Showcasing objects of desire

  • Marika Meyer’s bar at the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac, Md. The neoclassical mirror hanging above it belonged to Meyer’s grandmother. John McDonnell / Washington Post

  • A bookshelf in Erica Burns’s second-floor family room at the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac, Md. The designer played with various colors and textures in filling the shelves with a pleasing arrangement of books and objects. (MUST CREDIT: John McDonnell/The Washington Post) John McDonnell—The Washington Post

  • Susan Jamieson found a dramatic antique concrete clamshell to fill with succulents as a table showstopper at the 2017 DC Design House. (MUST CREDIT: John McDonnell/The Washington Post) John McDonnell—The Washington Post

  • A vignette from Josh Hildreth’s space at the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac, Md. Hildreth was careful to arrange objects under the photograph that related to the powerful image in the photograph. (MUST CREDIT: John McDonnell/The Washington Post) John McDonnell—The Washington Post

  • Susan Nelson and Todd Martz styled this mantel in a family room at the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac, Md. The bold wallpaper called for a simple object to hang above the fireplace; the accessories were chosen for their childlike qualities. (MUST CREDIT: John McDonnell/The Washington Post) John McDonnell—The Washington Post

  • Caryn Cramer’s guest room in the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac, Md., features eye-catching orange trim in the window seats. The Sherwin-Williams paint colors in the room include Refresh, Obstinate Orange, Papaya and Cucumber. (MUST CREDIT: John McDonnell/The Washington Post) John McDonnell—The Washington Post

  • Pillows are layered on the bed of Keira St. Claire-Bowery’s bedroom at the 2017 DC Design House in Potomac. She chose dusty pastel velvets to give the room a feeling of a retreat. (MUST CREDIT: John McDonnell/The Washington Post) John McDonnell—The Washington Post

Washington Post
Published: 10/6/2017 5:44:07 PM

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,” said Josh Hildreth, a designer in suburban Reston, Va. Hildreth participated in this year’s DC Design House in Potomac, Md., 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, said designer Marika Meyer of suburban Bethesda, Md. 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 said. 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 said. 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, said 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.”

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,” said 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 said. “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 said 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, said designer Susan Jamieson of Bridget Beari Designs in Richmond, Va. 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.

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