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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

On a Pedestal ― Designer Shares Art of Displaying Collections

“Everyone should collect something,” says Dallas interior designer John Phifer Marrs. A collector himself, Marrs has mastered the art of displaying treasures, and written about it.

His new coffee-table-style book, “Interiors for Collectors” (Gibbs Smith, Sept. 7, 2021), showcases beautiful ways to feature collections in 240 richly photographed pages. It’s a double dose of decadence: jaw-dropping houses plus gorgeous collections arranged gorgeously.

Though the images will certainly inspire closet collectors to get their treasures out of the cupboard and straight into the museum-quality light, reader beware: Ogling these pages could also make you want to run out and buy a bigger house and fill it with exquisite pieces, says she, the self-appointed spokesperson for decluttering and downsizing.

Fortunately, I have a grounded, practical husband to crosscheck me.

“I wanted to share with others what I’ve learned,” Marrs told me over the phone last week. “While collecting what you love brings joy, how you display it can greatly add to that joy.”

Marrs doesn’t care so much what people collect (with one exception we will get to), but he does care how their collections get displayed. “Many collectors have fabulous things, but they are so poorly displayed or badly lit that I don’t know how their owners can appreciate them.”

His book offers a variety of ways to elevate both the ordinary (your collection of Hot Wheels) and the extraordinary (your Picassos and Warhols).

Now I know, I am always preaching to you about paring down, and even Marrs will say, editing is a huge part of collecting. But if you wax more than wane, at least do so beautifully.

I can think of no better person than Marrs to help us do just that. Here’s what else he had to say during our conversation:

Marni: What do you collect?

Marrs: I like so much. I have to be careful. I collect Chinese mudmen (figures that date back to the 1880s, which Chinese farmers made out of local clay), parian ware (a type of biscuit porcelain known as poor man’s marble, framed silhouettes, ceramic glove molds because they make me laugh, and my favorite, 19th Century transferware in a pattern called Etruscan Vases.

What do you see that most of your clients miss?

That they have a collection at all. I will walk in and see they have two pieces of Chinese porcelain in one room, and three in another, and I’ll say, “I didn’t know you collected Chinese porcelain.” They didn’t know either. Then I’ll suggest gathering the pieces in one cabinet and lighting them, and they become an impactful focal point. Collections always look better corralled and thoughtfully arranged, rather than spread around a house.

Your book feature collections displayed against a range of backgrounds ― bold paint colors, patterned wallpaper, upholstered walls. How do you choose?

I’m always looking to create contrasts in color or texture ― shiny with dull, smooth with rough. Anyone can paint the back of a bookcase a different color and that makes a huge impact. One client collected vintage Waterford crystal. He had the pieces sitting on wood shelves against a white wall. I painted the wall a deep rich red, which made the crystal pop, and added glass shelves and a light. Now they are far lovelier to look at. For a rock collector, I mounted rocks on a linen-fabric background to contrast hard against soft.

How do beginner collectors differ from seasoned ones?

They tend to shift from quantity to quality. When I started collecting, I wanted lots of whatever I was collecting. That’s typical. As collectors evolve, they usually learn to edit, to put some items away or sell them, and they become more concerned with quality.

What do you wish more people knew?

That anything on a stand or pedestal looks more important, and that proper lighting makes everything look more dramatic. Both together can make your kid’s paper maché cat look museum worthy. Also simply replacing wood shelves with glass ones improves lighting. Choose half-inch glass shelves. Have them professionally cut to fit, and pay a bit more for crystal glass, which does not have that green tint.

Can you have too much of a good thing?

Yes. Learning to edit is an important part of collecting. It can be brutally hard, but it makes for a finer collection. Sometimes a fresh eye helps. I might show a client that if we took away five and left four and lit them, the display would look better. They can always rotate, but should resist putting all out at once.

Your book has examples of clients who needed more than a few display cases.

Indeed, for some we added entire wings to display their collections. Some collectors have even built homes using their collections as the driving influence.

What should home decorators consider showcasing?

Anything beautiful that they collect and love. It could be porcelain figures or antique silver, Hermes handbags or pocket watches.

What shouldn’t they display?

Collections of hideously ugly things. I don’t care if it’s interesting or rare, ugly is ugly.

Give me an example.

Prints of anatomical body parts, or of snakes or spiders. I don’t think I could arrange them in any way I would find pleasing.

Photo caption: “I don’t judge what people collect,” says Dallas interior designer and author John Phifer Marrs. “My role is to help organize, edit, light, and display it in a way so they can enjoy in their homes. Photo by Dan Piassick

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