Decorating with treasures from abroad

February 27, 2013

If you lived abroad, you probably shopped a lot while you were there. Many Washingtonians own rugs, pottery and furniture they couldn’t resist buying on stints in Bulgaria or Burma. So now that you’re back in your split-level in Rockville, how do you display your prizes without making them look like bohemian cliches?

According to Georgetown designer Colman Riddell, who spent a year living in Beijing, where her husband Richard was working for AOL, your things should tell the story of your life. But use moderation and be creative. “I love my Chinese stuff but I didn’t want my place to be a shrine to Mao,” Riddell says. “Don’t overload your rooms.” Here are some of her other thoughts.

Use one large piece per room. The power and the aesthetic beauty of your piece gets diluted if there are two very similar pieces in the same space.

Group like accessories together. The Riddells display a row of African masks in the dining room on a Chinese altar table. Three round Thai wooden sticky rice trays (actually bought at Great Stuff by Paul in Frederick) make a nice accent high up on the living room wall.

Come up with new uses for old items. A Mongolian painted chest has been put into use as an activity and craft box for 7-year-old Elizabeth. Three small wooden buckets that once held calligraphy brushes are perfect for knives, forks and spoons on the kitchen counter. An antique wooden rice bucket has been repurposed as an orchid holder.


Colman Riddell says the key to decorating with keepsakes from abroad is to use one large piece per room. The power and beauty of your piece gets diluted if there are two very similar pieces in the same space. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Remind yourself of your journey in other ways. Riddell chose 10 photos from their year in China, printed them in black and white and bought silver 25-by-25-inch Ikea frames. They hang in the upstairs hall. Riddell says, “We love to be reminded every day of our time there.”

The home and design coverage of Jura Koncius has taken her inside hundreds of homes, from tiny studios in Penn Quarter to country castles in Warrenton. Jura also hosts the Home Front live chat, Thursdays at 11 a.m. ET.
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