How to Use Collections in Home Decorating

Collections are a wonderful window into a person’s personality and are an extension of hospitality. They almost always invite conversation which makes them the perfect way to accessorize a home. We are going to focus on what makes a collection, how to collect, collections for display, and how to arrange collections of smaller items.

A similar element in most great interiors is their collections. Hillwood, the very grand home of Marjorie Merriweather Post in Washington D.C. had its’ interiors designed around the superb collections of Russian porcelain and other objects she acquired during her lifetime. I’m not suggesting that the rest of us have interiors that revolve around museum quality collections, but rather that personal collections belong in anyone’s home.

Collections are what you can decorate a room around. They can provide inspiration in color or theme. In the living room for a seaside retreat in Florida the bowl of seashells on the cocktail table inspired the entire room. There is a comfortable club chair upholstered in a sophisticated seashell motif fabric from which a custom rug got its’ sand dollar inspiration and colors. I then took a piece of this fabric and had a large entrance hall mirror fabricated in real seashells that matched those in the fabric. Interior designers love it when a client has a collection because that is the soul of the home which can provide direction. What a good collection does is make a home real.

In the dictionary, the definition is to gather, assemble and accumulate. Nowhere is there a description to look at a picture from a catalogue and click “purchase”, assembling an entire collection all at once. Take your time to collect what is meaningful to you. This brings life and interest to a collection.

When you are on vacation ignore the touristy trinkets focus on objects that would fit into a collection, bring back a great pair of candlesticks, picture frames, dishes, appropriate artwork, a chair, or some beautiful art glass. This can save you a lot of unnecessary clutter. Collect some shells or stones from a walk along the beach. Look for items that you would display or use in your home. How wonderful is it to have someone ask about the grouping of boxes you have on your table and can tell the tale of stumbling upon a certain in this tiny little shop in Italy, another one was made by your great grandfather, etc.

From early childhood I have collected rocks and seashells. The stones aren’t on display other than a couple of special polished Petoskey stones from where I grew up. The seashell collecting has evolved. It started very small and recently grew to large groups from different locations. I have a large glass vase is filled with shells collected early every morning before work when I was on a design job in Naples, Florida, described above. From there it evolved further in to large groups of certain types of shells from our vacations. I now have a collection of glass jars that house collections of shells. Who knew they would become popular again?

The key to collections is editing. The first is to edit what you are going to collect. Try and steer yourself to items that are attractive and meaningful rather than kitsch or something inherited from a family member that you wouldn’t have selected on your own. Determine what items that you like, have always been drawn to AND would look appropriate in your home. If you live in a very specific period home (Victorian, colonial, mid-century, or other historic property) your collections may revolve around appropriate items for that period. Sometimes the locale such as seaside, tropical, mountains, etc. can inspire you.

Next you edit what you are going to display and where. One particular room or location in your home might be appropriate for a specific collection. A collection of blue and white china would look fabulous arranged and hung on a butter yellow dining room wall. As with any accessorizing in your home remember, a woman never wears every item in her jewelry box at once. Restraint is key. For the collection of blue and white china, what is on the wall only represents a small portion.

One of the most dramatic ways to display a collection is en masse. I once heard a woman describe her beautiful collection of crosses…a few in every room. Yikes, that isn’t a collection it is a statement – one she didn’t want to make. She had seen crosses displayed on a wall in a magazine and that made it “okay” for her to display her collection. Spreading the items throughout her home diminished their importance as a collection and instead displayed her lack of confidence. Group items together. Bold is beautiful. Scattered is whimpy. When the entire collection was hung on a two story entrance stairway wall the effect was stunning.

Wall hung items can make a great collage. Select your wall and measure the dimensions. Mimic this same space on a floor or table top so you can play with your arrangement until you are happy with it. Martha Stewart had a great idea in one of her magazines to lay the items out on a large sheet of paper, trace their shapes and then hang the paper on the wall to check your layout. This allows you to make sure you have the appropriate spacing. Then you can use the paper as a template to hammer or screw in all of your hooks or hangers. Large wall hung collections are a simple way to fix a dull and boring stairway wall. The trick is to limit the amount of space between the items to inches rather than feet and treat the entire group as one large object.

Little cubes or shelves are also a way to hang a small collection of items on a wall. These are available at many mass market retail stores (Target or Ikea) and catalogues (West Elm). In the old days, people used elaborate, often carved wood wall brackets to display valuable china and porcelain pieces or other objects. This traditional approach can be used in either a modern or contemporary interior with new or antique wall brackets. You could use wall brackets for a few special items interspersed into your wall collage of a larger collection. This would work well for a pair of small vases that coordinate with the blue and white china collection mentioned previously.

Tabletop items can be easy. Stones, shells, coral, or other smallish items can be placed in a simple bowl or on a wonderful tray. Larger ones can be placed in a group or on their own depending on size, directly on a table. Groups of small boxes, vases, or candlesticks make a stunning display in the center of a cocktail table. Just remember to think of it as a cityscape or skyline so you allow differing heights of items. Not everything has to line up in terms of size or height but you need to create an order to maintain the balance in the display. Collections of books can also be artfully placed or stacked in groups on a table. The key to modern tabletop displays is simplicity. Create displays that allow for empty spaces too. Do not cover every inch of the tabletop. However, in older homes with period correct interiors this is appropriate.

These are only a few suggestions. It would be impossible to mention every possibility. People collect all kinds of things. The important thing is to create order and dramatic impact in any collection placement whether it is your husband’s model car collection, a child’s fairy collection or even a teenager’s collection of photographs.

Collections are a point of focus, an area to beckon the viewer’s attention. A pleasant way to direct this focus is to allow the area surrounding the collection to remain quite. Sometimes this means blank or empty and other times depending on your collection it just means uncomplicated. The point is when you display a collection nothing else in the immediate area should complete with it for the viewer’s attention. After all the time and effort you put into this collection you want to be certain it has pleasant impact.