Friday, July 07, 2006

Cheryl St.John's tips on collecting and displaying your favorite things

There are so many ways to collect today, from flea markets and antique malls to online shopping like ebay. Some people like owning only new things, others want pieces with history. We collect the things that appeal and intrigue and inspire. You can tell a lot about people by the things you see in their homes. Collecting is personal, and it’s about living with the things you love. Collections are as various as people. I’ve even seen a woman who collects lint and turns it into art.

If you have three, you have a collection. If you have two, you have two.
Always display things in groups of at least three.
We want our homes to reflect our personalities, and that’s what the things we collect reveal. We don’t want our homes to look cluttered. Even if you have many collections and display a large amount of them, your surroundings don’t have to look disorganized.

Color sets the mood of your room. You can change the appeal and focus of a room without painting or reupholstering by simply switching out your colorful collectables. They have punch and their mobility makes them a decorator’s dream.

Group items according to light or dark.
Use horizontal stacks as well as vertical rows of books.
Create a focal point for each shelf by grouping like objects. The bigger the object, the more impact. Too many small items create clutter.
Display small items in separate display boxes, shadow boxes or frames.
Use containers like baskets or glass bowls to hold things like buttons, marbles, matchbooks.
To arrange shelves, start with the biggest heaviest objects to anchor the space.
Add height and color. Finish with filler, smaller items to bridge gaps. Stacks of bowls or books are one item. Use interesting shapes.
Keep items from the same collection of theme together.
If you display photos in frames, confine them to one shelf to avoid clutter. The observer’s focus needs to fix on one group or shelf at a time, and not be drawn a dozen directions at once.
Turn things the same way and unify them by silhouette, for example teapots with spouts, pitchers and cups with handles

Remove the paper jackets and group hardbacks according to color and size.
A hodgepodge is confusing to the eye, where blocks of color and size keep the eye focused.
Paperbacks are less attractive and should be kept in another room or discreetly hidden in baskets.

Cardinal rule: Open shelving and china cabinets are for display, not storage.
Jam-packed cabinets lack a focal point.
You should be calling attention to the most attractive items.

1 adhere to a theme or color palette
2 use balance, but don’t be predictable
3 use a platter, soup tureen, or pitcher as a focal points (your anchors)
4 stacks and rows are more restful to the eye
5 stacking teacups on saucers rather than on each other maintains neat lines

Consider the backgrounds for your displays. If the inside of your china hutch is dark, paint it white or a pale color. If your display items are white, paint your shelves black or red.
Two colors with a strong contrast will make your collection pop.
The same principle applies to shiny verses matte finishes.

Curio cabinets can become a jumble. Create small bleacher-like steps with several layers for your displays. Make your own with painted or stained wood or fabric-covered cardboard. Choose a color that blends in with the cabinet.
You can use cup hooks on the underside of shelves to hang small treasures.
Small boxes can become shadow boxes. Heart-shaped candy boxes will hold miniatures or use picture frames or flat items like Valentines, stamps, paper fans or handkerchiefs.
There are also memory boxes to hold three dimensional displays.

Think of tables as pedestals. They can be casual or formal, whatever your style.
The same rules apply when displaying objects on a table, dresser or cabinet top. The bigger & heavier the table, the bolder the objects should be.
Have a theme in mind. Use one or two recurring colors.
Have a focal point.
Start with large objects like lamps and statuary and work to smaller. Think of a physical landscape with mountain peaks and smaller hills at the outer edges.
A live or silk plant is always a great addition for color and atmosphere.
Plants add warmth and hominess.
Lighting is as important as the items you’re displaying.
A table lamp with a three way bulb can add the sparkle you want.

A tray can be a tabletop, too, and you would arrange it the same. It’s actually a frame of sorts. The benefit is, it’s portable.
Remember that what you set on a coffee table must be able to withstand admirers and everyday traffic.

Change displays as often as you like, seasonally, or as the whim strikes. You can move the things you love from room to room to create variety. It’s always a good idea to pack away collections you’re not displaying and then bring them out another time. They’ll be new all over again, and you won’t get tired of them. Keep a collection flexible by changing out part and rearranging.

Either on the wall, tabletop or shelf, unify by single material, color, shape, texture or size.

Mantels used to be where the family displayed their crests, sabers and hunting trophies and this area often signified the family’s status. Today mantles are less formal, less symmetrical. It’s more about what you like than in adhering to design rules.

The mantle is a good place for more fragile, extraordinary or expensive things, because there’s less traffic. A mirror, clock, painting, flag or quilt is a good anchor. You should have a unifying element. It’s good to remember that a mantle is the bottom part of a picture frame. What flanks the mantle is equally important as what’s on it. Remember to tie in the items on your hearth and the adjoining wall.

Use mirrors. Place them flat and set items on top or hang them and reflect your room or your collection. Glass and bottles are best displayed in front of a window or with backlighting. Consider rope lights above or below shelves for effect.

Some collections are kept hidden away: Jewelry, watches, coins. If you want to take your jewelry out of the drawer it can be displayed as curtain tiebacks or in a glass dish.

If you collect something valuable and want to make sure you’re buying the real deal when you’re at a fleamarket, study up. Buying guides, websites and books will help you know your stuff.
Not everything has to be perfect. If you love it, it’s beautiful. Chips and dings can add character. Mismatched teacups or plates are delightful additions to a shelf.
If you love a particular textile or texture, you can purchase imperfect pieces and use them as mats for frames, throw pillows, tiebacks.

So much stuff can be overwhelming. Make one quick sweep to skim, then start over and spend time looking over the things you collect. Just seeing booths at an antique mall will give you ideas on how to display. Ask questions about the items and always ask for their best price. It’s usually 10% off, so don’t insult them by asking them to take less.
Garage sales don’t adhere to that rule. If they want to get rid of their junk, they’ll go lower.

Learn how to care for things like vintage linens, wood, glass & ceramics, brass, copper & silver, because moth and rust will destroy our earthly treasures.

If you like to collect marbles, shells, twigs etc., find creative uses for them by trimming lampshades, picture frames, by making wreathes or by filling clear glass lamp bases.

Many collectables are useful, for example: pots & planters, dishes, linens & silverware.

Nearly everyone collects something for Christmas, from snowmen, Santas and angels to glass tree toppers and Shiny Brite ornaments, there’s something for everyone at Christmastime. It’s a good idea to store like items or combinations together for easy retrieval and use. It’s fun to display a Christmas themed collection year round, if it suits you.

It’s been said that a collector is a curious, passionate person, and the more passionate one is, the greater is the collection. I remind my husband of this when he calls my collecting obsessive.


  1. Hi Cheryl,

    Wonderful tips on collecting! I love your cluster map too. I'm just learning about them. Neat stuff. And we just saw Pirates today -- waited in line for over an hour, but worth it. Did I like it as much at the first? Not really. But I loved it just the same. Wondering how many others think the plot was sort of ... all over the place? But can't help loving Capt. Jack and the rest. It was great to see the whole ensemble cast ... okay. I've said enough.

  2. Thanks, Char!

    I haven't been able to go yet. I'm hoping for an afternoon alone this week. I'll sneak off by myself....

  3. Can hardly wait to get our printer reconnected so I can copy these for my decorating notebook. I'm making bigtime use of freecycle that you recommended to get things I or others can use, while I am doing a major sort & dispose at home. Much easier to let go if I know they are going to a good home.

  4. My necklaces hang from 2 expanding wood mug racks & are reflected in a long horizontal mirror over a double vanity. My earrings (75) are also reflected from a wood wall rack with holes punched & notchs cut, a gift from a generous friend who bought it in TX. I collect lapel pins that are pinned to long strips of felt on my closet wall & decorative jeweled pins on crocheted or Xmas pillows by season & holiday. THANKS for all the tips; it gets the creative juices flowing!!

  5. Some of my best ever freecycle gifts I've received:

    * a Pella door and frame - the kind with blinds between panes of glass. We have the snazziest garage side door in the neighborhood!

    * plants! cannas and cactus especially

    * a filing cabinet for my music room at church

    * an old picket fence

    * a great kitchen sink - we had to fix one nick

    I love freecycle!

  6. Sounds like you already have a handle on displayng your collections, Lou!

  7. In section 11, you mentioned Christmas displays. My friend had a roomful of Santas up year round in her parlor; I thought it was so cool! It takes me 2 months to get All my stuff down & in July still have a few boxes to put away as I keep hoping to sort & pare down.

  8. Very pretty site! Keep working. thnx!

  9. livingroom is eagles/indians artifacts/i'm part cherokee and white. i'm partial to my dream catchers. Eagles means freedom thats what my husband feels like when he is on the road. Master bedroom butterflies/christmas bears(butterflies means freedom also)/bathroom seashells/our walls have ocean scene on them/guest bedrooms unicorns and dragons so each of our rooms reflects something of us