Sunday, August 09, 2009

Decorating with Strangers

My latest article for the Kansas City Star, Design Notebook:

Special to the Star, Sunday August 9, 2009
Decorating with Strangers
by Debbie Dusenberry

If you are an avid antiquer like I am, you have stumbled upon many boxes of antique and vintage photographs while shopping estate sales or antique malls. It’s always fascinating to me wondering who these people are and where they came from.

When grouping vintage pictures of people, look for a theme like the mustache men above.
(The shot above was done in my office right after I had just hung brick wallpaper).

The oldest photos you may discover began in the 1870's and were known as Cabinet Cards. It was then that portrait images became larger (usually 4" by 6") and were mounted to a heavy cardboard backing.

Later in the 1880's, each photographer would add logos and contact information to the back side. (Hint: Turn some of these photos around. The Spencerian graphics alone are worth collecting.) Around the 1920s, all of these cardboard portraits stopped with the invention of the Brownie camera.

I would buy these antique pictures now and then, acquiring the more interesting poses of men, women, families and sometimes children, and then I decided this random collecting needed more of a purpose to justify my buying. Sometimes I sell antique photographs in my store, and we have heard a few customers say, “I love this picture, but what would I do with it?” I understand the awkwardness of having photos in your home of people you do not know, so let me share an inexpensive and effective way to use them without apologies.

Part of Debbie's Gals with Hats collection.

Start by collecting photos with a theme.

When I opened my store, I decided to begin a collection of pretty ladies to display with our store jewelry. Hard to do before Maybelline! It was a challenge, but now I have a dozen or so women who are downright beautiful for 1885. The more specific you get, the stronger the collection. Some of my other favorites are:

• Women with hats

• Three brothers (or sisters)

• People with their pets

• Men with mustaches

• Bridal portraits

Display ideas:

• Have a framer cut uniform openings in a clean finished mat to group under a large vintage frame. A professional mat will give you a cleaner look (but I like the crudeness without a mat as well).

• Find a small wall and line photos up with fancy hat pins. A smaller wall will make stronger impact.

• Color copy the images to wallpaper a smooth door or table top. The restroom of my store is covered with photos of ladies for the girls room and men portraits for the boys.

• Hot glue a grouping of photos with girls wearing jewelry to a bulletin board that has small hooks to display your own necklaces.

• At Christmas time a grouping of photos of newborns can be used as ornaments, hung on a Christmas tree with baby shoes and rattles.

To use old photos as art in your home, always group them together, framed or not, for impact. Once visitors see these collections, it is doubtful they will ask, “Who is this?” A reply of, “My lost ancestors” is always good, but showing your flair for making them your own original art is better.

Reach Debbie Dusenberry, owner of the Curious Sofa, 3925 W. 69th Terrace, Prairie Village, at