with dressmaker details. Advice and tips are in the book!
This ram is one of a pair of English Staffordshire spills that Holly uses as diminutive vases. A small reticulated Herend container complements the colors of the larger rose medallion pieces on either side.


A subtle marble lamp allows your eye to savor the shade made of delicately smocked silk and nearby accessories.


A silver tray displays Holly’s collection of silver horses inherited from her mother.


Holly loves to collect Herend bunnies…


and a Herend mouse makes a charming addition to a lovely cheese platter!
Battersea enamel and French Limoges boxes seem to find their way into any classic, old-school house. And, Holly advises, they make thoughtful gifts for hostesses!


Nothing pleases the eye like symmetry, as demonstrated in Holly’s front hall.
Above is the first mirror (Adamesque in style) Holly and her husband ever purchased from an antique store in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
Plates make excellent addition to a wall vignette. Here 10 English Royal Doulton plates, three French watercolors, and a French clock made of rose quartz that once belonged to Holly’s mother fill a sizeable wall.


Holly shares her favorite pillow with House Beautiful. She says “I adore the charm and whimsy of needlepoint pillows. The canvas on this one is an eyeglass case that belonged to my mother. I centered it on a Scalamandré silk background finished with white fringe. It is precious and reminds me of my dear mum!”

Not only is the Pretty and Proper design philosophy beautiful, it is a also practical.  “You only have to design once,” Holly says. “Once you invest in good lines, you don’t have to do it again. You can update, you can change colors, but [classic style] stretches your design dollars, along with purchasing at auctions, more than any other design style.”  

Based on the success of The Pretty and Proper Living Room, Holly is planning a book on curtains for a “Pretty and Proper” series followed by the dining room and entertaining. She is currently finalizing a book on Palm Beach interiors. I can hardly wait!

Holly at the Brooke Astor estate auction at Sotheby’s. She believes auctions represent the single best way to acquire antiques… besides inheritance.

Holly’s design talent was inherited from her parents. Her British father gave his tailored sensibilities, and her mother gave her a flair for entertaining. Holly’s formative years were spent in Richmond, Virginia.  It was here that the gentility of Southern culture made an impression on her, which is clearly apparent in her work. Holly has been a designer for more than 25 years, specializing in classic, old-school residential interiors through Holly Holden & Company, Ltd. She and her husband, Stuart, have three darling children and three precious grandchildren.

You can learn more about The Pretty and Proper Living Room here. It is available for purchase through and Amazon. And for one lucky reader, Holly is giving away one copy… please enter below!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

“For those who admire taste and style, Holly Holden has it all. I would follow her advice every time.” – Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of The Estée Lauder Companies. 
“Holly demonstrates how to integrate family heirlooms with newly purchased items of distinction… Her goal is similar to that of my business, to assist in creating a classic and never trendy home. With her straight-forward advice, the book reads more like a set of time tested rules than a decorating guide. They are truly valuable rules that anyone would be wise to follow.”  Michael E. Scully, Scully & Scully New York 
“A read through The Pretty and Proper Living Room, by Holly Holden, is the next best thing to being raised by a grand Patrician family and inheriting every needlepointed, monogrammed, and engraved bit of decorating DNA they possess.” – Frances Schultz 


  1. Thank you for introducing me to Holly Holden. It's so funny – my first reaction to all of the photos you posted is that it's EXACTLY my mother's style!!!! I've been fortunate to get "hand me downs" from my mother. I think this style is timeless! Thanks for sharing!!!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here


related posts

the latest features

on our bookshelf

trending now

designer profiles

best sellers