Spend a day with Madeline Westfall and before you know it you’ve taken a sledgehammer to your kitchen tile, been back and forth between Home Depot a few times, and are finally making your long-lost dreams of a sunny yellow backsplash come true. With a little encouragement and a lot of know-how, Madeline instills the kind of confidence that you never knew you had. In our interview, she discussed how her love of anything antique comes from the stories objects can tell. We learned that the most important story, however, is the one you tell yourself.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tenlie Mourning: Could just tell us a little bit about where you live?
Madeline Westfall: I am currently in Nashville, Tennessee. I’m originally from Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, back and forth between Erie, PA, and Cincinnati. I went to school down in South Carolina and just kind of landed in Nashville, as kind of a middle ground. It’s a really creative city and I studied design. It’s great. It’s a busy city. It’s grown like immensely, even in the past five and a half years that I’ve been here. It’s becoming increasingly less Southern, which is great. It’s got a lot of West coast influence now, which I love. Yeah, that’s Nashville.
TM: Can you tell us about your space and where you live and who you live with?
MW: I have lived in a different house every year that I’ve lived in Nashville. I get so excited to go to a new neighborhood or be in a new house that I can decorate. Right now, I’m in this really old stone house. If you don’t pay attention to the other homes, it literally looks like the English countryside. It’s awesome. It’s like a maze inside. I have always lived in old homes growing up, so there’s so much charm to it and I love it, but I’ve only really been in here for three months. But already feels like home. I’m such a nester that it feels like I’ve lived here forever, but I’ve only lived here three months.
Julian Wright: When you move to these places every year, do you try to keep it consistent or do you start from scratch?
MW: Well, I don’t start from scratch, but I definitely collect things along the way. In my last place, so much of the stuff that I had didn’t make sense. It was just sitting in weird places and when I moved in here and it made perfect sense. I’ve always found that I always look for old homes just because I love the character of them. They’ve never all looked the same. Now, I have a dining room and I bought a dining room set. I actually found out it’s a Jacobean dining room set and it’s worth like $5,000. I got it for a hundred dollars on Facebook marketplace and refinished it but it would never fit in any of my other places. So things do change. I think that’s a result of getting in the space and feeling it out, especially when you’re renting. When you move in somewhere, you adapt to that space based on what you have and what you need.
TM: I’m curious as to what you’ve learned about your style or how your style has evolved from house to house?
MW: My style is very influenced by the way I grew up. My mom was an amazing decorator. I’m in graphic design so everything is visual to me. I guess my style hasn’t necessarily changed. It’s just better in different houses. I’ve always loved antique furniture and it fits best in this house, but I would never pass it up because of where I lived. If I’m like this is me and I love it, I just find a way to make it work or put it in storage or do what I need to do. I just know that one day when I own a home, I’ll have this great collection of things that are me, because I think the most important thing about a space is not someone coming in and being like, oh, this all feels right for the space. I want someone to come in and be like, this is so you and I want to go into someone else’s space and feel like I just walked into their personality.
JW: You seem so self-assured and I feel like a problem that a lot of people, at least in our generation, have is they don’t really necessarily know who they are or they’re really easily influenced… What would your advice be to someone who doesn’t really know who they are?
MW: I think a lot of it comes from the people that you surround yourself with. I’m very different from a lot of my friends. But when you have people in your life that know who you are, it helps you know who you are. What you hear is what you’ve learned about yourself from childhood to being an adult. What your parents tell you, what your friends tell you, what your teachers tell you, what your boss tells you. That’s what gives you your confidence and your self-assuredness.
I think one thing that also helped me, which maybe is not going to be the case for everybody, but I find a lot of fulfillment in my job. For work, I do graphic design and branding where I am constantly having to be like, do you like what I did? That is literally what I do for a living is hoping that people give me positive feedback. I’m opening myself up to criticism every single time I send something to somebody, but I think practicing that is the only way to build up the resilience for that criticism. And I think we underestimate people, people assume that people want to criticize. It’s this assumption that like oh, they’re going to hate it. Why do we do that to ourselves? If you tell yourself, I really think they’re going to love it. I love it. That’s really all that matters. I don’t want to come off as I’ve always been this self-assured. It’s definitely learned.
TM: What is your relationship to whoever you’re helping with their own space?
MW: I think one of my biggest things in those initial conversations is, what things do you want it to have? Especially homeowners because they get really tripped up on resale value. I’m like, you’re the one living here. What makes sense to you? What do you value? And they’re always like*, I just really want it to be able to sell and get my money back.* Don’t just think about what’s most expensive or what’s trendy right now. Think about, what do you like? It’s your house you’re living in every day, stop being so worried about the resale value and think about what you’re looking at it every day. Is it going to make you happy looking at it? So that’s always my rule of thumb and then I can kind of gauge people’s personalities a little bit. I always ask them did you have anything in your kitchen or bathroom growing up that you just really loved? Then let’s do it. I really do think that people are just so caught up in what other people are going to think. If you like it that’s really all that matters. I think it’s really important to instill that message because they’ve never heard that in any other sense of their life. And then everything else kind of trickles out based on who they are and what’s going on in the rest of their house.
I feel like that all has to be taken into consideration. There’s no formula for taking on a project. It’s like, what makes sense? What looks good with the rest of your house? Let’s just start there and not put ourselves in a box.
TM: What is home to you?
MW: That’s so hard. I feel like there are five different, good answers. I feel like it’s just the place where you are most comfortable. I’ve moved around a lot so it’s definitely not a city or a specific place. I have moved around within Nashville. I’ve moved around from growing up to going to college. So I’ve always had to figure out what’s home going to look like now? I think it’s an ever-changing thing, but I think it’s the place where you can just feel your most relaxed and like you can sit there and say nothing, but what’s around you is telling the story of you. Like I can come in and someone can know a little bit about me. I go to estate sales and I feel like I’m always creating this narrative about who lived there. That’s what I want someone to think about when they come in my house. How am I going to write that story for them?
I think having that ability to have a place that can tell a story, even if that place is consistently changing by the things that are in it, that’s what I feel like home is the most. In my world, I can’t attach a place and I also can’t attach people because I’ve lived with so many different people. I think it’s where you feel yourself and don’t have to put on a show for anybody else and sit there in silence and the walls do the talking.
JW: So 70 or 80 years from now, when somebody is at your estate sale, what is the story that you hope you’re writing and that they’ll understand through all the things that you leave behind?
MW: I would want people to know that I had an appreciation for how things work together. It could be intentional chaos for all I care, but that everything made sense. I don’t mind having a lot of things by no means am I a minimalist. I think you just have things that make sense. Like having things spanning multiple time periods and things that you can tell, I had when I was a kid or that have been refinished or that have stories. I love to buy things that have stories, that’s why I love antiques. And I love used stuff because it doesn’t gross me out, that someone else used it. I’m like, this is cool, this chair has heard stories. You know what I mean?
One of my friends just bought a house from a woman that has all this wood paneling. When her husband died and she was finally moving out, in the agreement she was like the only term that I have is when you do all the cleanout and you’re going through stuff, if you find any valuables in the floors or walls, you have to return them to me. The valuables could include money, jewelry, film, or guns. My friend’s like, well great I live in a scavenger hunt. I’m going to be knocking on the walls, trying to find everything. I think that’s so cool when people have heights on the door frames. It was well lived. There were a lot of good stories that happened here. There were a lot of happy times. I just want the energy to feel good. And I think that comes from the things you put in it and the ways that you make things your own. I’m so jealous of her living in that house though.