How to Keep Your Collections From Looking Like Clutter


Whatever you’re drawn to — whether it’s antique ceramic plates, framed insect specimens or contemporary action figures — a collection can add personality to a home. Without one, in fact, your home may not feel complete. As Tom Stringer, a Chicago-based interior designer, put it: “They’re essential.”

When his firm designs homes, Mr. Stringer said, “The whole point is to tell the stories of people’s lives and experiences, and the stuff they pick up along the way is often the launching point. I find it interesting that many clients don’t even see the power in their collections.”

With many of us spending more time at home these days, it may be a good moment to reconsider the stuff we have, whether it was acquired haphazardly or with the intention of building a collection.

How do you make the most of those things — and prevent them from looking like clutter? We asked designers and collectors for advice on how to display objects for maximum decorative impact.

There is a fine line between a collector and a hoarder, and the difference often lies in intention. A hoarder will amass just about anything that seems remotely appealing, or might be needed in the future, while a collector tends to be choosier.

“How do you define what’s a collection versus an accumulation?” said Fritz Karch, a collector, antiques dealer and stylist; the former collecting editor at Martha Stewart Living magazine; and an author of “Collected: Living With the Things You Love.” “It has to do with a kind of discernment and the energy you put in as an editor.”

First, define the types of objects you want to display. Then choose each example with purpose. If you’re going to display pottery, don’t just put out every bowl you can get your hands on. Try to be mindful of displaying a range of interesting examples, perhaps in a variety of sizes, textures or colors.

And don’t make the mistake of assuming that collections have to be valuable to be interesting, said Mr. Karch, who has collected items like intricately carved stone-fruit pits and vintage handmade potholders. Follow your personal passions.

“I’ve built whole collections where every single thing was a dollar,” he said.

Once you’ve selected the objects that will be displayed together, create a visual frame to make them feel even more like a cohesive unit.

One way to frame a group of objects is to display them in a single bookcase, étagère or cabinet with glass doors. If the objects will be displayed on a coffee or side table, placing them on a tray can help pull them together visually.

Another collector’s trick, Ms. Robertson said, is to put items under a glass cloche or inside a glass box: “The minute you put a dome on something, or put it in a glass box, it feels much more special.”

For a wall-mounted collection of butterfly and bug specimens in a house in Chicago, Mr. Stringer created an installation within a rectangle created by architectural molding. “If you draw a line around things, you make them seem more important,” he said.

For a wall installation, Ms. Congdon suggested playing with the arrangement on the floor first.

“Lay down a big piece of newsprint and make your arrangement,” she said. Once you’re happy, trace the outlines of the pieces onto the paper, tape it to the wall and install nails or other fasteners using the outlines as a map. Finally, tear the paper away and hang your collection.

Another rule of thumb for designers is that smaller collections often look best when displayed in odd numbers — “groups of three, five or seven,” Mr. Smyth said. So if you have four or six sculptural vases that look awkward together, try removing one to see if the overall composition improves.


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