Q&A: Annie Elliott on downsizing

Annie Elliott
Feb 07, 2019

Annie Elliott is a Washington designer who 15 years ago started her firm Annie Elliott | bossy color design group. A former art historian, she and her team design livable, color-filled homes. Her goal is to create rooms that are full of warmth and hospitality. She has helped many people move and is full of great ideas for downsizers.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Annie Elliott is a former art historian who started her D.C.-based design firm, Annie Elliott | bossy color design group, 15 years ago. Her practice centers on designing classic homes full of color and personality. Her work takes her to many homes that need help with downsizing and reorganizing. She's here to answer all your questions about these topics and more.



Good morning, everyone! I'm the owner of Annie Elliott | bossy color, a residential design firm in D.C. When people ask about our style, I like to say that it's where classic and modern hang out and drink gin. We combine your favorite pieces – whether they have sentimental value or are just plain fabulous – with the very best furnishings on the market. I'm excited to answer your questions on Home Chat today, so let's get started!

I've read lots of books on decluttering and downsizing, but as I face it in my own life, I don't even know where to begin. Room by room? Clothes, then furniture, then personal items? Just invite friends and family over and beg them to take one item with them when they leave???

All of the above? I don't mean to make light of the stress -- downsizing can be very hard emotionally. Starting w/ clothes is good, actually.  A manageable and satisfying task. Then, room by room, flag the things you DON'T like, don't want, have never liked. Now is the time to get rid of the family portrait you've held onto because it belonged to Aunt Esmerelda. If you can physically clear out those items -- have friends or family take them, or donate to A Wider Circle or similar -- you won't feel as overwhelmed. Good luck!

I'm downsizing my 30+ year collection of beloved books - gasp - and looking for ways to feature/honor the few I am holding on to and the ones I let go.

This is the one thing I challenge Marie Kondo on: I love living with books! To feature the keepers, display them prominently in a NICE bookcase. It doesn't have to be built-in, just tidy and arranged w/ some special objects and framed pictures. I also love stacking the larger, "coffee table books," on, well, a coffee table.

I adore Marie Kondo's approach to organizing and have followed her process in many parts of my home. But no matter what I do, my clothes closet always seems cluttered and unhappy. How can I create a closet space that sparks joy when I open the doors?? Thanks!

First, purge, and then, Elfa. Seriously, the Elfa people at The Container Store generally do a decent job of designing a closet that works for you. Closets look best when there's an unrealistically low number of items in them, so don't beat yourself up about this. If your closet is tidy and filled ONLY with clothes you love and wear often, you should feel the spark.

For people in the Baltimore suburbs please remember there are few ReStores in the area and Second Chance that are happy to take your furniture and household items. They must be in good condition. Both offer pick up service if you can’t drop it off.

Excellent - thank you. Pick-up may take several weeks, so plan ahead!

If a family is downsizing from a home of 20-30 years to a two bedroom apartment in a senior living community, how long might they expect the downsizing process to take?

Oh goodness -- it's such a personal process! There's no standard timeline. There IS one universal piece of advice, though: start early. Just start giving things away, one room at a time. It will take time, especially if you care where your family treasures end up. 

My husband & I anticipate a significant downsizing this year as I retire and we move across the country. Neither of my children want either of my china sets (mine & my grnadmother's). What is the best way to find my china a new home?

Oh my gosh - *I'll* take it!! I love china. Seriously, if there's an emotional component here (sounds like there is) and you want it to go to "a good home," first ask your good friends if they want it, then put a notice on your neighborhood list serv. I wouldn't try to sell it. Don't be afraid to divide up the set and give the plates away two at a time...it's very au courant to mix vintage dinnerware. And your friends won't be as overwhelmed by 2 plates as by a whole set.

So timely! I am downsizing my parents’ household and there are many things that have been considered grannyish but now are returning to popularity (e.g. floral china.). We have many items that have been in the family for many generations (furniture, china, silver, etc) and i would like to see them continue descending in the family but popular wisdom says younger folks do not want old things. Now i see old things are becoming popular again. My dilemma is deciding what to keep and what to let go of when space is limited. I am decided not in the Marie Kondo school of minimalists but we have run out of space. Your advice would be appreciated.

Re: limited space, give away whatever you don't love love love. Think about YOU right now; you're the one living with these things. As for your younger relatives, hopefully they'll come to their senses and start duking it out for your antiques!

So I read Jura's story today on vintage china and how we should be using it! I have tons of it - how can I pick through it and save what is good and then keep it organized so I will use it? Not just stacks of it in the basement in boxes...

I know -- wasn't that a great story? Clean out your everyday cabinets first and get rid of things you don't love and/or don't use. That frees up space to move your favorite china pieces into a more accessible place. Good luck -- and how fun!

Hi Annie, we just purchased a new house and need to add some personal touches to make it feel like a home. What do you suggest for some quick ways to make my mark on my new home? Thank you

Paint!! Painting a room is the quickest, least expensive way to personalize a space. It doesn't even have to be a dramatic color (although I'm always up for that!). Soft blues look good in most places -- Ben. Moore's Whispering Spring is one of my go-to colors. Just, please, no more gray? I've had enough.

Point Point Code for today


My parents ended up with lots of the family patrimony - the big kind, like massive desks and sofas. They left the ancestral heap and the downsizing solution was giving it all to me. Please, please tell me I can get rid of it when my mother dies. And is there anything I can do before then?

Ha! They DO roll downhill! That is so mean of your family, first of all. You shouldn't dump so much on one person. Ok, rant over: you can get rid of this stuff NOW. There are people who have the taste and space to appreciate pieces like this -- if you can tell your mom that this desk went to a very dear friend who uses it every day and it's the pride of her living room, etc. that may ease the pain. Keep the thing you hate the least to keep the peace if you must, but seriously. It's YOUR life and your space. Good luck, my friend!

My big overstuffed furniture won’t translate well to a smaller home. Can you recommend local sources of downsized but comfortable, classy sofas and chairs?

Good for you for realizing that furniture scale is of primo importance! I don't know your style, but if traditional is your thing, check Chairish for local pieces that are easy to get. (vintage can = smaller scale.) For new + modern, Room & Board and Mitchell Gold are favorites. I hope this helps --

Here is a message from my colleague Mari-Jane Williams who edits the House Calls feature. A great opportunity for some wonderful and helpful advice: Have a design challenge? If you live in the D.C. area and are looking to refresh a room in your home, send an email to makeover@washpost.com describing your problem. We may use your space in House Calls, for a virtual room makeover, including free advice from a professional designer.

So what are some of your favorite paint colors for a front door? I want to add some personality.

Ooohhh - fun! Almost any color looks good if it's really, really shiny. I like Fine Paints of Europe for a glossy front door, and they have some great colors. Ok. The front door is definitely the place to have some fun. It depends on the color of your house, of course, but I recently saw a pretty dark blue brick house with a BRIGHT YELLOW front door. It was amazing. Pick any color you love that goes w/ the rest of your house -- I do think darker colors are easier to work with than pastels for front doors, though. Dark orange, eggplant, cobalt blue. Good luck!

I'd like your opinion on paint colors, we have a kitchen with an eastern exposure, lots of morning sun, maple cabinets with hardwood floors. We need to paint to prepare house for sale. There is a hallway off kitchen it has navy blue under chair rail and khaki above the chair rail. To be safe, go with the Khaki? Thanks for your advice. Maureen

No! Holy cow: khaki is never the answer! ;) Seriously, it won't look good w/ maple cabinets. How about a fresh white, like Ben. Moore's OC-117 Simply White? It would make the kitchen feel clean and sparkly, and then the hallway will be a nice contrast.

I want to refresh my pillows around the house to add some color. What are good sources for decorative pillows that won't break the bank?

Home Goods is probably the most reasonably priced, but can I give you some tips so the pillows don't LOOK cheap? Avoid pillows without a detachable cover -- pillows that are just stuffed with fiberfill and sewn shut. They're not comfy, and they're just not...well, they're just not fabulous. Look for pillows that have the patterned fabric on both sides, and also look for special trim. A contrast welt is always a nice touch. If you look hard, you should be able to find some pillows like this off the shelf!

Look into Joretro in Havre de Grace -- she buys from you and sells. Also, Broken Plate Co. (I think that's the name) will take broken china and make it into jewelry.

Woah - that's an interesting idea! Thanks for this info.

Since we are talking about heirloom china, take a look at my article today on how some of the hottest restaurants in town are using mismatched vintage china on their tables. This is inspiring others to dig out their old stuff and use it.

Read more about this here.

I have at least three cedar chests, all different styles from different eras. Any ideas for repurposing them out of bedrooms? They are great for storage, but my rooms are small. Does anyone use these anymore? Where do they go to R.I.P.?

My first question (you're going to get sick of hearing me ask this!), but do you love all of them? Start by giving away the one/s you don't like. Then, is one of them tall enough to use as a side table next to a sofa? Long side against the wall. I think chests look great next to furniture w/ piles of books on them. And coasters. Always coasters.

My widowed mother moved from her home of 55 years to a one bedroom senior citizen apartment. After the move, she said she wished she'd spent those couple of months picking out what she wanted to keep, instead of focusing on getting rid of stuff. She had a lot of regrets, "I wished I'd kept that book", etc. We had to hire someone to empty the house after she moved, anyway.

I'm sorry -- that sounds really hard, both for your mom and for you. I know that she's mourning the loss of older pieces that had meaning for her, but you mention a book...is it something you could get your hands on now? Even used, at Abebooks.com? It's not the same, but it would show your mom that you hear her and are trying to make her feel better. Hang in there.

Hi, Annie, though I totally agree that getting rid of things that weigh one down is a great way to go about downsizing, I have found that an alternative or complimentary approach can be to start by identifying the items you treasure and MUST take withyou to your downsized home. This can serve to put the rest in perspective sometimes.

Yes -- what a great point. The question I just answered spoke to that...flipping the method and looking first at what you love. Thanks for excellent advice.

We hear all the time how our consignors/donors children don't want their china yet we have luck selling it to others! We have a beautiful selection and loved seeing this article! It's so encouraging that young people are seeing the art of china.

Thanks for posting! How cool.

I'm trying very hard to clean up, downsize, reorganize, and get rid of things we don't need. I struggle the most with kid stuff. We have kids about 3 years apart, 5 and 2. I don't want to get rid of the 5 year old's toys as he outgrows them, as the little one will be growing into them in another year or so. So right now, I'm just holding on to all these extra in between toys I can't get rid of. Any tips on how to handle that?

Oh, sing it! Kid stuff is the hardest. I feel a little smug, because we had twins; we didn't have the pressure of holding onto things for the younger kid. ANYway, BINS. And shelves. If you have space for a few low bookcases from Ikea (are they still called Billy?), you can put toys in fabric bins and put the bins on the shelves. If you're REALLY a superstar, as a friend of ours was, you can put a picture of the stuff on the front of the bin so your kids can learn to put things away themselves. E.g., picture of a plastic dinosaur = all small animal figures go here. A truck = all the cars & trucks. You get it. And for stuffed animals, a huge laundry bag or bin. Good luck! And remember: this too shall pass ;)

When my mom died, I chose to keep two serving bowls of her 1963 china. They are smallish. I eat my lunch salad out of them almost daily. Very comforting, fun and manageable storage-wise. I have even put them in the microwave and dishwasher. They're being used and loved more than she ever did!

This is so wonderful! I love this idea. What a truly lovely way to remember your mom every day. I think many people could use this idea as a way to keep a part of their family china in use.

I been living in different apartments for the past 13 years, moving in average every 1.5 years. My furniture consist of a bed, chest, desk & chair, 3 wood stools, a folding table, and "skinny" book case. My apartment always seems very impersonal as I don’t decorate at all because of the constant moving. I do have plants, possibly 15-1 gallon pots and smaller including 3 avocado plant-trees (biggest one is 4 feet). I will probably move to an even smaller space, probably 650 sqf (currently in a 693 sqf), do you have any ideas on how I can possibly get my plants organize so that they sort or give harmony to my very dull future apartment? I need some inspiration!

Yikes - that sounds like a ton of work! But if moving every 1.5 years is the reality, I think focusing on the plants is an excellent idea. If you can group your plants together, they'll make a nice statement. A large tree on the floor, medium-sized plants on a stand or two (check West Elm), and the smallest ones together on a small table or shelf. It would look nice to coordinate the planters, too -- mostly baskets, or mostly terracotta...something to unify. Good luck! And remember -- you COULD paint ;) 1.5 years is long enough to go to that effort.

I found that some of the internet sites that sell used furniture, like Chairish are way over priced, especially the prices they are asking for the "older, brown furniture." If they get those prices, then there is hope for selling some of my vintage stuff myself!

The thing people forget is that it takes time to post things on sites like Chairish or Craig's List. Time to post, and then time to reply to people, and THEN time to arrange the pickup or delivery. Sometimes giving things away is the best answer, either for a tax credit or for feel-good points.

Cedar chests are not used that much. I found one in the Goodwill, restored it with wood oil & everyone wants to buy it. I have a very small townhouse & use it in the small study upstairs to store shoes & purses. It makes the room look neater & I found colorful flat pillows to put on top of it that make the room interesting. Keep the chests. You can put your towels, sheets, sweaters & more inside them & they don't take up space like armoires or dressers.

Good for you!!!! Excellent idea.

I second the recommendation about giving away china to many different people. Don't be afraid of breaking up the set. It's much more important it find it a new home than keep it all together. I don't have room for multiple sets of china but I do have room for a few pieces. I have several cups/saucers from different relatives china sets and I love to see them displayed.

This is also a really smart idea. Asking your relatives and friends if they want some of your china is a great way to find new homes for it. And you'll feel good about it.

I remember Upscale Resale in Merrifield fondly, as that is where I bought my 2nd hand dining room furniture. Are there any similar stores in the Arlington/DC area? I know there is one on Route 7 just east of Leesburg, but I don't get out there very often.

Anyone? Anyone?

I have a signed print of s picture by Legendary Tony Bennett. Met him a few years ago at a gallery. The personalization on the print is fading after all these years. Is there a way to fix this? It is in a glass frame.

Unfortunately, no. Just make sure the glass is "museum glass," which has UV protection -- you may have to reframe if you're not sure. And then, even w/ that protection, don't hang it in a sunny spot!

when they moved into a continuum of care place. But they dumped a lot of stuff on me. I live in a one bedroom apartment, so I'm going to have to get rid of a lot of it (this was understood when I took it). Just to start, my mother kept scrap books. Lots and lots of scrap books. I think I have every birthday card I ever received in the first 5 years of my life, lovingly stuck on grey paper. I guess I go through and take out the important stuff (my long form birth certificate, official infant portrait, and maybe a card or two that have actual notes from my grandparents in them) and literally toss the rest? Does anyone want birthday cards from the 60s?

Oh my gosh. The psychic weight is too much for ME, let alone you! I'm sorry. An organizer friend of mine (Nicole Anzia, who writes for the Post!) suggests photographing your kids' artwork so you don't have to take up space with the originals. I don't see why you couldn't do the same here. Keep the super important or sentimental things, as you say, but then photograph and discard. Good luck. (And no: I don't think anyone DOES want birthday cards from the '60s!)

Hi there. I have two boys (7 and 10 years old) who will never get rid of anything. They will sometimes even "rescue" things from the trash and hide them in their room. My husband and I are not like this, and I get that they want to have stuff that's their own. But how do we get them to rid rid of pre-K craft projects that are six years old! Thanks.

I know that this is a serious question, but it's also kind of cute imagining your little guys riffling through the trash to rescue something ;) But back on track: do they have shelves in their rooms -- like the aforementioned Billy bookcase -- where they get to display things? Would it help if you said that they each have that ONE bookcase for their projects, and when a new one comes in, they may have to get rid of an earlier project to make space? Also aforementioned: the idea of photographing the artwork and making a nice big binder of the pictures for them. This is NOT easy -- I feel for you! Hang in there!

6246 Old Dominion Drive, Mclean, supports the Navy Marine Coast Guard Residence Foundation, Vinson Hall, is a fantastic resource for those seeking vintage china, art, home décor. A Designer's Dream close to DC.

Thank you! It would be great if others posted names of consignment stores as lots of our Mari Kondo decluttered stuff may be worth selling.

How can I draw the line on stuff that I may forseeably need again at some point? I hate getting rid of things I will likely need in the next few years, but on the other hand I want to downsize. I move every 2-3 years or so, and it's frustrating because what works in one flat may not work in my current one, but will again in the future. And I have a fair amount of tools and other useful items that I really only use every couple of years or less, and clothes that I cycle in and out of my daily wardrobe from year to year. Individually, none of it is expensive, but especially reconfiguring my stuff, for example storage and small furnishings, for each new place would get expensive, but keeping things that don't work in the present place creates significant clutter.

Ooof. This is a tough one! What a challenge. Was it William Morris who said something like, "Keep only those things that you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful" ?? So on the "useful" stuff, if you're only using a hammer every two years, you don't need to own one. That's how you meet your neighbors. For things you really don't want to get rid of, though, how about a storage unit? I think the cost might be worth your mental heath if the clutter is getting you down. Good luck.

Maybe extended family would like a part of the china. Offer to family members who may want a memento. Our grandparents home when finally cleared out, the grandchildren came in and took nondescript items. Some wanted the stool that they sat on and watched grandpa tinkered in his shop. Others wanted the family thanksgiving platter, some wanted the jelly jars glasses they used as children. Some wanted hammers, the old tool box, a well worn mixing bowl. The " grown adults" were amazed at the items the now adult grandchildren wanted and took with them as mementos from their grandparents' home..

YES! Love it. Thank you.

What to do with vintage greeting cards? The new ones from various companies now cost as much as $10.00 each and seems a waste and a shame to discard such beautiful graphics. Must be someone out there who can re-purpose. Have vintage valentine cards from the 1920's through 1990's. In a box. In the basement. Waiting.

Ok. If you're not interested in investing the MAJOR amount of time it would take to sell them, would you consider buying nice blank notecards (from an art supply store, all white, just folded nice white paper), cutting the covers of the cards and gluing them to the blank ones to give them new life?

I am difficulty finding a place to relocate which keeps me procrastinating on purging. Any tips?

You mean, where to give things away? In the DC area, A Wider Circle and Goods for Good are places to start. Put a question on your neighborhood list serv, too. I'm sure there are places I don't know about!

Annie - you covered so many topics. I love knowing your tips for buying - off-the-rack pillows of good quality. Thank you so much! Meanwhile, next week we will have Clint Harp, who is a regular on HGTV's Fixer Upper as the dumpster diving, reclaimed wood loving carpenter. See you then.

WOW - what great questions! Thanks so much, everyone. I hope the answers were helpful...now my fingers are going to take a little breather ;) Thanks again, and see you next time!

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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