WASHINGTON — Grouping objects in a pleasing arrangement is the goal of a vignette. Designers work hard on their tablescaping game, creating small compositions layered with texture and color that draw raves on Instagram.
So what if you could get some tips from the design pros on styling your own mantel or bookshelf?
“The best vignettes are those that are personal,” says Josh Hildreth, a designer in suburban Reston, Virginia. Hildreth participated in this year’s DC Design House in Potomac, Maryland, where designers were challenged to remake parts of a 27,256-square-foot home into small settings to engage and inspire.
We were intrigued by seven vignettes at the show house and asked designers to describe their process. Many mentioned mixing textures, colors and shapes, universal hallmarks of good design.
- Bar cart
Setting up a bar cart should begin with not the booze but the cart, says designer Marika Meyer of suburban Bethesda, Maryland. Relate the cart’s material, whether brass, chrome or wood, to the room’s design, and look for one with storage shelves. “The basics for a bar are an ice bucket with tongs, glasses, mixers, cocktail napkins and the liquor,” Meyer says. She cautions not to stick old dusty bottles of alcohol on your new bar; choose three or four popular adult beverages, and maybe even spring for some new bottles that sparkle.
Avoid clear glass; colored tumblers make a better statement, especially if shelves are glass. “Putting a row of plain glasses would just feel very cold there,” she says. Don’t feel as if you need to put a dozen wine glasses on a cart; at a party, wine is best served in another location. Because so many cool bar accessories have a retro look, hit up relatives for unwanted midcentury highball glasses and cocktail shakers. That will add personality (and provenance) to your cart. Otherwise, hunt thrift shops, Etsy and eBay.
For her brass and clear acrylic bar cart, Meyer added a vintage raffia-and-bamboo ice bucket. Her bottle-green glasses came from Etsy; the cobalt blue ones right out of her own cupboard, from a Dansk outlet years ago. Her monogram is painted on white linen cocktail napkins by Billet-Collins; embroidered napkins from the 1950s are also a great choice. A small vase of flowers adds a nice touch.
The key to styling a beautiful bookshelf, says Bethesda designer Erica Burns, is to mix books and objects in some colors pulled from the room but to also bring in other hues so it doesn’t feel “super-coordinated.”
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In her upstairs family room, she has books both stacked and standing, some in hues of green and yellow, colors found in the room’s upholstery and art, some not. “I didn’t want it to feel too contrived,” says Burns. Tucked into the shelves are sparkly geode bookends and a stone bowl filled with balls. She suggests looking around your house for things that might work together or hunting for more offbeat vintage items, such as her woven tribal basket, moss spheres and box made of bone.
The key to a bookshelf that looks casual and authentic is to “start throwing up books and objects, then move them around,” Burns says. “It can take a lot of rearranging.” The rules she follows: Mix different shapes, spread out brighter and heavier objects so the overall effect feels balanced, hang art on the shelves to create depth (she used a sunflower print in a floating frame) and play with textures, including woven, transparent and reflective so “it all doesn’t feel like the same dimension.” She displays books upright with bookends and stacked with objects on top. She says that a good general rule for the ratio of books to objects is 60/40, unless you really own a ton of books.
- Dining table
The easiest way to start planning a table setting is to go with the season, says designer Susan Jamieson of Bridget Beari Designs in Richmond, Virginia. She suggests bright colors for spring and summer, and rich earth and jewel tones for fall and winter. Tableware and flowers can take their cues from the room’s decor. Layer shapes, such as round plates on square chargers, and don’t be afraid to mix china patterns and glassware.
A centerpiece can be a starting point for conversation (first, make sure guests can see over it). Fresh-cut flowers are romantic but last only a few days, so consider potted plants. The show-house dining room has a 10-foot table that needed something major in the middle. Jamieson went with an antique concrete clamshell brimming with succulents. The effect is blown up to match the scale of the show house, but a smaller version would bring a fresh, organic element to any dinner party. “I like the natural feel of the succulents against all the navy and gold in the room,” Jamieson says. The green succulents, with their different shapes and textures, are a contrast to the formal china. The gold flatware has a shell motif, relating it to the clamshell.
Jamieson picked up two $40 succulent bowls at Lowe’s that included assortments of aloe vera, sedum, tiger tooth, echeveria and others. She separated the plants and put them in individual small pots with cactus soil and perlite. Gravel was poured on the bottom, and the pots were added and covered with moss.
- Chest or console
When creating a vignette on a chest or console table, don’t ignore the space around it. Relate artworks to whatever you select to display just below. “Ask yourself what this artwork says to you,” Josh Hildreth says.
Beneath a framed art piece, combine items that have warmth, texture and whimsy. Lighting is key. Possibilities include a picture light or tabletop uplight. If you use a lamp, choose one that does not obscure your art, with a lampshade in a color that connects with it. (He chose black.) He prefers the look of one lamp vs. two lamps when focusing on an artwork. Balance out the end opposite the lamp with an object that is 25 to 35 percent of the height of the lamp base without the shade.
If a piece of furniture is modern, folk art might be a good choice; for an antique chest, modern art glass. Select books related to the artwork (or not) and place them in a stack; this arrangement can add height to objects placed on top. Think creatively: family photographs under a portrait, or a stack of berry-toned books under a still life. Says Hildreth: “If it’s too cluttered, remove an item or two.”
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The tranquility and rich colors of a photograph by Trine Sondergaard of a woman in a Danish 19th-century bonnet spoke to Hildreth. He selected two for his “Collector’s Cabinet” space, placing an olive wood chest underneath one. On it, he carefully arranged a few items. There are books about photography; atop them, a wood sculpture by Jim Perry that contrasts with the soapstone top of the chest. The black resin doe lamp is his “quirky” element. He chose a vintage Turkish olive oil container because of “how the rough, humble nature of this domestic piece contrasts with the grandeur of the chest and photograph.”
“If you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace, congratulations,” says designer Susan Nelson of Home on Cameron in suburban Alexandria, Virginia. “They add instant warmth, character and are a focal point in any room.”
Styling your own mantel is highly personal. Nelson and Todd Martz, who together designed the family room, say it’s important to consider the room’s scale and the fireplace size as you experiment with art, mirrors, textiles or architectural elements above the mantel. For the shelf composition, you can go for a symmetrical arrangement with “a tall item on either side and a long, low something in the middle,” says Nelson, which creates a fairly formal look. A more relaxed asymmetrical arrangement uses an odd number of things of varying heights. There’s no formula. It’s created by trial and error until the right mix of heights, widths and colors looks right.
Their mantel had to stand out from their wallpaper, bold in both pattern and color: China Seas Sigourney in mustard. Because there was so much going on in the background, they hung a simple white carved wood mirror over the fireplace. They chose items with a childlike feel and a bit of whimsy. They put two tall floral sculptures on the left, as well as a small stack of antique books that belong to Martz with a tiny ceramic goose that belongs to Nelson placed on top. On the right is a 19th-century salesman’s miniature chest, a handmade and child-size element.
- Window seat
A window seat should have its own identity, says D.C. designer Caryn Cramer, who was delighted her room contained two. In decorating a window-seat area, consider its primary use as a quiet spot for thinking and reading, she says. A good place to start is to pick up one or two colors from the rest of the room, just to tie it in, then look for different patterns and textures in those colors.
To elongate a space, she suggests floor-to-ceiling draperies on either side of the opening to draw the eye up. Cramer says that in tall openings, you can use art or sculpture to fill in the height on the two side walls. Before you make seat cushions, measure the height of the seat. Make sure your cushion thickness doesn’t make the seat more than 20 inches high or it might be uncomfortable. For lighting, sconces usually work better for reading than overhead lights. Use a variety of pillow sizes so you can adjust them for comfort.
In the dramatic window seat she did for a guest bedroom, Cramer used mostly her own textile designs in orange, mint and teal. The large seat cushions are sewn in tufted Greek-mattress style; two contrasting pillows are cut velvet. The side wall panels are upholstered in her own fabric. Don’t overlook the small details: Knobs shaped like birds from Rocky Mountain Hardware adorn the two built-in storage drawers below the seat.
The top of your bed should be dressed in layers, says Keira St. Claire-Bowery of Anthony Wilder Design/Build in suburban Cabin John, Maryland. “The bed is the statement piece of the bedroom,” she says.
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She suggests going for a look that is beautiful but approachable, and not fussy. First, choose sheets, sleeping pillows and a coverlet or comforter. She likes to tuck the comforter under the mattress to show off a nice bed frame and create a tailored look. Another tip is to partially roll down your comforter at the top, so pillows will be propped up a bit and showcased.
European-size square pillows (26 by 26 inches) with shams are often a good first layer, especially if you read in bed, and visually anchor everything. Add sleeping pillows in front. Smaller decorative pillows bring texture and dimension, she says, but “check with your significant other about how many pillows they can tolerate.” In her show-house bedroom, she designed small, dusty-hued cotton velvet pillows in shapes that mimic the geometric motif on her turned wood Mr. Brown London canopy bed: circles, squares and triangles. The pale aqua, lavender, lilac, gray and blush pillows coordinate with the room colors. If you dare, add something fancy for warmth, such a white faux fur blanket. “You want your bedroom to be a relaxing refuge where you literally go to dream,” she says.