How to display your most beautiful collections

Whether big or small, grand or quirky, collections say something about the people who create them. Here’s why we love them and how to display them…

Photographs Francois Oberholster and Elza Roux


Natural splendour

Create a tranquil display in your bedroom by hanging beautiful botanical prints above your bed, forming a grand headboard effect. Magdel van der Walt, owner of  TinTown, did just that in her loft bedroom, bringing her love of nature indoors. Magdel describes her collection of prints taken from The Book of Plants: The Complete Plates (Taschen 25th Anniversary Series) as calming and serene. ‘I felt very guilty about cutting up such a beautiful book initially, but I soon got over it,’ smiles Magdel, who painted all the old frames she could find lying around the house white.

One very rarely pages through a coffee table book – this way, one gets to enjoy the pictures every day – Magdel van der Walt, owner of TinTown

What you'll need:

  • Old frames of a similar size and shape to create a uniform look.
  • A collection of botanical prints – paint your own, tear them out of an old plant illustration book, or find some online.
  • White paint and a paintbrush.

Choose images with the same illustration style so they all tie together.


The random assortment

Janine Mollentze, a freelance social media manager, has turned a long, bare wall in her living room into a spectacular showcase by cleverly displaying her treasured items in a seemingly haphazard way on scaffolding planks that were used as a cheaper alternative to industrial-style shelving. ‘The vintage clocks belong to my partner and I started collecting antique sewing machines about a year ago. Our camera collection was inspired by our love of analogue photography – I collected most of them while living in London,’ says Janine, adding that ‘the golden bokkie trinkets are very special as I inherited them from my mother. The rest of the ornaments are small town, vintage shop finds.’

Displaying your collections is a special way to share your interests with people who come to visit you; and they’re always a good conversation starter – Janine

How to do it:

Like with like Start by sorting through all your treasured possessions, creating piles of similar items that you’d like to display. Janine assembled her assortment of clocks, books, artwork, plants, ornaments, tins and vintage cameras so she could clearly see what she had to work with. ‘Grouping similar items together has more impact than having them dotted around the room,’ she explains.

Shelf life Install long shelves to suit the length or height of your wall. The shelves needn’t be fancy or expensive; reclaimed scaffolding planks or wooden batons secured together and placed on simple brackets in the same colour as your wall are just as effective.

Curate ‘Add what you love – whether it’s old, new or broken,’ suggests Janine, who teamed books of the same colour together and placed ornaments on top of them for extra visual impact without the look becoming cluttered. She also positioned the vintage cameras side by side, for a little step back in time, and then placed a tall framed illustration behind them to add height. ‘This is where you can play, mixing and matching items until you feel it works,’ adds Janine.


Consider the scale, colour and era of items, teaming those with opposing characteristics to enhance their unique qualities.


Nature calls

Be it bugs or trophy heads, you’re sure to find them on the wall of Bibette Prins’s son’s room. ‘He has an obsession with stag heads and bugs,’ smiles Bibette who snuck the insect collection from her shop, Plan B Vintage, and simply mounted each one in an old printer’s tray, making the perfect Christmas present. ‘I also love vintage toys, trophy heads and prints, and often get items from Typo, kids’ stores and my shop,’ she adds. There’s no doubt this playful yet timeless little boy’s room will still look good for years to come.


Your child’s bedroom needn’t be childish! Decorate it like any other room in the house to give it ageless appeal, throwing in playful odds and ends for a personalised touch.


Top glass

Heike le Cordeur, owner of floral design company Fleur le Cordeur, believes that the vases you use to display your cut flowers should tell a story – be it of the era in which they were made or where they were found. Heike says the best way to show off vintage glass vases is in a window, where the sun’s rays will illuminate them beautifully and create an ethereal atmosphere. ‘This was a DIY project and my mom and I had so much fun getting the right height between shelves so that all my favourite vases would fit,’ recalls Heike, who created the display in a window on the way to the bathroom so she can enjoy it every day. ‘And my best advice is to collect something you can use,’ she adds. ‘I get a huge amount of enjoyment out of my vases. I use them on a daily basis, so they keep rotating on my shelves and my display is never the same!’

How to do it:

1. Find a window in your home that doesn’t open, or that you never need to open.

2. Measure the window, noting the depth and length necessary for each shelf, and measure the distance between each shelf so that you know how many you will need. If the span of the window is very wide, divide it – don’t exceed a shelf width of 1200mm and use 10mm-thick glass at least. Measure up your favourite vases so you know they’ll fit!

3. Get glass cut to fit the space you’ve measured. Ask the glass manufacturer for the correct thickness of glass for your specific size shelves.

4. Lastly, buy and install brackets to support the shelves. Heike chose dainty stainless steel brackets, but you could go for a completely different style and size, depending on your taste and requirements.


Give hard-to-clean vases a scrub with a solution of baking soda and vinegar. Let them soak for a few minutes or even overnight; for really tough stains, swirl them around in some uncooked rice.


What a dish!

This collection of blue plates hung on the wall above the kitchen sink has turned what is generally an unkempt and dull area into quite an eye-catcher. The quirky ensemble is the brainchild of Gretha Bester, owner of Makietie Fabrics. ‘I absolutely love anything blue! Wherever I go, I collect something blue – whether it’s cups, plates, bowls or tea towels,’ explains Gretha, who chose to hang the plates above the sink so that she can enjoy them when doing the dishes. ‘Every time I look at them, I see another detail that I haven’t seen before,’ she says, adding that you should display the things you love rather than hiding them away in a cupboard.


Spell it out

Postcards, love letters and words that are meaningful to you find the perfect home around a fireplace. The mantle is ideal for displaying a collection of sentimental pieces that may seem out of place elsewhere in the home. Here, typography in various shapes and sizes brings this room to life, adding that personal touch to a simple lounge area. Think scale and height to make a statement, rather than adding lots of little odds and ends that may clutter the space.


Make an entrance

Paul Mrkusic, CEO of the South African Antiques Dealers’ Association and owner of Bancroft, a Jo’burg-based vintage store, transformed a dark, empty nook at his apartment entrance into a standout display of travel books, covetable collectibles and quirky knick-knacks.

How to do it

The order of things When it comes to an eclectic collection displayed on shelves, group the items according to height and size, rather than shared qualities. This way, you can start with the tallest and largest items, distributing them across the shelves, and then you can fill in the gaps with the remaining pieces.

Calculate Measure the tallest piece in your collection and assess the depth of the space you’re working with. Then calculate an appropriate and equal height ratio for each shelf that will divide the space equally and in proportion. Buy some affordable wooden planks from your local hardware store – Paul used teak but even a sturdy pine will do – and find a reliable handyman to measure, cut, install and, if needs be, treat the shelves.

Clever contrasts Don’t be afraid to mix serious antiques with fun and novel pieces that have a greater sentimental value than financial. In Paul’s colourful assortment, an Art Nouveau Muller Frere cameo vase sits just as comfortably with a Czech Art Deco Moser liqueur set as it does with a painted wood Tin Tin brought back from a Victoria Falls craft market.


Constructing hollow shelves from three thinner wood panels – top, base and front – allows for the fitment of low-voltage downlighters. Amp up the glamour by cladding the backing wall with mirrored glass.


On reflection

This enclosed stoep in the heart of Paarl has been given an air of royalty with ornate golden-framed mirrors. Gretha Bester of Makietie Fabrics has a passion for pieces with character. ‘Some of the mirrors have imperfections and show signs of wear and tear, but they really give life to my stoep,’ says Gretha, who doesn’t overthink the placement of the mirrors. ‘If there’s an existing hook in the wall, then that’s where it will be hung – simple as that,’ she laughs. Mirrors can cost a pretty penny these days, so why not try scrounging around granny’s attic or at junk shops for these reflective gems?


Hang your first mirror centred to the room or furniture piece and then simply add on mirrors outwards from that central point, keeping the distance between each frame the same.


A cherished corner

When photographer Bridget Corke bought a magnificent yellowwood server on a whim from a struggling craftsman, she had no idea that it would one day display some of her most treasured possessions.

How to do it

More not less Accentuate a server or a console with a generous surface length by filling it with beautiful display items. While you can play around with groupings and newly-acquired items to freshen up the look from time to time, maintain a foundation of objects that don’t get moved. For Bridget, this is her ‘not here corner’: a grouping of photos, icons and sentimental keepsakes that remind her of her beloved parents and sisters.

Picture perfect A horizontal surface against a wall provides the ideal opportunity to creatively display artworks. Leaning casually against the wall, a gilt-framed Adriaan Boshoff oil painting is offset beautifully by the contemporary frames of the pointillist portrait of her late father and the Ruth Squibb watercolour that’s been mounted to the wall.

A binding thread It is possible to introduce a harmonising element into an eclectic ensemble. Here, echoing the rough-hewn almost unfinished feel of the server, it’s a subtle organic quality provided by the aloe, porcupine quills, cast metal figure sculptures and a glass bowl that’s always filled with fruit for Sebastian, Bridget’s son, to snack on.


Up the wall

Purchasing a thatched home with lofty pitched ceilings gave interior designer Amanda Caudle the ideal platform from which to exhibit her collection of artworks as well as the blue and white china she has discovered on her travels.

How to do it

High and wide To create an effective statement wall such as this one, it’s important to balance the visual weight of the items displayed on both the vertical and horizontal planes. By extending the collection of artwork right to the top, the room is given a dramatic sense of proportion and the span of the china from one end to the other has a similar effect. Amanda anchored the asymmetrical arrangement with a large centrally-placed mirror which establishes a necessary focal point.

Colour it in When working with two equal-sized collections, you want one to stand out just that little bit more than the other. This is, after all, the key to creating a successful décor complement. The blue of the china, which includes inexpensive flea market finds and precious pieces brought back from Hong Kong and the UK, provides the perfect accent in the neutral scheme.

Cut above When creating a beautiful exhibit of items against a wall, you want to make sure there is nothing obstructing your display. Amanda had the wooden console custom-manufactured to a specified height that would allow for the china to be seen above the sofa when entering the room from the opposite end.


When grouping artworks of varying subject matter and mediums, create harmony by alternating scale and balancing the frame weights.

Buy unframed pieces of art when you travel instead of souvenirs; they’re lighter to carry and less likely to get damaged.


Crystal clear

When displayed together, ornate crystal, gilded frames and silverware ooze opulence. However, they can also act as practical pieces that not only look good but serve a purpose too. ‘The glass and crystal containers in my bathroom are useful for storage – make-up and earrings are hidden away beautifully,’ demonstrates Bibette Prins, owner of Plan B Vintage, lifting the lids of each perfectly crafted piece. The combination of materials and light colours works well to reflect light and gives the bathroom the glam look Bibette loves.

  • Older crystal pieces will definitely have lead in them, and you can tell this by their weight. Compare items of similar size; the crystal items will be heavier than the glass ones.
  • Give the edge of the piece a light flick with your fingernail. If it gives a short, dull sound, it’s glass; whereas a long, musical ping most likely means that it’s crystal.
  • Look out for bubbles as they lower the value of crystal.
  • Hold it up to the light to see if it refracts light into a prism of multiple colours – this is a sure sign that it’s crystal.
  • Crystal is generally cut and polished with pure precision so there are little to no defects. Simply run your fingers over it to feel for any seams and sharp edges that may indicate it is glass.
  • The rim is an easy indicator: if it’s thick, it’s probably glass, while a thin, delicate rim is most likely crystal.

Caffeine fix

‘I love coffee,’ exclaims Bibette when asked about the old desk drawer she used to create a lovely display unit for her espresso cups and old enamel treasures. ‘This way I can enjoy looking at them every day, instead of hiding them in a closed cupboard,’ she explains. The combination of old and new cups is what makes this display so effective; just remember to use colours in similar tones to create some coherence. Notice how Bibette cleverly placed the coffee machine below the cups; when she wakes up bleary-eyed, at least everything she needs to kickstart the day is in one place!

Quick DIY: Create a wall unit using an old drawer!


Whiter than white

A floor-to-ceiling collection of white ceramics makes a grand display in this farm kitchen outside Stanford – and it’s completely hassle-free! ‘Because the wall is dark, I decided to highlight it with all white items, adding layer upon layer with different textures and keepsakes ranging from Egyptian artefacts, old enamel plates and kettles to fine old English porcelain vases, ceramic jugs and animal figurines,’ explains Deirdre Loxton, who has collected her treasures from junk shops, markets and designer shops over the years.

You have to be strict about sticking to a pure white palette; off-white and cream items or touches of red or blue just don't work. – Deirdre

When looking for a new piece to fill a space, train your eye to stay focused on white only – in this way you'll avoid being distracted by other beautiful objects.

The pros ...

  • Open shelves are practical – you can find what you need and it’s easy to grab an item off the shelf.
  • Light plays with the objects beautifully, creating a unique piece of art.
  • The look is ever-changing as items are used regularly and new ones are introduced, so it’s always a source of inspiration.
  • Using an all-white palette creates a timeless look that you can enjoy for years to come.
  • In a small or dark room, a white palette creates a sense of greater space and light.
  • Floor-to-ceiling shelves add height and create a lot of additional storage space.

... and cons

  • In reality, open shelving will never be dust-free; but if you use your items regularly, there’s no time for the dust to settle!
  • Because everything is white, many beautiful pieces may go unnoticed – only to be rediscovered months later!
  • Little ones can easily grab and destroy items on the lower shelves, so perhaps opt for white storage vessels to house tea towels and tablecloths at the bottom.
  • At the same time, items on the very top shelves tend to be neglected as they’re difficult to reach. Place a beautiful ladder nearby as a solution.

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    April 2023

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