If there was one thing that was a total mystery to me when I first became interested in decor, it was vignettes. I could tell the difference between a visually-pleasing arrangement and a cluttered or unbalanced arrangement, but I couldn’t recreate the effect to save my life.
You see, I’m a logical person. I crave structure, rules, formulas, theory. Only when I see the pattern can I get creative. So, I set out to crack the code of the vignette.
Through a lot of observation, trial and error, and research, I’ve developed a formula for vignettes that works for me. I hope it serves you well too!
Use Groups of Three
The first time I heard this advice, my symmetry-loving brain felt like it was absorbing the sound of claws on a chalkboard. You just imagined that, didn’t you? Sorry. Not sorry. Focus on the task at hand!
Then I started thinking about the number 3. It’s a pretty ubiquitous number: the 3 little pigs, the three blind mice, the 3 wishes, the 3 amigos … every good thing (and some bad ones) comes in 3! It’s the same with design. Grouping 3 items together just looks better. It provides a balanced but unstuffy look.
Let’s look at an example, shall we?
Clearly, this is from my bathroom, as I don’t typically decorate with toilet paper anywhere else.
First, notice the chalkboard/plant/bell combo in the upper right hand corner: a group of 3! We’ll talk about the books a little later. Now, notice the basket/toilet paper/photo arrangement on the bottom shelf: another group of 3!
You can’t see the left-hand side of each shelf, but there are even three separate little vignettes per shelf. Yep. It’s like Inception: groups of 3 within groups of 3 within groups of 3!
Sometimes I mix it up with one dominant object, like the pulley in the bottom right hand corner, but for the most part, I am loyal to my groups of 3.
Vary the Height
This one is critical. You need to vary the height of the items in your vignette. Ideally, it’s nice to have one tall item, one medium-sized item, and one short item — because you’re using groups of 3, remember?
It’s even better if you can vary the shape of the items, too. Say the tall item is rather sculptural. It would be great if one of the smaller items was more round or organically shaped.
Ready for an example?
This is probably my favorite vignette in our house right now. Now that you’ve trained your eye to design and arrange in groups of three, see how many groups of three you can find here. Three books. Three items on the left. Three “sets” of items: the grouping on the left, the center, and the right.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, look at the heights. In the grouping on the left, the lamp (which belonged to my great-grandma) is the tall item. The little plant is about half as tall as the lamp, and the egg-collection basket is half as tall as the plant. Generally, the “next tallest” item should be 1/2 to 2/3 the height of the original item. You might also notice that the lamp is about half the height of the frame. It’s the same principle at work!
Bring the Outdoors In
I think humans have a biological need to connect with the outdoors. There is something about having greenery or some “outdoorsy” element in a vignette that makes it feel complete. Your natural element doesn’t necessarily have to be a potted plant. If you’re like me, you can’t be trusted to water houseplants. I can barely be trusted to water myself. Needless to say, fake foliage is my friend. However, a pretty shell or a piece of driftwood can also take the place of the traditional greenery.
First, notice the groups of three? Do you see the height differences? You’re getting an eye for design! This arrangement actually has two natural elements: the grass and the sea shell (which, admittedly, is tough to see in this picture).
Ground it All
This is the element that took me the longest to figure out. In order to give a vignette cohesion, it needs an item to ground it or bind it all together. I often use a tray, like in the picture above, but you could also use books (like in the first two pictures) or a low bowl or even a drawer. (Yes, you read that right. I just bought the sweetest metal antique drawer that I’m definitely using as an anchor in my Christmas decor.) Even a ribbon artfully twisted throughout the items gives the feeling of continuity.
Without a “grounder,” vignettes look like boys and girls at a middle school dance: unrelated beings sitting awkwardly next to one another, praying no one tries to interact. The grounder is the Cha-Cha Slide. It gets everything grooving together.
(Yes, I said “grooving.” The anchor on the morning news said the word “groove” is out of style and I’ve felt bad for it all day. I’ve just been waiting for the perfect moment to use it, thereby boosting its popularity. You’re welcome, groove. You’re welcome.)
I digress. I think it’s time for another example:
First, please forgive the quality of my cell phone picture. Embarrassing. It may be time for a real camera.
Look at groups of three, heights, and natural elements (wheat, anyone?). Imagine this picture without the tray. It’s not a cohesive arrangement, is it? The tray corrals everything and helps it get along.
So that’s it! That’s my formula! Like I tell my students, knowing the “rules” is actually freeing. When you know the “rules” of writing, you can write coherently. When you know the “rules” of design, you have a framework to help you get started! However, there is always room for experimentation and breaking of the rules.
I’d love see your vignettes and how they exemplify (or don’t exemplify!) the formula! Please feel free to post pictures in the comments!