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Publication Date: 2011-11-21

Design Insights

The Art of Accessorizing: Expert Tips of the Trade

Accessories can make or break a room. They aren’t always noticeable immediately, but without them you sense something is missing. When deployed properly, they serve as storytellers and statement-makers, imbuing a space with warmth, personality, and uniqueness. Here, interior designers Suzan Fellman, Thomas Callaway and Tim Campbell expert strategies for sophisticated accessorizing.

First, rethink what can qualify as an accessory. “I have used everything,” says designer Thomas Callaway, of Thomas Callaway Associates in Santa Monica, CA, “from antique clock faces, Navajo weavings, and framed American hooked rugs to taxidermy, groups of vintage Mexican religious paintings on tin, and rows of antique children’s chairs hung on the wall, Shaker-style.” Anything goes, he stresses, as long as it “has craftsmanship, edgy graphic design, or a sense of a collection.”

Alternatives to such traditional accessories as vases, candlesticks, nicknacks should be personal, even quirky, whether they be flea-market finds, travel souvenirs, or antique coins. “I have a meteorite on my living-room coffee table,” says Los Angeles designer Tim Campbell, of Tim Campbell Studio. “It weighs upwards of 30 pounds, but it is beautiful next to a stack of books.” An accessory, points out Los Angeles designer Suzan Fellman, “serves no function, but acts as the meaning, the glue” in a room.

When it comes to accessorizing, ignore trends and rules. “Nothing puts me to sleep faster than the perfect pair of Edwardian vases on a foyer table,” Campbell says. What to avoid? Generic pieces with no backstory, accessories displayed symmetrically on mantels or shelves, color-coordinated objects, and artwork whose colors “match” a room. Callaway’s pet peeve is too many pillows. “It has become almost comical,” he says, “how many piles of pillows have been thrown at beds and sofas over the past several years.”

Creatively displaying accessories is also important and designers advise grouping them by kind, shape, size, color, and texture. “Some of the most disparate objects can find a way of talking to each other in sublime ways,” says Campbell, who has a weakness for trays. “I am completely obsessed. Trays are a way to create little tableaux or still-life gatherings when dressed with beautiful objects.” Callaway likes “dividing a large space with a fixed, bench-like surface or low bookshelf, creating a wonderful countertop on which to set a collection of interesting objects.” For her part, Fellman looks for “organic matter around the home—a brick, an old tile paver, a palm frond—to use as a plinth or a ‘tray’ for a group of objects.”

But as with all aspects of decorating, editing is critical. “A professional eye,” explains Campbell, “can make the difference between a room that looks evolved and one that looks like it popped off the pages of a catalog.” Fellman concurs. “A good, solid edit reignites the pieces. A great designer is one who can define the best of a person with the smallest of pieces. The sofa, the desk or the rug vaguely define a client—but the accessorizing will capture their essence.”

- Rob Brinkley

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