Three Secrets of Accessorizing

Proper arrangement can take ordinary clutter and organize it into wonderful still lifes that lend that designer look to a room. I call this proper arrangement "merchandising."

I worked in New York between theater seasons as a window dresser for department stores. My job was to move merchandise by making it scream "Buy me!" Many of the tricks I learned from merchandising department stores are tips that I later used on my television show.

Merchandising your home is the key to arranging your belongings into groupings that make sense and look fabulous, and there are several basic principles that you'll need to know.

READ MORE: Dining Room Decorating Ideas

Nothing brings more interest to objects than varying their placement at different heights. A great example of using different levels for display is a buffet table at a quality hotel during Sunday brunch. The tables are arranged at about the four-foot-high level. The food and serving dishes are at various levels, with fresh produce and flowers tucked here and there. If the food were displayed on the table at one level, it wouldn’t look half as great and you probably wouldn’t want to shell out the twenty-five bucks it’s costing you.

Accessories should be treated in the same fashion as a beautiful buffet, but I’ve walked into countless homes where the accessories look like potluck. These items may have once been beautifully displayed, but over the years, as additional items joined the collection, these homes, like my curio cabinet, simply became open warehouses. Place accessories on the same plane and they look boring, but landscape them at different heights and they’re interesting.

Anything can become a lift or a level. A stack of books with a small object on top, backed by a stand with a decorative plate and a lovely bud vase with a tall single flower, is sometimes all you need. Lifts and levels will always add appeal to objects and impress upon visitors that there must be something special about your pieces if they’re displayed so well.

Another way to make sense of clutter is grouping items by theme. I had a client who was stumped by an enormous dining-room wall. She didn’t know what to do with it and wanted my help in furnishing the space. Before shopping, I toured her house so that I could see what she already owned, and I noticed that from room to room she had elephants.

This was not a figment of my imagination (nor had cocktail hour started yet). I counted the number of elephants strewn throughout the house, from little ivory figures to medium-sized wooden carvings. I then asked my client how long she had been collecting elephants. She looked at me like I had indeed been nipping into the cooking sherry. "Elephants?" she thought for a moment. "Oh yes, well, I started collecting them many years ago but lost interest."

"I don't know when you lost interest," I replied, "but do you realize that throughout this house you have more than forty of those little critters?" She was shocked. I suggested that we gather all of them together in one room.

We cleared off the dining-room table and went to work collecting the tribe of elephants. I had a carpenter make thirty-six identical one-foot-square plywood boxes. We gold-leafed and hung the boxes from floor to ceiling, and on top of each wooden box I placed the best of the collection. We added a track light at the ceiling, and when it was turned on, the display took my client’s breath away. What had been unrelated clutter was now a stunning collection and the dining room’s focal point. When objects are united into themes, they gain power in numbers and make a wonderful statement.


Another easy way to gather objects into appropriate still lifes is to group them by color. Taking an old, primitive bench and placing three pristine white objects on it looks simple, chic, and deliberate. A wooden plate with a cream crackle finish, a large glass pitcher, an old whitewashed finial, and a white orchid plant can be gorgeously grouped together. A small wicker box and an old wooden bowl filled with raffia balls can look very organic and textural. The similarity in color pulls these items together and brings uniformity to unrelated things. I've even taken four or five different-colored objects and simply painted them in various shades of the same color. Clustered alongside each other, they look great.

I encourage you to try shopping at flea markets, consignment stores, and estate sales. These venues are great sources of unique accessories and funky furniture. I know that some of you haven’t yet tried this alternative shopping because you find it confusing to sift through clutter to find treasure. You go home defeated and nursing a headache. Here’s a great trick. I call it the "gift box" test.

Find a handsome gift box and line it with tissue paper so that it looks just like it came from a great department store. Take the gift box with you the next time you go to a flea market or consignment store. If you find an object and aren’t sure if it's trash or treasure, pick it up and nestle it into the gift box. If it looks like it came from an upscale store, chances are you’ll like it when you get home. The gift box test allows you to separate the jewels from the junk, and it works every time.

Text and images excerpted from the book Christopher Lowell's Seven Layers of Design, © 2000 by Discovery Communications, Inc. Used with permission.

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