July 23, 2024

Architectural Design Kingdom

Home is where the heart is

The best souvenirs are home decor

7 min read

Journeying to a new place lets you try on what living in another culture feels and looks like, whether you’re exploring the adobe house-filled streets of Santa Fe or the lantern-lit alleys of an ancient Moroccan city. Many travelers, dazzled by the rug sellers of Istanbul or the pottery workshops of Oaxaca, return with worldly housewares or art to decorate their homes.

“A textile, a clay bowl or an object you pick up at a flea market connects you to a time that you’ve enjoyed, a memory of a place,” says Hilary Robertson, a Brooklyn prop stylist and author of “Nomad at Home: Designing the Home More Traveled.” “If you can’t move to Marrakesh or Kyoto, you can at least recreate something of the feeling.”

But snapping up the best items for your particular home requires a bit of strategy and advance planning. Here’s how to shop smartly, how to get your treasures back in one piece, and what to do with them upon your return.

You usually won’t turn up Indigenous handicrafts or interesting local art at an airport store or the hotel gift shop. “So do research before you go, looking up artisan networks, finding out which days flea markets operate, and figuring out what you might even be able to buy in a given place,” says Rachna Sachasinh, owner of Tikkiwallah, an online shop selling fair-trade Thai and Laotian pillow covers, blankets and other textiles.

Seek tips on what to buy and where to shop from your hotel concierge (or short-term rental owner), and via the websites and social media accounts of official tourism boards. You can also flip through old-school guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Rick Steves), which tend to concentrate on local retailers, rather than the location of every West Elm in Mexico City. TikTok and Instagram also offer potential shopping info, but be wary of paid brand placements.

While cool art and vintage home decor are available at most destinations, “you’ll find more handmade items like textiles, rugs and baskets if you travel to places like Morocco, India and Mexico, which still have living crafts cultures,” says Sachasinh.

Consider hiring a shopping pro

To get straight to the treasure hunting, you could hire a tour guide who specializes in shopping for a few hours. Look for market- or retail-specific experiences in your destination on travel booking sites such as Tripadvisor and Tours by Locals; using the name of a specific place (“Istanbul Grand Bazaar” or “Oaxaca pottery workshops”) can further winnow your search.

You can also try a simple online search to turn up market-savvy private guides such as Buenos Aires Shop Hop (guided jaunts to leather workshops and vintage markets in Argentina) or Maryam Montague, the proprietor of Peacock Pavilions hotel in Marrakesh, who takes travelers on day-long expeditions through the city’s souks looking for fuzzy tribal rugs, bright pottery and leather poufs.

Or go on a crafts- or shopping-focused trip. Tour companies such as Ace Camps and Thread Caravan host week-long trips to meet artisans and make things alongside them in destinations such as Perú (try weaving in the Sacred Valley near Machu Picchu) or Japan (learn how to use shibori indigo dyes or make pottery).

Luxury trip-planning company Indagare offers frequent style-centric small group tours to Mallorca, Rajasthan and Paris with dinners in designers’ homes, market excursions and meetups with artists. Grant K. Gibson, an interior designer, leads small groups to destinations such as Jaipur, India, and Oaxaca, Mexico, where they visit showrooms, learn about block printing and woodworking techniques, and usually come back with suitcases full of merchandise.

“Design touches on so many passion points — art, history and culture, food and wine — that trips like these are a great linchpin for learning, exploration and meeting fellow design enthusiasts,” says Indagare founder and chief executive Melissa Bradley.

To support local artisans, look for fair-trade crafts stores, which pay creators fairly for their products and tend to stock goods representative of a destination. Other top bets: flea markets focused on handmade or antique goods, museum shops, and government-sponsored artisan boutiques or networks. For instance, Artesanías de Colombia shops in Bogotá and Cartagena hawk rope hammocks and palm fiber baskets produced by Indigenous weavers.

“And visiting an artisan workshop might give the deepest connection to something handmade, since you get talk to the crafter or even make something beside them,” says Sachasinh, who recommends the weaving workshops and the blanket- and table runner-stuffed store at Ock Pop Tok in Luang Prabang, Laos. At the Seattle Glass Blowing Studio, artists create the delicate bowls and glasses the Pacific Northwest city is known for — and teach beginners how to make their own.

Think about how you’ll get it home

Serendipity and impulse inspire many souvenir purchases. But if you want a Turkish rug for your living room or a vintage Parisian painting to match your bathroom tile, be sure to travel with photos and measurements of the space you have in mind. “I always bring a measuring tape and swatches of any fabric I want to match, too,” says Montague.

Planning on carrying a lot of items home on the plane? Stash a collapsible duffel (Paravel makes a clever zip-down one) in your luggage, or, for larger purchases, pack an extra, empty hard-sided suitcase. “It’s usually cheaper to pay for an extra checked bag than to ship a lot of things home,” says Montague. Know that oil paintings can be taken off their stretchers and rolled up, and that you can purchase a throw pillow cover that takes up little luggage space and buy the bulky insert when you arrive home.

“I’m wary of checking a bag with breakables, though,” says Bradley, who has ferried glass and pottery back from Cambodia and South Africa in a hard-sided carry-on.

And whether you are two hours away by car or five time zones away by plane, retailers that sell bulky items can generally guide you toward a shipper, even though it’s often not cheap. “I had this great farmhouse dining table shipped from the Paris flea market, and I’ve had people on my trips to India send home inlaid dressers,” says Gibson.

Many housewares bought on your travels can be repurposed, and even ordinary goods found in other countries can seem special or elevated compared to what you’d get at home. “I go to Mexican hardware stores, because even basic items like door hooks or storage bins can be so colorful and fun,” says Robertson.

A Navajo rug can serve as a tablecloth; a beaded Maasai collar morphs into a sculpture when displayed on a wire stand. Even the simplest souvenirs — a vintage postcard of Yellowstone National Park, a scrap of fabric — look terrific when nicely framed.

Grouping disparate travel finds on a gallery wall can make them seem cohesive. “I have the most random … stuff hung on the wall of the staircase at my house — a painting from India, a brass bowl I got in Turkey,” says San Francisco interior designer Chelsea Sachs. “It’s like a chronicle of my life, and these things remind me of special moments when I get back home.” Indagare’s Bradley arranges Iranian tiles, Burmese boxes and Peruvian ceramics amid the novels and art books on her shelves.

Fabrics, buttons and other easy-to-transport materials you snap up on the road can turn into home accents, even if you aren’t especially crafty. Bring home a couple pieces of washi — a Japanese mulberry paper so storied it’s recognized by UNESCO — to hot-glue onto a lampshade or inside a wooden tray. A basket or other object can be turned into a light fixture. “I carried a huge antique rattan birdcage home on a ferry from Provincetown once, and now it’s a chandelier,” says Robertson.

And almost any textile — a striped Peruvian blanket, a vintage quilt from a flea market — can be fashioned into a throw pillow or shower curtain by your drycleaner or used to reupholster a chair seat. “Sometimes stuff has to hang around for a while before you know what you’ll do with it,” says Sachs.

You might not want to amass a cabinet full of souvenir teacups, spoons or snow globes like your great grandparents did. But the concept of picking up one small object everywhere you travel still has some validity; it might save you from overbuying, and even kitschy trinkets can summon memories. Think about scoring a holiday tree ornament or small flower vase every time you go on a trip, or save a few coins from each foreign country you visit to pile into a bowl on your coffee table. “Pieces from different places become integral to your home and allow you to reconnect with a destination and its aesthetic,” says Bradley.

Jennifer Barger writes the Substack “The Souvenirist,” which explores where to travel and what to buy when you get there. She’s on Instagram at @dcjnell.


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