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Living with Collections

Martha Stewart Living, Volume 118 September 2003

You've tramped the dusty aisles of August's antiques fairs; you've sipped hot tea in tag-sale lines at sunrise; you've emptied your wallet in the foggy downs of country flea markets. And now you own (most of) the eggcups, birdcages, red aluminum tumblers, glass fishbowls, napkin rings, Bakelite bracelets, and mercury glass you've always coveted.

You wish, though, that they had a better showcase than your bedroom windowsill, or that crowded corner of the bookshelf between the old dictionary and the baby album, or that display space of last resort -- the top of your kitchen cabinets. Each piece, after all, is a true, collectible gem and would look so much more splendid en masse.

Here are some ways to show off your cherished finds.

Color Blocks
Enjoy all your favorites at a glance by creating a neat museum on a wall. Above a desk, a carefully curated arrangement that proffers beauty and distraction while you're paying your bills or listening to voice mails can bring pure, serendipitous pleasure.

The collection was composed not according to the usual criteria of uniformity or quantity, but as a medley of honey-hued still lifes. Each 18-inch box in this grid comprises a vignette of buttery yellows, golds, and coppers.

One delight in assembling your big picture is making individual shapes and colors relate, felicitously, to the whole.

Mirror, Mirror
These metal, French-ivory, wood, rubber, and faux-tortoiseshell hand mirrors were once orphans from now-scattered families of dresser sets, but here they're clustered companionably as a bouquet of glittery, shiny-faced flowers. (Umbrellas or knitting needles would make apt arrangements, too.) Both the gilt-brass vase in which they are displayed and the silvery blooms themselves gleam atop the tabletop, while the mirrors with loop handles are useful and ornamental when dangling on ribbons from picture pins on a wall. Should you require it, they'll also reflect candlelight.

On the Wall
When a picture molding isn't enough, line your walls with inexpensive stock moldings turned into shelves, and make a major statement. Here, in a vintage bath, dazzlers such as mirrored plateaus -- which once protected dining tables and dresser tops -- and a few actual wall mirrors serve a dual purpose: They not only bounce every glint of light back and forth to enlarge your room but also encourage neatly combed hair.

Case Study
You don't need whole rooms, or even walls, to exhibit your collection.You can arrange all sorts of precious pieces in small but formal spaces like a Chinese doll case, which measures approximately nine by six by four inches.

Screen Play
Collectors of paper look for ways to show their goods without damaging them -- for sunlight, tape, and glue are the enemies of ephemera. On a scarlet-painted screen, clear photo corners hold playing cards of value, while black frames display early postage stamps. But the new versions of each are simply glued in place. Carefully collected books with gilt-tooled bindings add richer shades of red.

At Your Service
A clutch of unwieldy platters is not only stored, but also wittily showcased in a dining-room dado-cum-storage unit. The uppermost edge of this custom-built piece (the chair rail) is hinged so its ironstone contents can be put in and taken out easily. On the wall, small oval ironstone trays, square honey dishes, and butter pats are hung on plate hangers to make orderly patterns.

Plans for the Display Case

Glass Houses
A display of aquariums, each topped with custom-cut Lucite to make them stackable, sports glass bubble fishing floats and assortments of marine castles made of German bisque, Japanese ceramic, and stoneware. Only the goldfish are missing.

Comments (18)

  • meebzilla 23 Oct, 2010

    PLEEZZZZZZZE drop the negativity, folks? Every single day, every single article, every single project, it never fails; someone has to take a jab at it. If you don't care for it, click "delete" or close the page. I don't care what you think it looks like, I didn't come here for your NEGATIVE opinion. MS is a website that promotes beauty and graceful living. Nasty barbs have no place in such an environment. Let's have legit questions and suggestions, not gripes.

  • harvard44 25 Mar, 2010

    Hello voicemom1 - the velvet sounds lovely for the eyeglasses - it should really set off the various metals and shapes. Because it looks dusty quickly, you might want to think about a neutral medium to darkish gray instead of black. Or seal the collection in glass or acrylic and eliminate the dust problem all together.

  • voicemom1 25 Mar, 2010

    I have a collection of vintage kitchen implements from my mom and grandmothers. They are currently displayed on top of a vintage pie safe but it looks like so much clutter rather than a display. The little boxes will work wonderfully for these. I also have a collection of vintage eyeglasses with gold frames. I am looking for a way to display them on a wall and am considering a shadow box lined in velvet. What do you think?

  • hofhine68 25 Mar, 2010

    Ikea has something similar to the large wall-mounted cubby unit.

  • VeeP 25 Mar, 2010

    I love this. I have a collection of "containers" of all sorts: little boxes, baskets, porcelain pieces, etc. I have displayed them on my dresser, in wall "boxes", on small shelves, and so forth. I am looking forward to trying the "all in one place wall cubby" idea! Hmmmm. Where to put it?

  • Orah 25 Mar, 2010

    Seems to me you've just made it easier for thieves to make off with your stuff. Not to mention it looks like a kitty condo on your wall. If you don't live in a seismically active area, don't have cats, kids or dogs and enough space to showcase it it's a nice idea.

  • WHATCANIDO 25 Mar, 2010

    I agree with kkaz2006 -- instructions for construction or "where to buy" would be most helpful.

  • kkaz2006 25 Mar, 2010

    I wish there were instructions for making the display box.

  • thesweetlou 25 Mar, 2010

    shouldn't there be a photo to go along with this?

  • KaeruShisho 25 Mar, 2010

    Many of these are very attractive, but also very fragile looking. I'd like ideas for equally showy and innovative examples that are earthquake and pet/child safe as well. Let's be more practical while we're at it, please; these displays have to be cleanable, too! I'd hate to dust the aquariums or all those tiny things in the square boxes! We like our collections and we live with them, but don't want our homes looking like museums-- so we look to Martha for help.

  • signsbykathy 11 Nov, 2008

    This "Aquarium" display is quite fabulous whoever at the wonderful Living staff created it! Martha would probably mention, in her oh so tactful way, that the rectangular glass containers are actually vintage automotive battery "holders". I love them for a zillion uses!

  • kzolady 25 Aug, 2008

    I really love this, but wish there were instructions for hanging it on the wall.

  • katmarie23 25 Aug, 2008

    Where's the picture for Mirror,Mirror(the hand mirror post)?

  • abew11 24 Aug, 2008

    Ikea sells square bookshelves very similar to this at very reasonable prices (duh, they are Ikea!) and they have quite a few different sizes and come in different woods colors as well.

  • momvarden 23 Aug, 2008

    I just saw some plain pine square stacked 2 high at joanns fabrics i bet those could put together to build one of these. they were a little expensive. i think 39.00 maybe a little less.

  • IslandSage 23 Aug, 2008

    This design also works well as a wall between living and dining rooms. I designed one for my ranch home in Texas, in 1950, leaving alternate blocks open to both sides, perfect for display of my antique cut glass and Irish Belleed.

    Thanks for the happy remiknder!

    Louise G. Smith, Friday Harbor, WA

  • charlotte1150 20 Jun, 2008

    I think a smaller one hung on the wall (not too small) would also be very nice.

  • wrlwnd 20 Jun, 2008

    I LOVE this. Except, now that I think of it, I can see the dog careening into it and "good bye, collection"