Tchotchkes are not meant for a museum case

  • An open-front display case, as shown in a book called "Barry Dixon Interiors."

    An open-front display case, as shown in a book called "Barry Dixon Interiors."

Published2/7/2009 12:03 AM

Some of us buy things because of their looks; some buy things as mementos of a place or an experience; and some buy things in order to show off their taste, worldliness and/or wealth. In many cases, these things get scattered around the house, where they're referred to as decorative accessories. Maybe they're precious to their owners, but they're often a challenge to interior designers - especially those tasked with creating minimalist settings.

Q. I've been collecting small objects and artifacts for many years. Some have a personal meaning; others are just lovely to look at. These boxes, vases, candlestick holders and assorted tchotchkes have so little in common stylistically that they can't strictly be said to comprise a collection. But I'd still like to display them as a group. What do you suggest?


A. You might be surprised to see individual pieces acquire greater visual importance when put in a group and properly displayed. It's often a case of the whole enhancing respect for the parts. I'll first say how I would not display a smorgasbord such as yours: in a cabinet behind glass doors. That's not only too precious an approach for the kind of items you've been collecting; it's also not an effective display strategy. Guests in a home don't like being made to feel they've entered a museum; they like being able to pick up and examine objects that are clearly meant to be admired. So please consider something like the open-front, honeycomb-style display case shown in the photo. It's featured in "Barry Dixon Interiors," a book containing examples of the work of the innovative Washington, D.C., designer. Brian D. Coleman wrote the book, and Gibbs Smith published it.

In this example, the piece rests on a bed's headboard, but its detailing and configuration makes the cabinet suitable for placement against a wall in any room of the house. Color choices must be made carefully. The frame as well as in the individual compartments should harmonize with the colors of the objects being displayed. With a collection like yours, which probably involves many different colors, it's best to go with something dark and neutral - possibly a shade of brown and perhaps with the texture of a woven fabric.

The success of any display depends to a great degree on the way it's lit. I wish I could provide you with a set of lighting principles that apply in all circumstances. That's not possible, though, because lighting techniques vary in accordance with a room's geometry and style, as well as with the size, shape and arrangement of a collection's elements.

Have fun with your project!

You can e-mail general interior design questions for Rita St. Clair at

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