Want an interesting home that doesn’t look like you called a catalog company and ordered one of everything? Shop thrift stores! You can find very high-end items for low-end prices. You can make your house look like you’ve been all over the world or have inherited the collections of wealthy relatives with great taste.
Worried you will end up with a collection of tiny salt and pepper sets that just looks cluttered? Never fear, there are some styling tricks that will help make your displays look interesting and attractive. These ideas will get you thinking a little differently, and on the road to successful vignettes on your side tables, atop your kitchen cabinets and those challenging niches.
What to display? Anything that strikes your fancy! Classically beautiful items. Rustic quirky things. Themed items. Collect a range of sizes if possible. As you will soon learn, some background pieces in your collection will help you display other pieces effectively. If you have a Tuscan-style house, you may want some large baskets and tall metal candlesticks. A modernist? Find some Danish teak trays and Lucite candlesticks. Are you golfers? Used golf balls in a huge glass container can add personality to your décor. Truly anything that appeals to you can be made to work. Personally, I love industrial looking objects and body parts (well, that sounds creepy). I mean vintage hands that used to be glove molds or ring stands, feet that are vases or shoe lasts, vintage hat display heads … I collect all different styles and materials and therefore always have a piece or two that blends with a particular display. My entire collection is never on display at once, but just scattered throughout my house.
Let’s address some of the mistakes people make, so we can recognize where we go wrong.
Being too “matchy” is a classic one. A collection of pretty Asian objects by itself does not make a display successful. Another misstep that happens frequently is using items that are too small. You can use them, but small items require some oomph from larger, contrasting accessories. A final blind spot homeowners often have is failing to think about the context surrounding the display area.
Take a step back and look at the space you would like to fill. You need to consider the entire eyeful when deciding what goes where. How high is the ceiling? Is the background consistent or are you looking at a corner with two different paint colors right behind the display? A beautiful, but short collection in front of a tall blank wall will not be effective. Use something tall on the table or hang a painting too. Are you designing a shelf in a larger bookcase? Consider the whole bookcase and spread your tchotckes out among the books.
For example, the photo at the top of the page shows the corner you see when you walk into my living space. There is a speaker about half way up the wall that distracts since it is black on a light wall. I could paint it, but the ceiling is really high and I like to highlight that. To camouflage the speaker and use the ceiling height to advantage, I created a “Pot-O-Twigs.” It is simply some leftover plaster of Paris mixed in a metal trough (saved from a gift basket received years ago) with florist twigs arranged in it. This practically-free homemade screen creates a neutral backdrop that gives texture to the room and makes the display on the table work better.
If you need lots of height, using a piece of furniture as a platform can be interesting. For example, an antique or mid-century chair can look like a museum piece when raised up off the floor and placed on a side table. This is also a way to incorporate little pieces of quirky furniture that are too small or fragile to use for their original purpose. Once you start thinking out of the box like this, you will be amazed at all the possibilities you find!
Keep a stash of trays and paintings to create a backdrop for displays. Use anything that works with the feeling of your home — it doesn’t need to match the display perfectly, in fact the finish should probably contrast. A silverplate tray, a large flat basket, a smooth mid-century platter or a colorful ceramic dish all can blend in with your décor, but offset the main subject of your collection. Do you collect Native American baskets? You may want to find a few large tin trays that contrast with the woven materials. Do you love milk glass? Maybe a silver framed mirror or two will help you accent the white glass. Something colorful and contemporary in the background can help bring a collection of antiques into the modern age.
Gather up a bunch of things you think might work together. A range of sizes, something that might work as a pedestal, a background piece and a few small easels for plates or frames will come in handy too. The foundation piece may be the lamp you need to read in that corner, a large plant in a neutral vase or a framed photo of the kids. After the basic foundation is laid, you can fill in the remaining spots with the special thrift store items you want to highlight.
To begin, arrange your largest things first. Usually an odd number of items in a triangular shape looks good. These large items can be the focal point or they can just be supporting background pieces. Make sure the foundation items look balanced. If it doesn’t work at this stage, it won’t work later. Stand back and squint and look at mass, not details at this point.
The display of blue items pictured at right is one we pulled together from items in the store. We started with the gold charger (shhhh, it is actually plastic, but no one can tell) and the blue glass pitcher. Then we tried the small vases, but they were too small and too close to the same size. In came the books! One is blue and the other a pale orange with gold on the spine. Perfect! By angling the books a little, we were able to create corners the perfect size to elevate and stagger the vases. All of a sudden, it clicked!
Keeping a stash of interesting looking books is my favorite styling trick. Use them as platforms to raise paintings, picture frames or little objects. I love color, so I look for books with an attractive hue on the cover. Sometimes, an amusing title is fun to tie into the objects in the display. A “Basic Carpentry” book with a vintage hand drill on it, or an old glass collector’s guide side by side with collectible glass. At 1st Rate 2nd Hand we often get old encyclopedias that are perfect for this use. Beautiful leather bindings in multiples! Score!
Another useful item to buy when you see them at thrift stores are boxes. All shapes and finishes. I especially love old wood or metal file boxes as pedestals. Chipped or rusty bits just add to the charm for me. Even on fancier items, a little patina makes it look like the collection has been in the family for decades. (I create imaginary histories for items. That worn area on the silverplate tray? It comes from years of breakfast-in-bed made by a loving husband for his pampered wife …)
Finally, a few bowls in your stash will serve you well. They are useful for containing both pretty and not so attractive items within your decorated areas. An old wood salad bowl is perfect for collecting keys and change at the end of the day, while still looking nice with your display of family photos and kids’ old cowboy boots. I love wood bowls that are cracked and discolored; they look more interesting than sleek and new. One of those ubiquitous wire bread bowls is useful on the modern coffee table to corral the remote controls. At holiday time, the sparkle of silver glass balls in a collection of blue ceramic mixing bowls looks festive with just about anything.
It may take a little time to amass the pieces you need to create interesting displays. But certainly far less money than phoning in a catalog order, and much more satisfying. Create a list of items you need, and hit the thrift store! You will have a greater sense of purpose while roaming the aisles and see more potential in those unique pieces. We would love to see your “before and after” photos on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/1stRate 2ndHand.
Jenni Steinberg Pagano is the former manager at 1st Rate 2nd Hand Thrift Store, located at 5851 E. Speedway Blvd. She earned a BFA in design from UCLA and has worked as an interior designer for many clients in Tucson. Donations to 1st Rate 2nd Hand of quality items and volunteer hours can be credited to your favorite Jewish nonprofit or synagogue. Call 327-5252 for more information.