A home can be a symbol for safety, family, wealth, stability and much more. As for some timeless home décor choices, they are often embedded with symbolism, whether the homeowner knows it or not.
For instance, stone lions often guard the front of buildings, large and small. These originated from Chinese guardian lions — often called foo dogs — which traditionally stood in front of Chinese imperial palaces, temples and the homes of government officials and the wealthy.
As far back as the Han Dynasty starting in 206 B.C., stone lions were thought to have protective powers. Over time, they became associated with grandeur, even to people unfamiliar with the history. So if stone lions turn up at a house that isn’t fairly impressive, a passer-by might think they strayed from their rightful owner.
“It’s intriguing that many of the items we use to decorate have symbolic meanings, and many have a very long history behind them. Foo dogs are a perfect example,” says interior designer Sharon McCormick of Durham, Conn. “The lions were carved from stone originally and due to the expense involved, they became status symbols when used for private residences.”
Modern iterations include foo dog lamps (lighting designer Barbara Cosgrove offers hers in pairs to keep with tradition) and smaller-scale versions like bookends or statuettes. This way, they can continue to flank important items with their protection.
Another symbolic element that persists in home design is the pineapple for hospitality. In colonial America, pineapples were pricey, so placing one in the presence of guests showed how much the host welcomed and respected them.
Because of their pleasing shape and artistic appeal in addition to their history, pineapples are a timeless decorative motif. In the past, pineapple carvings were found in corbels and balustrades. Now, they’re used for tableware, linens, lamps and other housewares.
Feng shui — the art of orienting buildings and belongings in an auspicious manner — also assigns meaning to certain natural elements, such as koi fish and three-legged frogs. The former symbolizes abundance, while the latter supposedly draws wealth to feng shui homes.
But designer McCormick uncovered a different meaning for frogs after decorating two baby boys’ rooms with a frog theme at the request of the parents. “I’ve since discovered that the frog is a symbol of fertility and abundance in Asia,” she says.
Another symbol that holds different meanings according to culture is a bright red front door. It’s been told that in horse-and-buggy days, a home with a red door welcomed weary travelers to stop and rest.
In certain religious traditions, a red door signifies protection against evil, while in Scotland, folks paint their door red once they pay off their mortgage.
Carrying on tradition can create a satisfying sense of history and stability, but the way to infuse a home with personality and meaning is to incorporate design elements that are significant to its occupants.
Symbolism can be idiosyncratic as well as cultural, designers say.
Hand-woven baskets from Bali mean something special to Austin, Texas, resident Amy Campbell, founder of the online marketplace Brilliant Imports. “It’s an important destination for me. They are sumptuous in detail and bring Bali home without needing to go anywhere,” she says.
Highly significant objects can be arranged together to form an altar of sorts. “It is fun to create a sacred space to meditate in front of or simply a special area for treasured and meaningful pieces as part of your décor,” Campbell says.