When I visit museums, I marvel at the art, of course, but I’m more aware of the work of the curator these days. The experience of an exhibition changes based on the decisions, large and small, a curator makes: what items to include (and exclude), the color to paint the walls, the spacing between the items, the number of items. One of my favorite things to do as an organizer is to help my clients display — curate — their collections, whether art, tea pots or hubcaps.
I recently visited a friend’s home that could easily be overwhelming and cluttered. The owner, a jewelry designer, is a passionate collector of Mexican art and crafts. She has an abundance of everything: decorated wooden children’s chairs, pillows made from Oaxacan fabrics, silver jewelry, carved and painted wooden animals, colored glass vases — you name it. She also has large colorful art on the walls, and the walls themselves are painted in bright colors. Yet somehow, it is not overwhelming, it is delightful. It does not feel cluttered, it feels inviting and inspiring.
How do some people get away with having so much stuff? In this particular case, my friend confided to me that she is completely obsessive about space between the objects. She understands the need for the eyes to have some empty space on which to rest. Each object has a certain amount of breathing space scaled to its size. This takes a certain knack; if you’re not born with it, it can be developed, but there tend to be people who have a talent for creating attractive tableaux. The thing to remember is to leave some empty space and clear surfaces.
She also explained to me that she uses color to draw a visitor’s eye through the collection. The carved animals, of which there were at least 100 on a large table, are carefully arranged. She used the color yellow interspersed in the collection to direct the viewer. Starting from the left, a yellow lizard draws the eye farther into the collection toward a yellow dog, who leads to a yellow bird, and so on. It was not noticeable until she pointed it out, and I thought it was a great example of curation.
Another example of how she curates her own collections is in her dressing room. One wall is covered with fabulous Mexican jewelry, a veritable Frida Kahlo expanse of lust-worthy baubles. The sheer volume impressed; sometimes more is better. If she’d only had a few dozen necklaces, displaying them on the wall would have looked like a teenage girl’s room.
The shiny, colorful necklaces stand out against a calmer terra cotta color. If she would have painted the wall a bright yellow or lime green, the effect would have been overpowering. They are arranged on sturdy wooden hooks — nothing about it looks precarious or untouchable. She is able to access and wear everything, which is super organization.
Someone who believes in “more” and does it well is Ralph Lauren. His ranch cabins are filled with Pendleton blanket collections, concha belt collections and cowboy stuff, but it is so beautifully displayed that it looks rich and inviting. As with my friend’s necklaces, the fact that most of it is meant to be used, and is not overly precious, heightens the appeal.
There are some other simple reasons a person can combine beauty and order with an almost over-abundance of stuff: The home must be brilliantly clean. Nothing will ruin the effect like dust bunnies, cat hair and a light film of kitchen grease. If you’re not willing to keep after the dust or polish the silver, minimalism is your best bet. I’ve seen a kitschy collection of pristine Barbie dolls against a pink wall in a 1960s home that looked fantastic and I’ve seen a horribly dusty collection of antique baby dolls that just looked sad and scary.
If you keep your collection edited, clean, and continue to enjoy looking at it or using it, chances are you are doing a good job as curator. If you feel like you’ve grown a bit numb to your surroundings, take a look with a fresh eye and think about where you could add space or change color to bring life back into your collections and your space.