Object Lesson – Displaying Small Items for Big Impact

Accessories, or in the antiques trade, “smalls” have always presented an interesting challenge for those interested in design and the decorative arts. Should one aspire to have pristine tables for a minimal look or an assortment of pieces that delight the eye and spark conversation? What objects are the most collectable and how are they best displayed? Thankfully there’s no one answer, as it all depends on personal passions and the desired effect.

Photo: David Phelps

Photo: David Phelps

In general, we hate (yes, hate) pointless clutter. If one is overtaken by framed photographs, one should get albums. If friends notice one piece of Waterford on your table, watch out, you may soon find yourself bombarded by similar pieces as gifts. Soon you will have a house that resembles the gift display at a department store … pointless clutter.

Instead, we prefer objects that have at least two of the following attributes: 1) personal meaning, 2) undeniable beauty or interest, 3) historic or collectable value. Note: Beany Babies, in spite of the questionable collectability factor, are not up for discussion! How to show one’s edited treasures is another question. Here is how we’ve done it in a few of our past projects.

Clearly Classic Table

Photo: Fred Licht

On an 18th century commode in this foyer (above), we placed a 17th century Italian sculpture next to an Empire, gilt-bronze basket. In the mix stands a crystal vase overflowing with yellow tulips. This is clearly a very traditional grouping, but the key is the variety of materials and shapes. This elegant ensemble creates a pleasing, first impression and welcomes all who enter.

Not all beautiful objects need to be precious or expensive. On one of the tables from our Clearly Classic Collection, we placed an inexpensive, (but very chic) Japanese sake set and combined it with a small bowl of grapes (above). This simple tabletop pleases the eye, the taste buds and the pocket book.

Japanese doll heads

Photo: Steven Nilsson

Most people have specific ideas on what the word “accessory” means, but they shouldn’t be so quick to ignore other options. Surprising “found” objects inject energy into a room that even the most stunning antique often cannot. Here is a collection of vintage Japanese doll heads that we found at a flea market and clustered together on a table. Their spirited expressions and soulful eyes are delightful and surprising. Found objects, not originally intended to grace a tabletop, can be just the ticket for sparking up a room.

chic tea set

Photo: Art Gray

Rather than static design statements, tabletops should be viable surfaces for everyday use. The secret to making them attractive is to pair necessities with decorative objects to create appealing arrangements. For an afternoon tea, we placed this witty and chic tea set from 1930’s Austria on a sleek, modern coffee table. To add height, color and depth, we paired it with a tall, dramatic blossom and a pair of early-20th century sculptures. When the party was over, the tea set went into hiding, and the stage was cleared for a whole new round of possibilities.

Finding interesting objects can be a wonderful pastime whether the search takes place at tag sales or a Christie’s auction. Experiment and combine pieces so they compliment or contrast in size, shape, color and texture. Tabletops are the perfect playground to express your interests and design savvy — and your mood at the moment.

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