Vignette Decorating for Small Spaces

Start with a corner

Decorating is often intimidating to many people because it's hard to juggle all the design considerations an experienced decorator takes into account. Where does the light come from? How is the space used? And what about color, texture, and pattern?

There are many excellent reasons for hiring a pro. Designers can achieve dramatic results quickly, often for a reasonable cost. They have access to materials and furnishings through wholesalers or other vendors that are frequently off limits to the small retail customer. Because they do this every day, professionals know where the pitfalls are and have the experience to avoid them. Good interior decorators read current trends and advise clients about emerging technologies and materials that can save time, money, and energy.

Knowing all that, why would anyone want to do it themselves? Taste is very personal. Even though designers are trained to use color, balance, rhythm, and repetition to achieve sophisticated results, there is no reason a regular joe shouldn't be able to enjoy attractive surroundings without hiring an interior decorator. Decorating—choosing furniture, refinishing cast offs, creating color and textural contrasts—is fun. For many of us, it's a challenging and entertaining way to make our biggest investment—our home—a source of recreation and self-expression.

That said, it's daunting to coordinate all the threads and get the money lined up to achieve the vision we have floating around in our heads. That's why a vignette is a great way to get started.

Pick a vignette

A vignette is a small picture. By definition, it's limited. While it implies something that is purely decorative, it doesn't have to be. It can be functional as well.

To get started, select a a wall, corner, or nook in your home that you would like to turn into a vignette. Some people like to take a series of photographs. However you choose to do it, the idea to to keep the project small. Your focus should be on a corner of a room that has a defined purpose or some other small space. A reading corner in your bedroom, a breakfast nook, or a recycling center in a corner of the laundry room are all small projects with different decorating possibilities.

Analyze the space

The following questions may help clarify what you want to do with the space.

Good design is as much about organization and making life less complicated as it is about whether something is pretty. Fortunately, the recent trends favor simplicity, good materials, sustainability, and usability as well as aesthetics. However, if opulent fabrics, rich color, and exotic furnishings are more to your taste, your only limitation is your imagination and bank balance.

It's possible to like the way something looks, but find that living with it day to day is just awful. By incorporating the way you live and the way space flows around your project area, you can plan an improvement instead of an attractive nuisance.

If the space requires painting, cabinetry, or new flooring, make a note. That's a room-size project and outside the scope of the vignette itself. There's no reason you shouldn't repaint if you want, but you'll want to plan the whole room so you can effectively integrate your small project into the whole. If you have the money and a clear vision—go for it—but remember that you need to order enough paint for the whole room, cabinetry needs to match, and dye lots change, so plan well to avoid making your vignette look like a hat on a fish.

Vignettes are the most fun when they entail reorganizing and reusing what you already have in new and interesting ways. It's a wonderful opportunity to freshen a space on a tight budget with lots of creativity and thoughtfulness. It's a home decorating solution that can take as much money as you want to throw at it, but doesn't necessarily require it.

For instance, a kitchen window

Many homeowners have a window that is inconveniently located that calls for something. But what? The window may get only a valance, before it's ignored. However, there are dozens of ways to recapture the space. Consider adding:

The entry

In many small homes, the entry is just a tile square that opens directly into the living room. In others, it is a tiny room with a small closet which again opens directly into the living room. Or it may be a hall with a staircase and passageways that lead into various rooms. Typically, it's relatively small. And it's perfect for a vignette.

The entry to your home should be a reflection of your style, personality, and desire to warmly welcome your guests. Creating an entry where none exists can be accomplished by furniture placement, and using color or fabric to create a transition zone from the outside in.

Useful elements in the entry include seating for putting shoes on; storage for coats, hats, purses, and keys; artwork and decorative elements to set the tone; and good lighting unless you're into the brooding Gothic look. If you have a closet, declutter it and make it work for all the detritus you and your family haul in, but avoid making it your junk closet.

In a nonexistent entry, create a divider with plants, a wall hanging, or a screen to define the area. You can even use just color, it doesn't need to be a physical barrier. Put a couple coat hooks on the wall, and place a plant stand with an attractive basket to catch small stuff. On the wall over the basket, hang a small print or add a wall bracket with a small cascading plant or an appealing art object. It doesn't need to take a lot of space. It just needs to say "Welcome".

In a small entry with a bit more room, add storage with a bench and cubby arrangement. Or use a small chest for extra storage and a nice chair. Make each element do double duty. Personalize the space with a favorite plant or fresh flowers and a nice print.

Making it beautiful

Function provides its own aesthetic. It's like good cake, but what if you want a little extra? How much frosting you like is a matter of taste. If you like a cottage look, add color, prints, texture, and assorted accessories to suit your taste. Minimalists use the "less is more" approach using color and shape and interesting materials to make their statement. There is no correct or "right" way to decorate. However you arrange your stuff, if it makes you happy and brings joy to your spirit, it's a beautiful thing.

For ideas in arranging your small spaces, thumb through design magazines. There is a shelter rag for every possible taste from Cottage Living to Dwell. If you see a picture that appeals to you, analyze it for possible applications. What draws you? The color, placement of things, similarity to space you have, or something you want? Clip it and save it in a notebook or folder of ideas. When you're ready to go to work, take out your folder, plan your project, then jump in.

Finishing up

When you've completed your project, take a picture. Compare the before and after photos to see what you've accomplished in short time with a minimum of expense. You'll be pleased with the result.


The following publications may provide inspiration.

Better Homes and Gardens—The American standard in home and garden publications for almost a century.

Martha Stewart Living—Beautiful photography, clever ideas, and great use of color. You don't need to become Martha to appreciate this publication.

Dwell—Clean, modern, sustainable design from all over the world.


The Cabin: Inspiration for the Classic American Getaway by Dale Mulfinger—Lots of great pictures. Cabins are smaller than many homes and feature the kind of sensible design that affords a simpler lifestyle.

The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live by Sarah Susanka —Puts the human being back into the house equation. Human scale, functionality, and aesthetics combine to make home a place to live happily.

For a professional designer, check out your options at ContractorNexus.

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