Vignettes vs. Attractive Utility

When did we all start doing this?

This trend is weird, right? Arranging groups of things in our houses that are supposed to look homey and natural and yet they can’t be touched?

The word vignette, of course, is a literary term that basically means to show a glimpse of something, to take a little snippet of a piece of writing in order to show the whole picture.

And at home, that is what vignettes in decorating are trying to accomplish. They are things from our lives, attractively arranged, to tell the story of what goes on in that room. When it happens naturally, it gives a house soul, like in these photos of rooms that are completely perfect:



(Can’t find the original source for either of these.)

What do vignettes try to achieve?

Some things in the pictures above are purely decorative, like the flowers and antlers.  Some things are functional and attractive.  But nothing is ugly.  And most importantly, nothing is pretending.

But…what if your life is not all Burberry raincoats and beautiful scales?  What if everything you have is plastic stuff from Kohl’s and is hiding in the closet? Well, then the problems start. Everything is put away when you are done with it, because it is ugly. So the house looks lifeless, and the urge to set up vignettes starts.

So the solution we have found is to pull out an excerpt from a fake story. “Here is a glimpse of my life, just me reading some antique books and enjoying these large vintage dice.”

Or perhaps something like this:

DSC03944 (1).jpg

Oh dear.

What can we do instead?

What if, instead of that, we searched for things that were attractive and actually useful? Not theoretically useful, like an antique rake hanging over the mudroom bench. (Even though I think that looks really cute.). But things that will be used by us personally. Like a pretty watering can, left out on the porch, that is also used to water the flowers. Or wooden spoons and rolling pins that are used on a regular basis, not just sitting there, like mine.

And what if the functional things of life were pretty? Cleaners poured into clear bottles instead of ones with tacky labels. Cutting boards made of wood, not plastic. Dish towels that are in patterns we like and colors that go with the house.

Then stuff could be out.  If people walked in to our homes unexpectedly, it would be okay!  Because the stuff itself is not ugly.  Our homes would seem alive naturally, instead of looking like a constant Home Goods ad, or like mine, looking perpetually empty because I stuff everything inside a closet, or in the office that no one dares enter.

Now what?

Attractive utility will be my new guideline for buying anything I might need.  My broom is dying, and instead of replacing it with another hideous shiny plastic one, I’ll be getting a pretty one like this.  It seems like avoiding plastic will generally result in a more attractive item, as will looking for something that could be, or is, handmade.

And while attempting to decorate my empty, beige house, I’ll be looking for things that will function, not just sit there.  Except flowers.  And pictures.  And pumpkins.  Now I’m really confused.

What do you think about vignettes?  Love them or hate them?  Or perhaps you are a normal person and have never given them a second thought?  Let me know!

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  1. I used to think, for example, “Oh, am I supposed to go acquire corn stalks and pumpkins and mums and such to decorate for fall? I see so many pictures of that.” Then I realized these were people who (perhaps in a more sterile suburban setting?) had to make an effort to distinguish between seasons because their lifestyle did not have natural changes to them. We are fortunate enough on our small farm to have corns stalk standing in the nearby garden, pumpkins on the porch waiting to be stored – or carved! – and mums in the flower beds. It looks better to me for being natural and not contrived.
    The vignettes that really bother me are the tables people set (to make their houses look like magazines? I have no idea) but that are never used for entertaining. It just seems so fake. Have some people over and “tablescape” to your heart’s content, it’s fun!

  2. I totally agree with you about vignettes! I have a rule for my kitchen, nothing that isn’t useful on the countertops. I have stuff out that is useful, but I make sure to buy what is also beautiful. Like my Libby glass cake stand that hold my homemade desserts, or my cookbook stand that has my Betty Crocker cookbook that gets used on a regular basis.
    However, in my living room I do have little vignettes that have sentimental meaning, like my Grandfathers wood carved duck sitting on top of old books that have been in my family for generations. If it doesn’t bring you joy, or it isn’t useful, then it shouldn’t be taking up space.

    1. I agree, everything on my kitchen countertops are useful. I do have an old fashion glass picture full of family silver, mostly spoons a couple of butter knives. I make a point of using them when I’m cooking, because I’m not an exact measure, I use the teaspoon that may or may not be the correct size. Ha ha

  3. Well, I love vignettes. And I love seasonal vignettes. And I keep those vignettes to use over and over by season. But in those vignettes, I have my mother’s typewriter from the 40’s, crocks, an old scale and a milk pail from my grandparents farm. Old books from my other
    grandparents house, and a trio of cool old cameras (one was my dads and another my grandmother’s) along with an old hunter table fan that I found in a used tool store. Those things have history, some my own family’s others just history In general. But I also love my pretties both plastic and otherwise that complement those things. Judiciously chosen and used over and over again. I guess it’s how you look at it. But I do want to start having more things that are not plastic but beautiful to use and look at. As Morris said “You should have nothing in you home that you do not find useful or beautiful.” I guess it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

  4. I love this perspective! Your vignette of pumpkins and wooden spoons with the caption “oh dear” made me laugh so hard! (Because I saw myself in it.) Attractive utility is my new home decorating catchphrase.

  5. One thing no one has mentioned is the environmental impact our choices have. Buying a nice wooden broom with straw bristles is more expensive initially than buying a cheap plastic one. However, not only does that handmade one look nice, it will be the only broom you’ll ever need to be. Rather than buying detergent in plastic jugs to decant in pretty containers, shop at Grove or a similar place to buy a concentrated detergent in a small bag. Try to buy what you need in glass or wood rather than plastic. Beautiful AND better for our earth!

  6. I was on Pinterest when I came across a picture of a kitchen I really like. Then I saw the title of your post. I pinned it. I would read that later to be challenged as a homemaker. I found that I do try to have this approach to my decorating, esp. In my kitchen and bathroom. I love vignettes, and I’m pretty good at them. The problem is sometimes I think it does get a little too cluttery. I do hate a gap that seems to throw the decorative balance off in a room. So, I play with my pretty things to fix that. I do try to remember function plus beauty. That reminds me, I need to clean out my collection of plastic reusable containers. They are good for left overs but I have way too many.

    1. heather, I think anyone who values function probably has vignettes that are pretty, I’m sure yours are beautiful :). and yes wouldn’t it be nice to find some good-looking leftover containers!

      1. Anchor Hocking used to make glass storage dishes with glass lids. I bought 3 at Walmart several years ago and really enjoy using them. The dish also can be baked in. They remind me of the glass refrigerator dishes that my husband’s grandmother used to have. She was born in 1882 and I don’t remember ever seeing any plastic in her little Victorian cottage.

        Check ebay or an antique mall for the Anchor Hocking dishes.

  7. Katie, this is such a great post. I love vignettes but I am finding they are so space consuming and I am in the process, like you, of replacing pointless things with beautiful and useful. I’m starting in my kitchen and finding how much nicer homemade canned goods look on a shelf. Buying in bulk and putting ingredients in pretty jars that can actually be used. Love your blog!

  8. Thank you for the article. I love vintage, character, creative. I rejoice in seeing recycling in the home, and I try to buy as much as possible as a second (or third, fourth…) run. I say this as I sit in my chair purchased at an auction, covered by a quilt made by a friend, drinking from a spaghetti sauce jar, but typing on, alas, a bought-new laptop. I want soul in my surroundings. To me, that includes whatever has made up my story or what I can imagine of the people who valued the item before me.
    I think it speaks to the mindfulness of our use and appreciation of things. I’m glad I stumbled upon your blog.

    1. I’m glad too! :). Now that we are all home so much, it interesting how some people love it and some can’t stand it. I think that the way they have set up their home has a big effect on that.

  9. I come from an impoverished background, so if it didn’t have some sort of utility, it wasn’t a necessity- which usually meant we had to wait until Christmas or a Birthday to get it (if we were lucky to get it at all). But to my mom, that didn’t mean it had to be ugly- even if it was cheap and functional… So “Attractive Utility” has always been my go to, save for in a few areas of my house (Like the Tea Room. But even then, attractive utility can be found mixed alongside purely decorative objects). And honestly, I prefer it that way.

    1. It so interesting that you bring up the economic side of this. The whole farmhouse trend began by people copying simple utilitarian looks…. farmers “decorated” that way because there was no money for weird decor stuff. Of course now it has gone totally weird, but the original inspiration was houses like yours…nice and simple because that was the only choice.

      1. It’s amazing how much stuff that’s popular right now really comes from the financially stable co-opting the necessities of the impoverished. And, of course, the irony is that it drives up prices- because “trendy” is always more expensive… Making it more difficult for those from whom it was co-opted to actually use it anymore.

        It’s something I think about frequently given my background- and not just relating to interior design trends; it’s a pervasive problem in all areas of consumerism, and certainly not isolated to its impact on the impoverished in western countries.

      2. Oh, I really enjoyed reading this post! I grew up in Minnesota, and the farmhouse trend makes me roll my eyes because seriously…the farmhouse everyone is emulating is nothing even close to a real farmhouse. Real farmhouses had wallpaper, quilts in a plethora of color and pattern, rag rugs, etc. Items were purchased for USE and over the years, they were worn and more beautiful. I believe our homes should be a reflection of ourselves, not the latest trends on Pinterest. Our home is an authentic representative of who we are and how we live together as a family with a mix of things from my husband’s family, from my family and now things of my (grown) children. You’re welcome to stop by for a cup of tea any time!

  10. I personally think a lot of that is like house staging that realtors and decorators do. I have things that I find beautiful or useful and sometimes both. Since I don’t have little children or puppies around anymore some of my “treasures” have come out of hiding and put into service, this way it is me not what I want others to think is me.

  11. Some of my favorite “decor” items are simply things I use. Especially in the kitchen. Wooden spoons in a white pitcher for a crock. A couple of wooden cutting boards that sit on the counter, leaning against the wall, nice dish towels that I love, clear glass canisters with copper scoops and fruit in a pretty bowl, small glass jars for coffee and creamer for my older daughter’s mini coffee pot. A cute teapot that lives on the stove. It’s all pretty and those are the things I love seeing. I wish this could naturally happen in my whole house, but not so sure. I will have to look around. The vignettes I do set up are really simple. I like books and containers such as baskets on my bookshelves and thought…wow my bookshelves aren’t really decorated…well because I actually want to read the books not just look at them backwards or stored because of too much decor taking up the shelf space. And on my makeshift hutch, I store pretty glasses and extra plates, old china, and cloth napkins we actually use regularly, but I stick in a small pumpkin or shell here or there to go along with it. I love this post! Well done!

    1. Thanks Johanna! I love all the things you mention, and you are so right that the kitchen makes it easy. Kids toys are mostly hideous, and there are only so many throw pillows one can reasonably have. ????.

  12. I suppose I’ve never really thought about it. I think the only time I had out useful-not-to-be-used items like that was when we sold our house over a decade ago. I’ve always preferred things to be functional AND beautiful but I’ve assumed it was because I grew up loving Heidi and Anne and those like them and wanted to live in their homes where things were made with hard work and love and had a purpose. I never really understood things like “guest towels,” formal China, and toys that you couldn’t touch. Not that there isn’t a purpose for things that are purely decorative; but things that pretend to be useful? Seems a little wasteful.

    1. Love the references to Heidi and Anne. It seems like children’s books always have the coziest homes. Toys that can’t be touched is a new one to me! ????

  13. I believe it depends on the person’s personality type. For me, they work because I like to look at something pretty. But most of what I buy can be used. The only thing for décor purpose only is my childhood cookie jar. I don’t want it broken so it just makes me smile. I think that you are unto something though. Being intentional about buying pretty and classy is the way to go when buying purposeful items for our home that way it will always look just like that, home. However, if you over obsess then you will drive yourself mad because some décor serves no purpose but then you would be wrong in my humble opinion. Décor can serve as a way to usher in feelings of a season or a thoughtful loving memory. Every one has a purpose for the way their kingdom’s boundaries happen but one thing is for sure, everyone loves a happy kingdom where they are free to love and the King and Queen reign in sweet romance and harmony.

    1. Yes, when I got to thinking about seasonal decor I didn’t know what to think! But also I have some stuff I love that is hideous (my deep fryer), and things like an entire Christmas village that serve no purpose. But liemy u say, ushering in a feeling or season does it give it a purpose. So if really means something to you, or you really love it, it will never be fake.

      1. I agree Katie, making a home is all about making the heart content and all the people who reside inside of it to bring forth the feelings of home and contentedness.

    2. Yes, I have seasonal decore that is not fakey. I have never liked just sticking up cheap paper or plastic seasonal items. I want the real thing. It’s fall now, so I will get out my Partylite pumpkin house tealight holder and various, mostly handmade fall decorations and knickknacks. They will replace the summery knickknacks which are relatively few . Then, many other things will stay, maybe rearranged. I will probably also feature a book that is seasonal. Some less permanent items are my silk fall leaves. I have a garland I made that swags across my kitchen window and boughet of fall leaves and bittersweet in an old real white birch candle holder. Then I have dishtowels that are seasonal specific that coordinate with some of my year-round dish towels. I try not to keep more seasonal items than I have the room to store. Most fit in a medium size box for each season ( Christmas being the exception). Finally I display, if not use, vintage items. Many of these I inherited from my grandmother. I dsiplay them\ repurpose them (ie curtains) through the year, switching them out. I love this kind of homemaking.
      Not seasonal related are handwork projects. I like to leave them out in nice baskets. They become part of the decore.

      Now if someone could help me figure out what to do with (mainly)two rooms where my adult and teenage children ( two with Aspergers). Completely disorganized and messy and even dirty. I go in their rooms, I immediately feel drained and I can’t even think anymore. .