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Collector of oddities has eye for aesthetic display

SWANN ESTATES — Poet Diana Browning is also a collector who doesn't collect just for the sake of collecting. She gathers what tugs at her heart and inspires creative thought.

A stash of antique jewelry finds its way into an exquisite poem about her grandmother's jewels. The topaz-colored necklace that inspired it was only displayed or worn on the most special occasions.

Mermaids, lots of them, seem to glide through her 1,200-square-foot 1940s house in South Tampa. They hang from the shower curtain, advertise bath salts by the front door and adorn lamp shades in the living room.

Yet, despite Browning's penchant for quirky collectibles — from vintage Barbies to Truman-era pin-up art — her visitors are never overwhelmed.

Browning displays her cool stuff with a poet's eye: collections are edited, distilled, to-the-point and never fussy.

"I love to collect, but I also like to keep it simple," she says. "I don't want the collection to own me; I want to own the collection."

And that's the whole idea, say decorating experts such as Taniya Nayak, a Washington, D.C.-based designer and among the stars of the popular HGTV show Designed to Sell.

Ideally, collectibles look great when spread throughout a living space, transforming the whole house into a showroom of sorts, Nayak said in a phone interview last week.

"It will make visitors who come in interested in seeing more of the collection rather than if it's all together in one place," Nayak said. Another trick is to display items in a "unique and unexpected way," she explains, like using a style of coffee table that also doubles as a large shadow box.

"The collection then becomes a conversation piece and it doesn't force people to look at it."

If you collect coins, she suggests investing in custom frames with artful, well-styled mats that can make a single coin the star of the show. Six or eight largish frames could double as a visual headboard or perk up a boring hallway. Plexiglas boxes housing dolls or other large collections could be stacked to create bookshelves or supports for a desk so that "they're not taking up space but instead become part of the space."

Book collectors might experiment with another one of Nayak's favorite ideas: creating knee-high stacks of books on the floor to add a punch of color and give guests an idea of who you are.

It's no secret that interesting people tend to have interesting collections — often more than one. Displaying them all at once without making a house look like a museum is a fine art, one that designer Linda Cox has tried to define in her "Five Rules of Accessorization," a topic she often lectures on at Robb & Stucky in International Plaza, where she's a senior design consultant. Her rules work for displaying collections anywhere from bookcases to China cabinets to tabletops, even on plant ledges.

"One, three, five, seven, nine — it's good to be odd," jokes Cox, who advocates grouping collections in odd numbers, which is believed to be easier on the eye than even-numbered groupings.

Next on her list is balance. Whether it's a formal or informal grouping doesn't matter, but collectibles should look balanced wherever they're displayed.

"For example, in an informal grouping you can have two small things on one side and one large thing on the other," Cox explains, "versus a more formal balance where the objects on either side are the same."

The third rule is what she calls the "golden pyramid" because collectibles also look good displayed in a pyramid or triangle shape. The fourth rule is all about "negative" space, referring to the surrounding display area that isn't used.

"Be aware of negative space. Sometimes less is more," Cox warns. "You don't want to stuff everything together."

Too many things clustered on the same surface can make it hard to really focus on the beauty of a collection. Everything doesn't have to be "filled in," she explains.

And, finally, pay attention to color and spread it throughout your display. If you collect porcelain boxes, don't group all the red ones together in one corner, "because you really want a balance of color."

Browning groups collections together by likeness or what Cox refers to as "birds of a feather." Her Cat Woman figurines hang out together on a shelf of her china cabinet, while the 1980s Power Princesses form their own clique elsewhere.

Vintage-style paper dolls live in a basket in the spare bedroom, which doubles as a nursery for her 1-year-old granddaughter. Various corners of the room hold other collections, including dolls and books.

Over the years, Browning says, she's whittled down her collectibles, keeping only the most sentimental. She has given so much away that it has become a little joke among friends.

She recalls them saying, "Oh, what's Diana going to give us this time when we come over?"

Still, she contends, collectors must edit regularly to keep clutter to a minimum. "I can't stand clutter, yet I still have so much," she says, sighing a little. "I'm happy as long as I have a walking path."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at

Collector of oddities has eye for aesthetic display 05/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 1:57pm]
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