Tips for Curating a Modern Cabinet of Curiosities

Collecting and displaying natural treasures is a historic pastime linked to a passion for learning. Here's how to start today.

 

Weathered shelves can boast large seashells, starfish, and dried coral fans. Create a sense of wonder by including a myriad of objects from the tide brimming with a spectrum of colors.
Weathered shelves can boast large seashells, starfish, and dried coral fans. Create a sense of wonder by including a myriad of objects from the tide brimming with a spectrum of colors.

During the Nineteenth Century, fictional heroines like Alice famously tumbled down rabbit holes and explored other worlds. However, exploration was not limited to characters in novels alone! Collecting seashells was a way for Victorian women to explore the natural world and engage in avenues of scientific inquiry. In fact, did you know the old rhyme “She Sells Seashells” was inspired by an early female scientist who combed the shore for prehistoric fossils?

Make a Cabinet of Curiosities

Pay homage to these early female explorers by creating your own aquatic-themed curiosity cabinet.
Like Victorian collections of curiosity assembled in cabinets, display cases featuring natural finds from around the world—taxidermy animals, assortments of insects, bones and other specimens—your collection could also display unique finds by the sea!

These cabinets are not only beautiful conversation starters but they also make for fantastic pieces of décor that could be ever evolving, depending on the pieces you continue to find for your display.

You can search the beaches for fun finds, but faux specimen replicas found in shops can be just as fascinating for your collection.
You can search the beaches for fun finds, but faux replicas found in shops can be just as fascinating.

Start Exploring!

Turn your love of beach strolls into a fun hobby and décor project! Remember to defer to local beach laws about what is and is not permissible to take from the beach. Once you find a local where it is safe to remove items, start searching for seashells by locating areas along the shoreline that push debris the most—rocks, shells, seaweed—toward the beach. Wait for the tide to come in and then venture ankle deep in the water, picking up any stray shells that wash up. Also try reaching just beneath the sand for pebbles and shells that could be caught underfoot. Act quickly, as the current will soon pull these toward the deep.

Historically, such collections were educational. Keep the tradition alive by researching your finds.
Historically, such collections were educational. Keep the tradition alive by researching your finds.

Gather Your Finds!

Sea glass begins as unrecycled glass bottles worn down over years by the ocean to become beautiful and smooth pebbles. Some of the best times to collect sea glass are after the falling tide and a strong onshore wind. Pebble beds and rocky beaches produce some of the better finds.

Sand dollars are typically found in the northern hemisphere in temperate and tropical waters. The external skeleton that is shed by the creatures is what beachgoers search for. If you find a sand dollar covered in fur-like spines, the animal has not discarded this external shell and should not be removed from the beach. Sand dollars can best be found at low tide after a storm. To preserve the sand dollars soak them for fifteen minutes in a water/bleach solution. Once dry, paint them with a mixture of water and white glue to prevent the fragile sand dollars from breaking.

Upcycled type trays and wood crates with small cubbies make perfect displays for small collections.
Upcycled type trays and wood crates with small cubbies make perfect displays for small collections.

Decorate Your Cabinet

Weathered shelves can boast large seashells, starfish, and dried coral fans. Create a sense of wonder by including a myriad of objects from the tide brimming with a spectrum of colors.

Not all objects need to be in perfect condition or complete. Perfection is not a requisite for addition to a collection! In fact, the aged and broken shell pieces add a scavenged quality that Victorian explorers would have adored! Odds and ends only add to the unique quality of a curious collection.

 

Seashell cross sections are artistically arranged in a symmetrical pattern and glued to the surface of the glass, looking as if they float on air.
Seashell cross sections are artistically arranged in a symmetrical pattern and glued to the surface of the glass, looking as if they float on air.

Finally, do not hesitate to include framed art depicting sea life as well. Books on nautical subjects placed among the array of objects are likewise welcome! In other words, a curious collection should be brimming with a myriad of objects and mediums—specimens, literary texts, and artwork—to capture viewer interest. The wider assortment of objects implementing the aquatic theme, the better!



Woodland Glam: Rustic Comfort Meets Enchanting Elegance

Rustic finishes and shimmering accents combine to create a holiday look that is comfortable and elegantly enchanting.

Blue and white Christmas family room
Deck the halls in neutral colors. Add of touch of rustic nature with some greenery like the garland on the banister.

What could be more enchanting than a winter wonderland? As the days grow shorter and snowflakes fall in frosty gusts, many of us start dreaming of a white Christmas. Childhood reveries help make the holiday special. And for interior designer and blogger Breanne Doucette of Rooms for Rent, decorating her New England home every Christmas means awakening her children’s imaginations.

“I want to set the stage for my children, so they’ll love the holiday as much as I do,” she says. Breanne still remembers what it felt like to be a kid at Christmas, she says, describing the magic of the season and how decorated pine trees transformed her parents’ house into a winter fantasyland.

silver and blue holiday tablescape
Beautiful blue glassware is paired with white candlesticks and mercury glass trees. Boughs of fir and pine capture the rustic vibe, now elevated to a Christmas elegance by the shimmering silvery pieces.

Today, Christmas magic and wild forests mix in her home, where pine trees covered in glittering icicles beckon tiny feet into dreams of forests full of snowflakes and shimmering silver.

To set the scene, Breanne places several pieces of décor at various eye levels, so her children, a six- and an eight-year-old, can enjoy dreams of “woodland glam” and “rustic elegance.” She hopes her children will be inspired to carry on similar Christmas traditions.

Cozy Christmas white holiday living room decor
This wooden chest is a family heirloom made by Breanne’s husband’s grandfather. On top rests a faux fur throw and tray containing a two of the room’s many mercury glass trees.

Rustic Shimmer

“I wanted the holiday feel without the traditional red and green,” Breanne says. “But everything I use stems from tradition.” She mixed vintage mercury glass and shiny metallics with soft furs, throwing in other natural elements like deer antlers and tree bark to highlight and play with texture.

Breanne wanted a special kind of Christmas elegance. Drawing inspiration from old Christmas movies in which everyone still dressed up for Christmas, she wanted her home to appeal to guests too. “When decorating, I’m always thinking about how I’ll entertain.”

Mercury glass tree holiday vignette
Miniature mercury glass Christmas trees are a favorite motif in Breanne’s holiday decor.

Originally, Breanne’s style relied on white, and she added touches of gray and brown to round out the shade. But these all seemed to fall flat. To soften the setting, she infused her décor with elements of iceberg blue.

Blue velvet throw pillows add nuance to the living room’s pale white couch. The elegant blue hues polish the more rustic pieces, adding charm and sparkle to the otherwise rustic scene.

Christmas entryway with stockings hung on the stairs
A bench layered with pillows and a cozy throw make for a warm welcome in Breanne’s entryway.

Wintery Elements

“Focus on the details,” she says, because balance is key. Too many natural elements can make a room too rustic. Breanne explains she will sometimes add pieces, leave the room and then return to gauge how everything fits together. “It’s a pieced together look,” she says, relying on focal points to capture guest attention. “Everything has a place, and it is all about figuring that out.”

The best decorations can last throughout the winter season. Fur throws are perfect for combatting the cold elements and also creating a comfy Christmas feel. They can stay in place well into January and beyond.

Flexible décor such as evergreen garlands, gleaming votives, and silver and gold candles are elegant and versatile. Best of all, packing up after Christmas is made so much simpler. “I don’t have to take away everything all at once.” Plus her children and guests can enjoy their Christmas dreams a little longer.



A Wintery Woodland Inspired Holiday Home

Several Christmas trees, freshly scented greenery and other natural elements turn this home into a woodland wonder.

A blanket of snow creates a charming scene in Kristen Whitby's backyard.
Snow blankets Kristen’s Idaho home. With lovely wreaths hanging on the shed doors, Christmas cheer can touch about everything!

With dazzling arrays of lights and decorations, the Christmas tree is the statement piece of many a living room during the holidays. But for Kristen Whitby—blogger, stylist and interior designer behind Ella Claire Inspired—quite a few Christmas trees twinkle throughout her Idaho home.

They shimmer in her children’s playroom, the master bedroom and, of course, the family room. They even brighten the children’s bedrooms, where mini faux saplings glisten in anticipation of Santa’s arrival. Here’s how Kristen decorates her home with personal flair for the holidays.

A flocked Christmas tree gives the bedroom a cozy woodland feel.
Bare wood furniture appears throughout the house, but nowhere more cozily than in the home’s master bedroom. Plush duvet covers pair well with the woodland elements. Completing the look, pictures of singing birds and faux furs help create the room’s woodland charm. Adding natural elements like these, Kristen says, makes Christmas decorating fun and simple.

Woodland Charm

Kristen’s trees offer an enchanted, woodland feel at Christmas, a look she has admired ever since she can remember. As a child, she used to visit homes illuminated with similar charms. And even though she selects faux trees for their longevity—she likes to keep her trees up somewhat beyond the new year—she prefers homey and classic elements.

The faux Christmas tree will last a long time and the fresh garland provides a lovely scent.
In her Christmas decor, Kristen choses to have the best of both worlds. Rich, fresh scent from her natural garlands and longevity from her faux trees.

“Faux trees can get too fancy sometimes, but natural elements help tone it down,” Kristen says. When first crafting her look, she was quick to juxtapose vintage mercury-glass ornaments with red berries. Kirsten says natural elements help harmonize the neutrals and whites of the family room.

“My trees evolved over the years. The red berries matched and coordinated well with my red pillows.” Tying the family room together, pops of red pepper the entire room, from the couches to the Christmas dinner display. “The feeling of Christmas is added with the color red,” she says.

Gingerbread houses are nestled in apothecary jars like snow globe scenes for the tabletop.
Gingerbread houses are nestled in apothecary jars like snow globe scenes for the tabletop.
The kid's room features a patriotic tree
This patriotic tree glitters in the children’s playroom. Vintage accents give it a timeless charm.

Christmas Arrangements

Sprinklings of red berries also add texture to the space and charm to nearly every bough. “It’s like a giant flower arrangement,” Kristen says of her Christmas trees. Like bouquets, the trees change depending on the extra pieces added. “I like to balance the interest with different heights that change from year to year.” Even changing the ribbon can affect the feel of a tree. “Plus, it’s an inexpensive way to redecorate.”

A special tree full of children’s toys is the sweetest and most endearing in her collection. Guests always ask how she is able to keep her trees, especially this one, free from tiny hands. But Kristen insists that everyone should enjoy the festive cheer, especially her three children. “My daughter likes to decorate her own tree. Then, she’ll take it all down and redecorate it, adding new things just for fun,” she laughs.

Shelves hold boxes for storage
Kristen purchased boxes and made a few visual adjustments to get the look here. The sideboard below makes a gift wrap station.

Family Time

Kristen says everyone wanting a similar look should try to keep things simple. “I like using textures and different layers of white.” Having a neutral background, she says, is a great way to save on holiday splendor. Adding pops of color and switching things in and out can be done quite easily with her aesthetic.

Holiday porch with antique sled and chalkboard sign
Beautiful script in chalk captures the spirit of Christmas. An antique sled and upcycled cabinet door stand at attention while greeting guests at the front door.

Try to ready your home well in advance, she suggests. That way, you will have time to play around with texture and color. If you decorate your tree like you would arrange a bouquet of flowers, you will then have time to achieve the perfect Christmas arrangement, making sure the various heights are dynamic and balanced. “Use recipes and decorations that you love, but don’t overthink your holiday entertaining. Really try to enjoy the season with your friends and family.”



Natural Fall Decor is Simply a Walk in the Park

Pull on your coziest sweater, it's time for a stroll though the autumn trees to discover natural (and free) fall decor.

“Autumn brings a second spring when every leaf is a flower” – Albert Camus

For many of us, fall is a favorite time of the year. The changing colors, crisp air, cooler weather and abundance of pumpkins all make up the season’s splendor, the inspiration of poets and nature lovers alike. So, what better way to pay homage to autumn’s glory than by bringing nature’s golden harvest into your own home?

A stroll through a wooded park or your neighborhood can yield a bounty of decor opportunities in the forms of fallen pinecones and acorns, as well as branches of changing leaves. Here are our suggestions for bringing the nature indoors.

Styled by Nora Murphy / Photo by Darryl Arbesman

Vibrant Leaves

Snip thin branches baring leaves that have transformed from green to their autumn hue.

These can be arranged into tall vases with stunning results as seen in Nora Murphy’s dining room tour or assembled into garlands and wreaths for the table, front door or something less expected, such as this chandelier.

Like flowers, fresh leaves may not last very long once they’ve been cut.

If you plan to use fresh leaves as a centerpiece while you entertain, take into account the time involved with process of putting the centerpieces together.

Thankfully, these branches look lovely with little effort for an elegant and naturally imperfect style.

Pinecones and Acorns

When it comes to pinecones and acorns, where one is found, there are generally dozens more nearby. This makes a large collection easy to find all at once for a “more is more” approach to decor. Shallow bowls or clear glass centerpieces allow these natural artifacts to show off for full effect.

However, if you do choose to find these in the wild, be sure to check them for critters that would be unwelcome in your home. KariAnne of ThistleWood Farms has a funny story about one such mishap that you can read here.

Potential problems can be exterminated during the cleaning and drying process. First, soak your finds in a solution of vinegar and warm water for about an hour. Next, lay them out until they are dry to the touch. Finally, spread them out on an aluminum foil-lined cookie sheet and set your oven at 200 degrees fahrenheit. An hour should do the trick, but we recommend checking the progress half-way through to turn your acorns and pinecones over. Drying in heat will also cause pinecones to open, or bloom. Don’t be afraid to add drops of essential oils like orange, cinnamon, or nutmeg to capture wonderful fall scents.

To be fair, a stroll through your local craft store will also produce these items in everlasting faux varieties.

 



Neutral New England Home with Charm to Spare

This neutral New England home and its lush garden were inspired by literary classics and the memories of a beloved uncle

White slipcovers keep formal furniture safe from spills
The formal living room can be divided into two separate seating areas, or unified into a larger space for entertaining by simply moving the two slip-covered armchairs to face the opposite direction.

Although usually found in storybook landscapes, especially in classic stories meant for children and set in some romantic and far-away place, the trope of the kindhearted and magnanimous uncle seems like just that, a fairytale character—not someone you might actually meet in real life.

Family friendly family room
The family room is decorated with low maintenance surfaces that are comfortable and family-friendly.
A white slip-covered chaise.
In the sun room, a white slip-covered chaise is a comfortable place to relax with a good book.

But this was not the case for homemaker Jamie Druke, who turned her late great-uncle’s New England house into a home for her family, which includes two young girls, ages four and two.

Understated elegance reigns supreme here, with white surfaces offset by darker hues of wood and gorgeous rafters. Jamie relies on ottomans instead of coffee tables, and her girls do enjoy a good scamper now and again.

“It’s easier than you might think keeping the white couches white,” says Jamie, who explains that keeping furniture covered with white sectional slipcovers from Ikea makes the look attainable even with her busy brood.

Simple Storage

The girls’ room is especially immaculate. Jamie, who loves baskets, keeps plenty on hand for the children’s toys. “The girls know which toy goes in which basket,” she says. These receptacles help combat the clutter that frequently arises in many children’s spaces. The three make a game of it in the room peppered in pink with a whimsical tent, where the girls had announced, “No boys are allowed.”

Jamie insists her daughters got this idea from a story they read. Her uncle had installed many built-in bookshelves; he was an avid collector and reader too.

Blue Stone Hill Entryway With Wallpaper
A bench in the entryway provides a convenient spot for family and visitors alike to put on their shoes before heading out.
The dresser's rich brown finish contrasts nicely with the lighter shades of white, blue and gray.
The rich finish of dresser’s brown wood is a beautiful contrast the the room’s lighter shades of white, blue and gray.
The sunroom features a dining table and sideboard for easy entertaining.
The sun room combines the ease of outdoor entertaining with the comfort and convenience of interior furnishings.

Personal Touches

Her uncle’s favorite color was blue, and to remember him, Jamie ensures that hints of blue complete each room. When she and her husband first moved in, she painted the family room a shade that was more gray than blue, but seeing it again after talking to a friend about her uncle, she realized it was all wrong and repainted it a lighter blue, “Pale Smoke.”

Jamie’s first house, she says, had been “basic, beige and safe” in terms of its décor, but living in her uncle’s house, Jamie embraced the blues she now finds “vibrant and cheerful.” Blue is also featured in the hardcover books Jamie unearths in bargain bins and antiques shops. They line all the bookcases. “Having the bookshelves has been huge for us for reducing clutter.”

However, they fit the scene in other ways too. Her uncle “loved literature, art, and design,” and so perhaps it makes sense he would draw inspiration for his home’s garden paths from visits to author Edith Wharton’s estate and gardens.

The gazebo at Blue stone Hill is decked in lights and flowers for a romantic ambiance.
The gazebo at Blue Stone Hill is decked in lights and flowers for a romantic ambiance that perfectly suits summer evenings.

An author of literary classics was a fitting inspiration indeed for this formal English garden, where you could easily imagine another niece—Mary of The Secret Garden—discovering her uncle’s padlocked flowers and vegetation described by another literary giant. “We think of it as Uncle Bob’s garden,” Jamie says. “He’s such a huge part of this house still.”