How To Decorate Your Place With Piles Of Pretty Stuff: The Art of Creating Vignettes

AKA how to group your random junk and memorabilia so it looks intentional.
Publish date:
February 4, 2014
home decor, collections

The speed at which things seem to accumulate in my apartment never ceases to amaze me, despite me being the only one responsible. (Henry the dog seems to have a greater affinity for bringing his toys out for walks, then forgetting them outside, so he’s technically part of the solution.)

I grew up in big homes, where the multiplicity of rooms allowed the gradual accumulation of random items to go unnoticed. Basements, dens, offices and spare bedrooms hid a multitude of sins – outgrown sports equipment and toys, elementary school art projects, impulse buys and Costco-sized packs of paper towel and toilet paper among them.

While we never subscribed to the extreme-couponer stockpile logic, and while what went on couldn’t rightly be pathologized as hoarding, I remember closets and storage rooms being neatly filled with a comforting level of upper-middle-class excess that I associated with safety and security. Bedding in triplicate for each room, a small army of plush animals, enough flower vases for a (small) impromptu wedding, that sort of thing. I think we only really noticed the density of accumulated stuff when my mother sold the house post-divorce and we came back to figure out what was worth moving.

My mental health has always been somewhat precarious; rather than grieve the loss of my childhood home and move through it, I began accumulating an excess of things in my own home to recreate that sense of security. It’s a flawed (and expensive) attempt at self-care that I figured moving into an open-space loft would force me to curtail. Alas, I’ve only become more creative in my ability to store and layer the things I acquire. I won’t deny my spending is pathological, but luckily there’s continuity in my tastes, so the stuff I can’t hide away tends to look good together.

Whether you too are a contender for an intervention on Hoarders: Hipster Edition (clearly I missed my calling in TV production) or simply want to curate and assemble the things you keep out in the open so they look less messy-haphazard and more artfully undone (think Anthropologie’s perfectly imperfect eclectic displays,) you’d do well to start thinking about vignettes, if you haven’t already brought them into your home.

Let’s begin with what you require: a flat surface and random objects. Pretty easy.

It helps to think of yourself as a visual merchandiser of your stuff as you apply the following principles to the selection, grouping and placement of the items that make up your vignette.


You’ll want to pick a dominant color to inform the grouping. You’re not looking to have all of the items be the same color, but ideally at least a few of them will have colors within the same family, to create a focal interest. Since the vignette does not truly stand alone, but instead exists as part of the room in which it resides, you have an opportunity here to echo colors that are present elsewhere in the space. Ahem, accent colors.

My neighbor’s foyer demonstrates the principle of grouping by color. Note the green in the upright piano, the stems and leaves of the flowers and the ribbon on the dog treat jar. The variance in tone and hue keeps the arrangement light and casual. Aim to complement, not match.


Inject a sense of play into your vignette by considering the relative scale of its constituent elements. If the variation is too great, the smaller objects will get lost while the larger one(s) will predominate. If, conversely, the objects are all similarly sized, arranging them in a neatly ordered sequence can create a restful vignette, although one that lacks dynamic visual energy. The sweet spot is somewhere in between.

Stacking objects (especially books, or other flat-surfaced items) can give you control over relative scale, since a stack will be visually perceived as a singular mass in a display.

In my living room, I used a vintage wooden game board as a flat surface for a vignette that includes items in graduating sizes. The stack of coffee table books topped with an antique boat propeller creates a mass to scale with the other objects. The eye naturally moves from the propeller around to the tallest point of the display, creating a pleasant flow.

Experiment. Reorganize the objects in your vignette until you find your eye moving to follow the visual interest in a fluid manner. It feels right when you’re not forcing your sight into the sequence you desire, but it comes naturally.


Create visual interest by varying the texture of the objects you group together. Hard and soft, translucent and opaque, matte and shiny, organic and inorganic objects are all more interesting when contrasted. The idea behind a vignette is to capture the viewer’s eye – and retain their interest – by appealing to their senses in layers.

The grouping should be aesthetically pleasing but also contain enough dissonance to pique curiosity, to invite further inspection and then to reward the viewer’s attention to detail with delightful minutia. I find small brass figurines or delicate votive candles to be ideal smaller complementary items for this purpose.

Have fun trying out different options. Pick a piece to begin with, whether it’s a framed print leant against a wall, a favorite candle, or a small objet d’art. Remember that plants and flowers always inject a sense of life into the stillness of a vignette. And Coco Chanel’s timeless advice on accessorizing is seldom amiss here, too: “Always take off the last thing you put on.”