Home Decor

How to Create a Cabinet of Curiosities

A curio cabinet isn't just a great way to contain your treasured objects—it also makes them look good.

October  7, 2020
Photo by Nikki To Photography

Things just seem to find their way into my home. Likely excuse, I know—but I promise it’s a valid one. Between my love for decor and travel, and my job as a writer and stylist, I’m always on the lookout for knickknacks packed with personality or objects seeped in sentimental value. I’m also someone who prefers to be surrounded by my “things” instead of hiding them away in the hopes of someday finding the perfect spot for them. Let’s call it organized chaos.

But here’s the thing: I live in New York City. Apartment dwelling means square footage is at a premium—I don't exactly have too many spare walls or surfaces to find a special home for each of my treasures. The solution? A curio cabinet.

First, The History

Curiosity cabinets have a long, fascinating history, dating all the way back to the Italian Renaissance, when aristocrats and nobility used display cases, if not entire rooms, as a way to signal their wealth and display their prized collections of art, natural history and, you guessed it—medical oddities (skulls galore, people). Some historians even consider them the precursor to modern museums.

The luxury of having a whole room for the sole purpose of housing my collectibles, is not lost on me—but even I can admit that sounds a bit overwhelming. Luckily, its modern iteration is much more fun, personal, and open-ended. Your parents (or grandparents) probably referred to it as a china cabinet, but it’s become so much more than that. The design concept is the same: a wooden or metal hutch with glass fronts, meant to both display and protect your valuable objects and sundry knickknacks.

Make It Yours

The best part about curio cabinets? They’re way more accessible than you think. Let’s first start out by saying that, when we say “cabinet,” we’re referring to the term loosely—sure, if you have the room, a hutch is a great addition to any living space, but there are smaller, more manageable options. Plus, it doesn’t have to break the bank—mine came from IKEA, but there are tons to be found on sites like West Elm, Etsy, and even at flea markets. If space (or budget) don’t allow for a full-blown cabinet, you can opt for a smaller version—a tabletop display case, trinket tray, or even a spare windowsill dotted with your favorite finds.

Fill it up

My curio cabinet is a study in eccentricity, including everything from vintage botanical prints and signed design books (ask me how hard I fan-girled over Nate Berkus, go ahead) to dried-out beach treasures and more than a few framed insects. It’s also host to a slew of sentimental items—the sugar flowers from my wedding cake, the cork my husband and I popped the night we got engaged, the necklace my Italian grandmother wore daily.

There’s no foolproof cabinet of curiosities decorating formula, but if I had to come up with one, I’d say it’s one-part sentimental keepsakes, one-part something that was once living (dried flowers, a fossilized piece of coral) and one-part something that catches the light (a beautiful amber vase or special picture frame). Sprinkle in a few books and a touch of greenery and you’ve got yourself your very own curio cabinet.


A few of our favorites

Sometimes, all you need is a small surface area—a corner of the floor, a dresser, a side table, or a mantle. Here, a small filing cabinet, a vintage bell jar (which, by the way, works as a miniaturized "curio cabinet," itself), and lots of odds and ends—art, found objects, toys, photos— offer contrasting textures, sizes, and color.

If your floor space is limited, think about creating a small wall-mounted cabinet—perfect for tiny treasures. This one, packed with bones, shells, and other salvaged objects, provides the perfect backdrop to the owner's collection of taxidermy.

A window sill is often one of the most unused surfaces around a home, and for a tightly curated collection of objects, there's nothing quite like the impact of displaying things on a window ledge (especially when backlit by natural light, like in this image).

A modern, metal-framed curio cabinet interpretation from Studio McGee, neatly arranged three ways with dinnerware, warm textiles, terracotta, even a still life of a pear. What would you fill in a cabinet like this?

A perfect apartment-sized curio cabinet in glass, wood, and black metal used as a small hutch. If you love including greenery in your curio cabinet, consider displaying plants up on top. (The olive tree and sun-dappled floors are a bonus.)

What would you fill your cabinet of curiosities with? Tell us in the comments.


See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • M
    M
  • Carla Louise
    Carla Louise
  • Arati Menon
    Arati Menon
Writer, Editor and Stylist

3 Comments

M October 23, 2020
This post is giving me such deep space envy.

For those starting collections or really tight on space, integrate the collection into what you do have -- a figure on your desk, a small collection breaking up a row of books on a shelf, even a little shelf in the closet for a surprise bit of tchotchke flair.
 
Carla L. October 12, 2020
Oh yes! I can relate to this! I am a collector of beautiful things. I have a wonderful exotic shell collection, some fabulous glass paperweight and glass birds and small brass ornaments - all displayed on windowsillls! They are a joy to look at!
 
Arati M. October 13, 2020
I’m glad you’re putting your windowsills to good use, Carla—they’re often such underutilized spaces. The glass must be catching the light beautifully ❤️...