If you must keep it, then display it well


As faithful readers know, my column is often a harangue urging you and your inner hoarder to let go, lighten up, purge, pare, declutter, detach and donate -- as if I am some ascetic nun.

But this week, as I pack to move (again), and fill box after box with my "pared down existence," I am compelled to make two confessions: One, I am a hypocrite. All you have to do is look at my shoe collection. Two, I've been too hard on you.

So this week I will atone. You can thank a new book I just received: "The Stuff of Life" (Ryland Peters and Small publisher), by Hilary Robertson, a Brooklyn-based interior stylist and set designer who sees and celebrates the beauty in every day stuff.

I mean, this is a woman who recently stepped over a chunk of asphalt in the street, and liked its shape so much, she brought it home and turned it into sculpture.

Her book is 200 color pages of gorgeous still-life photos featuring ordinary items sublimely arranged. She spotlights stuff the rest of us would not only overlook, but also would not display: empty picture frames, leather satchels, paint jars, rusted coffee pots, feathers and hats.

"For me, making a home really is about the layers of things that are acquired over time," writes Robertson in her introduction. "It's also a way of showing the world who you are: the museum of me ... all stuff, even the most quotidian, can be beautiful if it is arranged and if it is important."

"This will be so hard to share with my readers," I say to Robertson over the phone last week. "I'm always begging them to ruthlessly get rid of what they don't need, use and love."

She pauses at the disconnect. "That's the problem," she says. "It will hard for me to be helpful because I'm a professional accumulator. I can justify anything."

All this is not a hall pass for you to go running to the flea market. But Robertson's way with things has granted me -- and by extension you -- a new way to think about my stuff.

The compromise is this: I can cling, if I do so beautifully. It's one I am willing to make. Here are some ways to artfully display your stuff of life:

Know your limits. The stuff you display is what finishes a room, but you have to stop at some point, says Robertson. "While it's sad to see a home with no vases, no pictures, no anything that tells you who lives there, on the opposite extreme are homes where people put out too much, so every surface is groaning." Everyone has a threshold. Some are minimalists, and hang onto little; others are magpies and collect everything. Both types can display stuff in ways that represent their styles. Find your happy medium.

Mimic a New York skyline. When arranging items on a table or shelf, items should be different heights, some forward, some behind. "If everything is the same size, it can look really boring," she says.

Think sculpture. An item doesn't have to be a sculpture to be sculptural. Even a pile of books can be arranged sculpturally. "We all have pots and stacks of paper," says Robertson, "but they don't have to be stuck in drawer. They can be made into an arrangement that is sculptural." When you arrange mundane things in a very conscious way, you show your reverence for them. A lot of different balls of string can be beautiful, she says. "Look at everyday things not for what they are, but for their shape, scale and proportion, then play with them like Legos."

Avoid stuffy stuff. Robertson detests showcases of pretense. If you have an expensive, precious item, include something "subversive, lighthearted, and disposable" in the mix. Like hoity-toity people, these items need to be brought down to earth.

Make your displays seem random. Though her displays may appear to have no rhyme or reason, they actually do. Most fall into one of these categories. Curatorial arrangements, which features collections of like items. The connection can be loose -- all white things, or all from the ocean. Narrative displays tell a story; for instance, all items relate, however indirectly, to say the chicken and the egg. Practical staging incorporates stuff we use, such as dishes or utensils, in a kitchen with open shelving, or mounds of books in a working office. "A theme," she says, "helps you concentrate."

Not an excuse. None of this is in any way a license for you to clog up your home. Stuff jammed ungracefully in all the wrong places still creates an unsightly jumble. And even she concedes not all the stuff of life is beautiful. In that list are electrical tools and appliances, she says. "Put those things away."

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.

Marni Jameson

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press)
Last modified: June 26, 2014
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