In Charm/ Design

House Charm 101: 5 Ways to Use Design Motifs

Title: 5 Ways to Use Design Motifs. Image of a cream kitchen with blue design motifs on the cabinets and wall

Note: This post has been updated April 2024

Adding charm to your home is as easy as embracing a motif!

But wait, what exactly is a motif? A motif is a recurring element, theme, or pattern found in art, literature and even music. It can be a symbol, image, idea, or phrase that repeats throughout a piece, contributing to its overall structure and aesthetic appeal. Motifs often serve to unify the various parts of a composition and convey deeper layers of significance. In design, motifs can include specific shapes, symbols, colors, or decorative elements that are repeated to create visual interest and cohesion within a space or object.

Now you know what a motif is, how do you use it to add some house charm? First, ask yourself this question:

If your home was a brand, what would the logo be?

It’s an interesting question because brands tell stories and so do our homes.

I’ve put together branding packages for dozens of businesses over the years, so I recognize the power of a good brand. Developing logos, icons, and style guides to help tell the stories of all sorts of businesses got me thinking…

  1. What story is my home telling?
  2. Does my home have unique details that are personal to me and that share who I am?
  3. Did I design my home in a meaningful way that supports my daily rituals and makes me smile?

Motifs in Mary’s house

To help me explore the answers to those questions, I’ve considered the findings of my genealogy research. For example, there is fascinating information about my heritage and Jaga’s heritage that give clues to the stories told through our ancestor’s homes. Most noteworthy, is this picture that another user had posted of Jaga’s great-great-grandmother Mary Agnes from Austria who settled in Minnesota.


In this photo from the early 1950s, Mary Agnes is in her nineties (she lived to 94). I instantly recognized the fireplace in the background. I’m familiar with this house and learned a few things about it just before someone tore it down a few years back to make way for a parking lot – sigh. Mary Agnes’ husband was the stone mason who built the home and fireplace for their daughter, also named Mary, and son-in-law! I love that they branded the home, and in such a perfect place: the hearth-place, which is the heart of the home. Seriously, how sweet is that?

Motifs at the Biltmore Estate

A few months ago I was visiting the Biltmore Estate here in Asheville (a breathtaking Châteauesque-style mansion built by George Vanderbilt in 1895), and I noticed the symbolic motifs and architectural details that were literally everywhere throughout the 250-room house. Motifs such as linenfold carvings in the doors, quatrefoils, pineapples, fleur-de-lis, coat of arms, statues and more. Even the rooms started to take on their own names (or brand, if you will) based on the collections that were featured in there or the damasks that adorned the walls.

It seems homeowners have been branding their houses with heraldic plaques and family crests for centuries as well as many other symbols like egg-and-dart moulding, animals, and Greek keys motifs.

However, homes today seem to have lost this idea of personification and homeowners aren’t making their mark like they used to. Perhaps it’s because folks aren’t really looking at their house as a long-term home.

But if you are interested in creating a house that is unique with special, meaningful details infused into the very bones of the architecture, I’ve got 5 ways you can use a design motif to add that bit of house charm in your abode.

House Charm Tip 1. Feature a simple cutout shape

First, you can apply a simple shape to almost any flat wood panel with relative ease. Using negative space in design can add charm to a because it creates visual interest and invites the viewer to engage more deeply with the piece. This is also a fairly simple choice that doesn’t require too much work to create a cut out.

Where to Apply Shapes

Cabinet Doors
Shutters
Gable Trim
Brackets
Stair Railings
Fences
Front Gate

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House Charm Tip 2. Personalize with tile and mosaic patterns

Secondly, tile is a great place to do something super unique and special. You could have tiles custom painted to tell your family story, or you could create a mosaic carpet in your front vestibule with a monogram or other motif of your choice. Tiles are more work to include but the visual impact will also be greater.

Great Tile Locations

Showers
Entryway
Mudroom
Fireplace
Laundry
Kitchen Backsplash

House Charm Tip 3. Make your mark with a monogram or family name

Third, consider putting a name or your initials somewhere. (Like Mary!) We all love those industrial metal letters for home decor for a quick and easy way to add charm. But what about taking it a step further and inserting letters into an architectural feature?

Places for Initials or Names

Stamped Custom Concrete
Door Hardware
Textiles
Cabinet Knobs
Entrance Plaque
Brick Fireplace Surround 🙂

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House Charm Tip 4. Display your love for animals, insects, and nature

Additionally, animals and nature have always been a source of inspiration. For example, you might be a horticulturist or have a spirit animal. Similarly, Napoleon used a french bee motif in his residences to represent industriousness and prestige (source). In short, using nature is a great way to bring the outdoors in. Here are some ideas for places you could display a favorite woodland friend.

Ideas for Animal Motif Placement

Door knocker
Wallpaper
Mailbox
Turkish rugs
Mirrors
Glassware
Tiles
Bookplate
Curtain tie-back hardware and drapery rod finials
Bath accessories and hardware
Window and door casing corner blocks
Finials and carved stone sculptures on outdoor posts

This great wallpaper with art done by Hunt Slonem went up in a house in Asheville I worked on.

House Charm Tip 5. Put a modern spin on ancient symbols and patterns

Finally, using geometric shapes, patterns, and symbols from history can really add dimension and texture to your home. Think about finding images from your heritage that you can bring into your home. Fleur-de-lis are a great tribute to French ancestry or the dala horse which is found in Scandinavian folk art. Ancient symbols are a great option for incorporating the idea of legacy into your home.

Where to Apply Symbols

Fireplace surrounds
Stained glass windows
Moulding and trim
Carved doors
Door hardware
Air registers
Metal work (iron gate, railing, etc.)

Source

So, there you have it. 5 ways of bringing in motifs into your home to add charm and branding. Remember, branding is not just for business, folks!

Free Guide: Meaningful Motifs

Need some more help or inspiration for adding house charm? To get you brainstorming, I’ve created this free guide that has over 100 ideas for using design motifs and symbols in your home. Additionally, this guide includes questions to ask yourself, lists of dozens of motifs, and over 40 modern symbols that I’ve created that you can use for your home.

Your home’s “logo” is around the corner? So, just click below to get the guide emailed to you.

Need a Guiding Hand?

Do you need more dedicated guidance on choosing a design motif and branding your home? Let’s chat about your vision for leaving your mark and turning your home into a legacy. Explore my Design Service options and receive one-on-one help to add a little more charm to your home.

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