IF YOU’VE EVER shopped at Cleveland Park’s Wake Up Little Suzie, you know that owner Susan Lihn has an eye for finding must-have merchandise. So, it’s not surprising that she’s just as adept at decorating her own home, where she shows off all kinds of funky and folky collectibles she’s amassed over the years.
Built-in shelves in her living room showcase antique radios and Tim Burton-esque skull cups by artist Michael Corney. Figurines made from bottle caps adorn her kitchen, where she also displays a collection of vintage toasters.
“It makes me happy,” says Lihn, 61. “I can’t imagine living in a Spartan space.”
But even though Lihn loves seeing her stuff, she knows it needs to be artfully arranged to avoid making the one-bedroom, 1920s-era apartment she owns in Cleveland Park look like a hodgepodge. “I personally have no problem having a lot of things, but you have to get them grouped together,” she says. “I like stuff a lot, but I like it on shelves and on tables.”
Lihn shows that even if you live in a small condo in Logan Circle or a narrow rowhouse on Capitol Hill, you can still display your vintage album covers or cache of kitschy salt and pepper shakers without totally overwhelming your space. It just takes organization and a willingness to let your finds flock together.
“A collection can really stand out in a smaller space,” says Monica Rich Kosann, a photographer and designer and the author of “Living With What You Love” ($30, Clarkson Potter). “The key word here is to gather. When you have a small space, you should gather your collection in one area. It just makes the collection look all the more important and impressive, as opposed to spreading it out all over the place.”
Kosann does just that with her own beloved objects, whether it’s an assortment of antique cigarette cases she’s arranged on a side table or pieces of pottery that sit on wall-mounted molding in her bathroom.
“You just have to be creative,” she says. “I always tell people not to be afraid to bring their collection out and share it with everyone.”
Lawyer Tory Nugent, 40, has found strength in numbers when it comes to hanging the petite pieces of artwork she’s collected. “A small piece can get lost on a large wall or in a large space if it’s alone,” she says. “When you combine them, you see interesting connections and comparisons between the pieces. It sort of creates a secondary piece of art.”
In her 1,350-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in Northwest D.C., Nugent has a cluster of artwork on her living-room wall and another in her breakfast area, with smaller displays in a hallway and TV room. She arranges her prints, etchings, paintings and photographs on the floor first, to see how things work together, before hanging it up.
“The pieces look best when grouped into some sort of coherent arrangement,” Nugent says. “And it enables me to hang everything I have.”
For other kinds of collectibles, even the simplest of shelving can be used to create a gallery-worthy vignette. Annie Elliott, principal of D.C.-based interior design firm Bossy Color (202-265-0443), once ran basic acrylic shelving around the top of a child’s room to showcase his Lego toys.
“Putting a shelf way up high, either around an entire room or on one wall, can be a good option,” she says. “For smaller items, a single shelf in a bookcase is a really great opportunity to pack your collection together for the most impact. If you’re talking about paperweights, for example, it’s better to have 15 on a shelf than two here and three there.”
Don’t think that the bedroom or the living room are the only places for displaying your prized possessions. “The dining room is such an unused room; a lot of the time, it’s the perfect place to display things,” Elliott says. “And if it’s something that isn’t affected by moisture, put it on a shelf in the bathroom. It’s really such a delightful little surprise for anyone visiting you.”
“You can kind of treat these collections like wallpaper,” says Kosann, recalling a client who covered the walls of a bathroom with miniature silhouettes. “Instead of wallpapering a bathroom or little hallway, paint it a muted color and then use your collection as the decorative element in that space.”
These kinds of displays can help demonstrate your sense of humor or simply shine a spotlight on something you love.
“Collecting, in general, is a little bit of a dying art; people aren’t collecting the way they used to,” Elliott says. “I would love to encourage people to find something to collect. It really distinguishes you and your space. Collecting something makes you interesting.”
And you may even already be on the verge of a treasure trove — without knowing it. “I had been socking away vintage hand towels for years before I realized I had a habit going,” Elliott says. “What I do now is layer them on the towel rack in the powder room, which people use at parties. There’s a little discard basket nearby; each guest uses one towel and puts it in the little laundry bin. I like to think people get a chuckle out of it.”
Written by Express contributor Beth Luberecki
Photos by Kevin Dietsch for Express