Gorgeous tables, shelves and mantels are not just the province of professional stylists. Here's how to stage stunning displays yourself, using stuff you have at home — without spending a cent. The Editors of Real Simple magazine
Where to start
No matter what spot you're propping, it begins with hunting and gathering: Shop your cupboards, dresser top, attic, yard and even toy box for beautiful or quirky items. Successful displays are about character, composition and a pulled-together palette. But you don't have to get it right the first time. Let things evolve, and have fun — tweaking setups along the way.
The center space is your canvas, and the ends stay clear so there's room to eat without moving everything.
Imperfect symmetry makes for a dramatic but not-too-formal view. Use a stately serving piece as a focal point and flank it with casually positioned candlesticks.
Matching pieces (like the tureen and the candlesticks here) can be cool rather than stuffy if you throw in something subtly off: The glass vases and spiky flowers honor the pale palette but say, "That's right — I'm eclectic."
A splash of pattern and texture (nubby or embroidered) gives solids a point of view. Cover just part of the table; exposing some wood adds richness to the scene.
Break up a sea of books with interesting objects and friendly art (faces, animals) and you turn the space into a sort of shadow box — an intimate little world that draws people in.
A careful edit of books (favorites, compatible colors) and items — here mostly white, black and brown — guarantees cohesive results.
Horizontal and vertical stacks move the eye around, create more surfaces for tchotchkes, and showcase titles to add spirit and meaning.
Ample space around objects makes each piece look comfortable, relaxed and happy, as if it belongs there. Think of how you set a teddy bear on a bed.
Essentially an eye-level stage, it's a prime protected spot for showing off a large treasure and indulging in artful maximalism. Consider the view from a distance as well as close-up.
Art and architecture factor heavily with a mantel. Base your palette on the color of the fireplace facade. Choose a large piece to feature, but make sure it's open or light (like the circle sculpture, far left) so it can relate to hanging art without blocking it.
A themed collection, like ephemera from nature, makes a statement about what's important to you and is tied together visually. Ceramic and glass are a nice counterpoint to rough, gnarly sea pieces. Vary tall and squat, smooth and rough, flat and three-dimensional.
Leaning and layering pictures and postcards creates a casual, unfussy quality, inviting investigation rather than scaring people away.
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