The art of display

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Would you like to create displays of your treasured possessions that show them off to their best advantage? Interior designer and author, Katherine Sorrell, shares her top 10 tips on putting on a great display

Consider what you are displaying, whether it is sturdy or fragile, valuable or every day. Do you wish to admire it from afar and protect it from sun, dust or accidental damage? Or are you happy for it to be close to hand and perhaps picked up at will? You may find you can manage with a display on a mantelpiece, shelf or table top, or you may wish to invest in a specially designed cabinet, case or stand. If you opt for specialist display furniture, whether that is a former shop fitting or a set of glass shelves, choose pieces that complement the style and proportions of your home.

Good lighting makes all the difference to an effective display. For serious collectors, carefully positioned ceiling-mounted spotlights are the ideal solution, but if you experiment with an adjustable lamp you may well be able to provide a more informal (and much cheaper) quick fix for a simple domestic display. Think about where the light comes from: directly above, behind (for a dramatic silhouette) or from the front, and how ‘warm’ or ‘cool’ the bulb should be in order to enhance colour and texture.

Group objects together and they can be much more than the sum of their parts. Even the most unprepossessing of objects carries a certain weight when displayed in a group, and this sort of display is also ideal if some of the pieces are not exactly perfect, or if the items are not of great individual value or importance. A group display may consist of almost anything: a series of Delftware plates or tiles, a dozen framed silk headscarves, pebbles in graduating sizes, mirrored baubles, wooden shoe lasts, a row of modern chairs in sorbet shades…you can have great fun with almost anything you decide to gather together.

Displays of identical pairs of objects are probably the most simple, and often the most visually powerful, of all. Whether it’s a pair of silver candlesticks or two raffia-wrapped lamps, there’s something extremely pleasing about this mirroring and doubling. The only catch is that you must ensure your objects are placed evenly and symmetrically. If you’re not confident about judging by eye, there’s nothing wrong with using a tape measure!

When choosing a group of different objects to display, look for ways in which they will work together, whether by colour, size, shape, texture or proportion. It is important to have something that creates coherence, and don’t forget that what you leave out can be as important as what you put in. However much you love them, some objects may simply not fit well into the group.

Every time you display more than one object, you need to make a decision whether to opt for symmetry or asymmetry. It depends partly on the items you have and partly on your home and personal taste. Symmetrical displays tend to appear more classical, considered and refined, and suit traditional rooms; the Georgian period, for example, tended to emphasise the rules of symmetry. Asymmetry, on the other hand, is ideal for making an impact in a contemporary space, and can seem more spontaneous and intuitive.

Less can often be more, and a great way to make an impact with a display is by showing off a single, fabulous, huge object. Bear in mind that a large item needs space around it in which to ‘breathe’, so ensure it doesn’t overwhelm its surroundings by giving it plenty of wall, floor, cabinet or shelf space, and don’t place furniture too close.

Small objects can be lost among the general furnishings of most rooms, so be particularly careful about how you display them. Try to ‘frame’ them within their surroundings – maybe in a specially designed cabinet or niche, on a side table rather than a coffee table, or on a plinth rather than a long, wide shelf, and they will demand an appreciative glance and a closer look.

Don’t be daunted by the thought of displaying large groups of paintings, prints or flat objects on a wall. Start by laying your potential group on the floor and assessing how well the elements cohere. Choose the piece that you wish to be most prominent, then surround it with pieces that work well alongside it, perhaps making a larger rectangle of the group, or else setting a consistent line along one side, the top or the bottom.

Finally, stand right back and get an overview of your final display. Does it need tweaking? Don’t be afraid to experiment and change things around. Whatever your choice of objects and however you have arranged them, try not to make the finished result overly formal or perfect. This is, after all, your home and not a gallery, and the only important thing is that you absolutely love what’s around you.

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