David with Moravian star and vases

Decor vignettes — home styling for the sly eye

Decor vignettes create high visual impact that underscores your individuality and shows off your decorating chops. A vignette is a pastiche of your history and your passions. Arranging vignettes are a truly satisfying way of expressing yourself. They are you, curated.

Essence of decor vignettes

Decor vigette with aged elements
Aged elements speak of past and patina. The branch is an unexpected visual that pierces an otherwise predictable composition.Photo by Nadia Reid Interior DesignCourtesy of Houzz.com

A vignette is a visual moment. You pause. You take it inside you. You contemplate it. It makes you think and feel and appreciate. At the most basic level, a vignette is a small arrangement of objects. The objects can be somehow related or not. The arrangement can be harmonious. Or quirky. Or disturbing. But it should definitely be personal.

Decor vignettes and the people who make them

Bold graphic book titles, a fan with strong, interesting shapes, and a couple of additional curiosities all combine to form a high-impact statement. Courtesy of Houzz.com.

I have a theory. While vignettes are used in every design style, some of us truly need vignettes. A vignettist is driven by making statements, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not, with disparate things. Vignettes are the perfect opportunity to unleash our eclectic super powers.

I was a compulsive arranger of vignettes even as a child. I remember having a pink depression glass bud vase and using it as my jumping off point for many a vignette. As adult life swept me up and I had my own dwellings to decorate, I was still so focused on vignettes that I often neglected the functionality of the room. I learned to think in terms of whole rooms eventually. But where my eye lands as I enter a room or lounge in a chair is still exceedingly important to me. I need interesting things to look at or I get whiny.

Creatives are also frequent flyers on the vignette jet. We bore easily. We change our minds frequently. We drive our mates batty by frequently re-inventing, or at the very least refining, our surroundings. We need to refresh our senses by changing it up, mashing it up, and mixing it up. Call it a primal need. Frequently changing vignettes can give a voice to that restless creative spirit.

Design perspective on decor vignettes

These objects would look like clutter if strewn randomly throughout the room, but together they make a cohesive composition. Pottery, pictures, mirror, and furniture all have something to say individually, but harmonize together like a curated mob of angels. Photo by Shirley MeiselsCourtesy of Houzz.com.

What vignettes can do for your room design:

  • Vignettes give random objects a sense of composition so they don’t read as clutter.
  • Vignettes give the eye a place to pause and muse.
  • Vignettes can create mass with small objects, creating the right scale that a room may need.

Inspiration for decor vignettes

Still life with nautilus cup
Be inspired by the still life paintings of the masters. Still Life with Nautilus Cup – Willem Kalf – 1660-1670. Courtesy of National Gallery of Art.

Some of the best vignettes evoke the still life paintings of the European masters and artist world wide. In those paintings, the  relationship of shapes, texture, light, and shadow all conspire to say something meaningful to the those who gaze upon them.  Yeah, these guys could be a bit macabre given the prominence of (yuck) skulls, and (sadly) dead animals. Still, there is much to be learned. Photographic still lifes can also teach us much. Look at the reflective quality of the abundant glass against the highly textural black backdrop.

Reality strikes in decor vignettes

Large vignette unified by color
A lot of stuff can be unified by a limited palette such as this one. Black, white, natural, and blue-grey pull a large number of items together in a quietly exuberant way. Photo by warren_laurel_homeCourtesy of Houzz.com.
  • Ask yourself how much visual stimulation you can handle without it feeling cluttered or claustrophobic. The ultimate goal is to feel emotionally comfortable with the amount of stuff around you.
  • Ask yourself how much dusting you are willing to do, unless dust doesn’t bug you. Adjust the number and size of your vignette objects accordingly.
  • Ask yourself, “How do I want to feel when I look at this?”

Anatomy of decor vignettes

Seascape, Venus, and vases
Seascape, Venus, and vases. Seascape painting by Connecticut artist Sam Boettner. Venus statue imported from Italy. Twentieth-century Haeger vases. Emotions flutter when Venus is placed by the sea. Blue bottles mirror the blue of the water. Vignette styling and photo by Kelly Shea Ellyn.

Symmetrical vignette

Traditional symmetrical vignette
This traditional, symmetrical vignette sings with well-bred patina. Photo by Susan Jay DesignCourtesy of Houzz.com.

Symmetry is traditional, safe, reliable, and beloved by many. It is said to be quite soothing for people who get their feathers ruffled easily, or in places like bedrooms where we need calm. I’ve known people who feel off balance and a little crazy if vignettes are not perfectly symmetrical. We all need to nourish our nervous systems with what that need. Additionally, symmetry has worked throughout history and the classicists thrived on it.

For a symmetrical vignette, choose two identical pieces such as large candlesticks or chinoiserie vases if you want to be traditional, or two supremely odd things if you want to rock the boat. These anchor pieces create an easy balance. Then it is simply a matter of picking which additional object(s) would compliment(s) your pair of anchors in terms of shape, color, and texture.

Asymmetrical vignette

While there are no pairs of objects, balance is created with two large and striking items. Photo by Ryland Peters & Small | CICO BooksCourtesy of Houzz.com.

Asymmetry creates visual energy, and there’s just something likable and quirky about it.

To “A” or not to “A”

“A” style vignettes are beloved by many. Photo by Seldin Design StudiosCourtesy of Houzz.com.

“A” formation vignettes are eye-catching. They are created by placing together three objects of distinctly different heights. Position them so that they visually touch one another. At least one object is staggered to create depth. From there you can add additional objects, so long as an “A” shape is maintained. Books are sometimes used to elevate one or more objects.

Linear vignette

Linear vignette
This vignette is highly linear and highly effective, due in part to the dramatic lighting. Photo by Salt InteriorsCourtesy of Houzz.com.

If you’re feeling rebellious and maybe at bit bratty, line objects up in a linear, non-staggered, evenly spaced kind of way. Some may consider it horrifically wrong, but who cares?

A non-vignette vignette

A non-vignette vignette of yellow birds.
The yellow bird collection form a non-vignette kind of vignette. Linear identical objects have something to say. Photo by IncorporatedCourtesy of Houzz.com.

Some people say that a line of identical objects is not a vignette, it’s a collection. So let’s call it a non-vignette to stay on their good side. If a linear arrangement has repeating objects, it can create a kind of visual rhythm that is somehow soothing. I think of it as rhythm therapy.

Punching up decor vignettes

Books and blue vase
Stack of books with blue Haeger vase. Dramatic lighting turns objects into architecture. Vignette styling and photo by Kelly Shea Ellyn.

Look at your vignette. Then ask yourself:

  • Does the vignette relate to the backdrop and the surface? Are they playing well together?
  • Can the vignette be enhanced by purposeful lighting?
  • Have you achieved the level of drama (or spare humility) you were going for?
  • Would the balance be better by taking away an object or two?
  • Do you need more or less contrast among objects, or between the objects, the backdrop, or the surface on which the objects sit?

Where to put decor vignettes

Table vignette in quiet corner
This unexpected table vignette is a visual punch of mostly neutral colors against a black backdrop. The table legs offer amusing lines to the composition. Courtesy of Houzz.com.

There are classic, expected places for vignettes.  Or dare to venture into the unexpected.

  • Lay a groove on a tabletop or any piece of furniture with a flat top.
  • Coffee table vignettes are de riguer.
  • Let your imagination riff on any shelf, anywhere.
  • Unleash yourself on the space above the kitchen cabinets, if any.
  • Consider a vignette atop your fridge rather than cereal boxes.
  • Window sills beg for miniature vignettes.
  • Fireplaces DEMAND vignettes.
  • Nightstands look ever so gracious with a simple vignette.
  • Vignettes can work on floors.
  • Hide surprise vignettes in unexpected places such as medicine cabinets and refrigerators. Your mate will surely squeal with delight. Thanks to Alexandra Stoddard for THAT suggestion. 🙂

Decor vignettes that forever evolve

David, fern, and star
A moody bust of David contemplates the infinite universe in a Moravian star. The ferns too are timeless. Vignette styling and photo by Kelly Shea Ellyn.

Unless you have a big wad of money to throw at a decorating project, most of us work with what we’ve got. We edit and add over time, and decorating is not one single binge. It makes sense to set up our homes to anticipate that our vignettes will change over time.

  • Choose some places in your home that you can change out often, while the bones and large pieces remain constants.
  • “Shop” your own house for objects to change up said vignettes. Or buy new stuff.
  • Rotate accessories in and out of a designated storage area such as cupboard or closet. Boxes don’t really work well for this. It’s important to put them where you can see them when you need to, but where they are not normally visible. They are your “objects-in-waiting.”

In parting…Every vignette starts with a muse. Pick an object. Begin. Then let your stream of consciousness run wild. May an exquisite visual experience ensue…

Decor vignette resources

For ideas on things you can use to create a vignette, read my post Vignette: a compendium of evocative objects. To peruse my favorite vignettes on the web, see:

  • My Pinterest vignette board: https://www.pinterest.com/Lilymoorish/vignettes/
  • My Houzz vignette idea book:
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