Tips for Styling a Cabinet

Dan once joked to an acquaintance that on my days off, I could spend the whole day puttering around my house, tweaking each display, “rotating everything a quarter of an inch” until it was just so. I would have given him a dirty look for that, if it wasn’t a tiny bit true. I do love crafting intriguing displays that help tell the story of our home and our lives, especially in a large cabinet like a bookcase or hutch. These bold, beautiful pieces of furniture are a statement all by themselves, but when you fill them with head-turning displays, they make the room. Not sure how to style your cabinets? Here are a few tricks we use at Nell Hill’s.


Mix up the content

In what room does your cabinet reside? Let that begin to influence its content, but not dictate it. If you have a hutch in your dining room, style it with some beautiful serving pieces, dishes and glasses. Similarly, a bookcase in your library should include volumes of books. But don’t stop there. Stretch beyond the practical and include a few unexpected pieces, because this piece of furniture shouldn’t just work hard, it should provide some eye candy, too.

The cabinet in the photo above is in the master bath of my friend Julie’s house. Check out how Julie styled it. In addition to beautifully displaying towels, bath salts and soaps, she has also included interesting displays of shells. Can you see how she placed a piece of coral under a cloche and poured an assortment of shells into an apothecary jar?


Tuck in artwork

Intriguing cabinet displays are kind of like a one-act play. You’re telling a story using a few carefully chosen props. So start your drama by creating a backdrop. A piece of artwork is a perfect pick. Prop up a framed print or plate in an easel.

The cabinet above my friend Lisa’s wet bar is a great example. On the bottom shelf, Lisa backs the display with a framed drawing layered on top of a wicker tray. A print of a hummingbird on the center shelf steals the show. And larger platters fill in the empty space on the large top shelf. Once you have the backdrop in place, begin to layer the tableau forward, piece by piece.


Spotlight your treasures

I think the best displays in cabinets spotlight interesting treasures. They may be photos of your family, mementos from your travels, pieces of a collection or family heirlooms. This little cabinet in Lisa’s living room is full of curiosities, and you can’t help but linger in front of it, drinking in all its contents, from volumes of old books, to collectibles to lovely dishes.

Here’s a tight shot of a bookcase in my friend Cynthia’s living room. I love the odd assortment of pieces she pooled together, from a collection of books to collectibles. Cynthia adores dogs, so this statue of a terrier is a great addition.  Notice the gallery tray serving as the backdrop of the display. It’s a great pick for a cabinet that’s stained a dark color like this one as it adds a bit of light.


Include a variety of shapes and sizes

To be visually interesting, displays in cabinets need to pull together items that are different sizes and shapes and finishes. Lisa used this kitchen cabinet for stylish storage of her dishes and serving pieces. The collection of different types of dishes, pitchers and glassware work together to create visual artwork that draws you in.

When I style my cabinets at home, I do it step by step over several days. I start by gathering the pieces I think I want displayed together, then I experiment until they are grouped in a way that pleases me. Over the next few days, I go back and tweak them, sometimes replacing items, sometimes adding, sometimes subtracting. Remember, the only person you have to please is yourself!


Add some light

If your cabinets are so dark you can’t see a thing, it doesn’t matter how beautiful your displays are. So if the shelves cast shadows, consider adding some lights. My friend Cynthia propped a small lamp in her dark wood bookcase to add illumination. As tacky as it sounds, you can also bring in light using adhesive-backed battery operated lights. We learned this trick during a photo shoot for one of my books. We were shooting a cabinet that just faded to black in the photos. So we had a light-bulb moment: tuck in some quick lighting. It worked beautifully. You can also brighten the shelves by painting the back, or sides, tops and bottoms of the bookcase a light color, like cream or soft gray.


Next Week … It’s almost Mardi Gras, that night of revelry before Lent begins. I will share an idea for a great party that will help you “let the good times roll.”