Practicality often trumps the desires of the heart when it comes to selecting a souvenir to commemorate a long-planned trip or that once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
We talk ourselves into getting something that will slide into the suitcase nicely, is lightweight enough to carry during the rest of the journey or passable enough to justify checking “bring something home” off the list.
In some cases, we’re so engaged in sightseeing and activities that we can’t be bothered to detour to that famous handicraft market or off-the-beaten-path artisan store to treasure-hunt for that special something to bring home. And although it’s true that there’s nothing quite like memories and photos as takeaway, it’s often used as an excuse to avoid the vacation shopping experience altogether.
I put treasure-hunting for the finest examples of local handcrafted traditions high on the list of things to do while on a special journey. I’m an interior designer whose job it is to understand these kinds of things, but that’s not why I do it. I do it because the best examples of local crafts act as storytellers that give unique insight into the place I’m visiting and oftentimes serve as a phenomenal way to meet local artisans and communities.
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In many cases, these handicrafts involve skills that have been passed on for centuries. They have a way of imbuing a home with soul. And they’re a decent way to support the local economy while helping to sustain the uniqueness of a place.
Every home should be a true reflection of the people who live there as well as the journey they’ve been on, which is why I always consider an invitation to someone’s home to be a real honor. Curating that home with thoughtfully selected purchases from each special place you’ve visited is a wonderfully physical way to manifest your life experiences and make walking through your front door a daily highlight. If you find the whole thing a little daunting to tackle, follow some of my guidelines below and you’ll soon be treasure-hunting like a pro.
▪ Do some homework: A little research ahead of time can point you in the right direction when it comes to figuring out what to purchase vs. what to forgo. Pass on goods imported to that location (“Made in China” is not a good sign unless you’re in China) and concentrate on what that local culture excels at producing.
Most guidebooks will direct you to the kinds of local handicrafts you should be tracking down. Certain areas in Vietnam, for example, are famous for lacquered decor goods while others excel at contemporary paintings of local life. Figuring out the specialty of your area ahead of time can really help you focus on selecting the best object for you to bring home.
▪ Assess the opportunities in your home: Before you leave on vacation, look around your home for empty spots or areas where you’ve got temporary place holders. It’s always easier to justify something from a trip if you’ve bought it for a specific place. Have several locations in mind so that you have flexibility when you’re actually shopping. You may not find that perfect thing for a certain spot so it’s a good idea to have several locations in mind.
In addition to artwork, sculptures and carvings, consider items that also have a practical aspect such as rugs, towels, bedding, dishes and lighting.
▪ Take some basic measurements: To make the process more efficient, take critical measurements (and a lightweight measuring tape too if you have room) so that you can quickly focus on those items that will actually work and dismiss the rest. If you’re heading to a country that makes beautiful rugs, for example, assess where you could use a rug and measure the overall width and length of that room so that you can concentrate on those rugs that will fit your space.
▪ Take an empty suitcase: Bring empty suitcases with you to carry home reasonably scaled or fragile items. Anything you carry home will help you save on shipping.
▪ Seek the real deal: Research where to get first-quality specimens ahead of time so that you’re not wasting valuable time in tourist traps. If you forget, or can’t seem to figure it out, ask locals where they shop once you’re on the ground. Local guides and hotel personnel can also be a great resource, but beware of countries where those individuals get commissioned to recommend tourist destinations rather than direct you to off-the-beaten-path gems with the real deals.
▪ Stick to neutrals or a palette you know will work for you: It’s easy to get distracted by dynamic colors when you’re on vacation. That multicolored tapestry might look special while you’re wandering the markets of Mexico but end up clashing terribly once you get it home.
Keep the colors of your existing decor in mind to help you make selections that will seamlessly work with what you’ve already established. When in doubt, purchase items in white, shades of neutrals or made with materials in their natural state.
▪ Bring back one great thing: Small items that slip into your primary suitcase are tempting purchases because they require no extra planning or shipping. Their diminutive scale, however, doesn’t result in much of an impact. They can litter the landscape of a room and cause it to look cluttered rather than purposeful. Instead, use the money you would’ve spent on multiple small items to purchase one exemplary item with some scale to it so that it has presence and impact in your space.
▪ Embrace shipping: Keep in mind that FedEx, UPS and DHL (among others) are just about everywhere and can help you ship most anything home. If it doesn’t fit into the empty suitcase you brought with you, but you love it and know it will work, don’t let the significant scale prevent you from pulling the trigger.
I have a solid, white marble elephant statue in my back yard that weighs over a ton and is about a quarter of the size of a real pachyderm. I fell in love with it while visiting Jaipur, India, knew I would never find anything like it back home and decided it needed to come home with me. My kids now love to perch on top of it. When I pull my car up to the back of the house, a broad smile creeps across my face every time I see it.
And as my children continue to grow and become travelers themselves, we continue to layer our home with objects that remind us of our own journeys that they’ll hopefully cherish and one day use to remember all of our special times together.
So the next time you travel somewhere you’d like to remember, forgo the refrigerator magnets and commemorative T-shirts. Pool your resources and bring back one truly meaningful object that will serve as a permanent reminder of how special your entire life journey has been.
Vern Yip is an interior designer and star of “Bang for Your Buck” and “Live in Vern’s House” on HGTV.