Interior Decorating · Interior Design

Don’t Get Knick-Knack Paddywhacked! Learn to Display Decorative Accessories with Confidence

Carefully edited and curated decorative accessories add interest and style to any room but beware: if you go overboard you can end up getting knick-knack paddywhacked! This unfortunate and unpleasant condition can creep up on you over time. You blithely go about life acquiring mountains of fabulous must-have decor like a magpie, gathering shiny objects and bringing them home to adorn your nest. And then one day you find yourself standing in the checkout line clutching an adorable pine cone hedgehog and you suddenly realize that your home has started to look like the place where all things Pier One go to die. Don’t get me wrong, retailers like Pier One and Pottery Barn are great sources for home decor items and inspiration. But they are so good at the art of display that they can seduce you into buying too many things that may not work with your particular design style.

Accessorizing a home is much like accessorizing an outfit. A few beautiful pieces of jewelry, a scarf or belt can make an outfit shine. However, when you wear too many accessories, you begin to look like you’ve been bedazzled by a loopy toddler hopped up on sugary treats. The eye doesn’t know where to go, and rather than enhancing your look all those elements create an over-done muddled effect. The same holds true in interior design. Too many knick-knacks make a home feel fussy, cluttered, and frankly a little bit crazy.


My beloved grandmother’s house suffered from this issue. She was an amazing woman, but she never met a figurine she didn’t like. Everywhere you looked in her small, tidy home you’d see what my sister’s and I referred to as her “fancy ladies.” There were so many of these tiny gals around you that you felt like Gulliver at a Lilliputian garden party. As kids, we were fascinated by this crowd of porcelain princesses and made a game of comparing their various elaborate outfits. Once we identified our favorites we would argue about whose choice was the best, while our totally stressed out parents screamed “don’t touch!” every five minutes. Needless to say, it was an accident waiting to happen. I don’t know how many figurines she had in total but they literally, covered every available surface. No offense to Hummel or Royal Doulton, but it was a bit much.

The question then is how do you know how much is too much? Renowned fashion designer, Coco Chanel is quoted as advising women,  “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” In other words, less is more. This is good advice for arranging decorative items as well. It actually holds true for almost everything in life except ice cream. You can never have too much Jamoca Almond Fudge.

If you have a lamp on a table, it should be counted as one of the three elements in your arrangement
Rules Of Thumb 

There are several rules of thumb you can employ when displaying decorative objects. However, keep in mind that like the pirate code, “they are more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” The first “rule” of arranging decorative items is to group things together rather than scattering them all over a surface. And when in doubt, arrange objects of various sizes in groups of three. I have found that following this edict almost always works. There is just something pleasing to the eye about these odd-numbered arrangements.

Coffee table arrangement of three elements including Chinese ginger jar, Chinese vase with curly willow branches, and tray with candles and sculpture. Notice that there are three smaller items on the tray as well, although the tray and all of its contents are considered one object within the larger composition –Ballard Designs

Symmetry is another tried and true composition technique. It can be used in a variety of settings, although it works particularly well in more formal spaces. A symmetrical arrangement is achieved when a space is divided evenly, and each side mirrors the other. Two like objects that flank a counter, table, door, etc., create a balanced and satisfying arrangement.

Formal dining room buffet symmetrical arrangement

Don’t be afraid to display a single item in a space by itself, as long as the scale is appropriate. This can really highlight a unique or particularly striking object.


Finally, don’t just choose things to display because they coordinate with your color scheme. Rather, choose decorative pieces that are unique and that speak to you. One special item is so much more impactful than a whole slew of mediocre bric-a-brac. Do incorporate found or repurposed items in your decor. Displayed properly, these unexpected pieces can look completely new and interesting in your space. If you don’t watch HGTV’s “Fixer Upper,” check it out because Joanna Gaines is a master at employing these kinds of items in her interiors.

Piece of coral displayed on an easel
Glass covered jar filled with Victorian carpet balls
Woodblock printing stamp
Stack of band boxes

Following these guidelines, choosing carefully, and editing ruthlessly may just keep you from getting knick-knack paddywhacked.


2 thoughts on “Don’t Get Knick-Knack Paddywhacked! Learn to Display Decorative Accessories with Confidence

  1. I’m a little bit in love with those carpet balls and also with the woodblock printing stamp– such unique pieces!

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