The Champagne Life on a DIY Budget Since 2007

Trash to Treasure: Decorating with Found Objects

decorating with found objects

Spring is the perfect time for renewal and re-energizing your home, and spring cleaning affords ample means by which to slough off the stale and usher in the fresh. This year, however, redecorating takes on a decidedly wallet- and planet-friendly turn, as many of us move away from buying new things and more towards acquiring stuff more resourcefully — just in time for Earth Day.

Using elements from nature, pre-loved sports and games, and bar memorabilia, these three decorating schemes showcase the possibilities inherent in things you already own or can easily salvage — materials laying in wait behind cupboard doors, hidden inside garage bins, stored forgotten in attics, or abandoned carelessly in a curbside recycling bin. Practice the art of scavenging on the chic to turn your home into a modern showpiece on the cheap.

Here’s how to turn trash into treasure:


Vessels, whether useful or purely decorative, are the natural complement to storage. Instead of hiding things away, look for interesting clear glass vases and containers, or vintage tins and boxes. Everything gains a higher level of importance behind glass — just like a photo does when it’s in a frame, or a single object under glass becomes art or artifact in a museum or a gallery. Elevate found items in the same way throughout your home, either as a single piece or as a collected group, by featuring them in clear glass vessels or grouping them together in a frame or a shadowbox.

In our sports and games collection, vintage dominos were placed under the remaining glass lid from a broken kitchen jar. The result draws attention to the objects as a display piece, and could easily be turned into a coaster by affixing a cardboard backing. Group objects together for an infusion of color, as we did with the marbles (from a Chinese Checkers set that became a few short as the result of a move) or the vintage croquet balls (whose mallets had long since broken) and use as a centerpiece, bookend, or part of a mantle arrangement.


The inspiration for our each of our decorating schemes came from naturally occurring themes as categories of sadly forsaken or happily collected objects in our daily lives: from nature (as with the shells, sea glass, and sand collected over the years by Melissa, our editor, on her trips to visit family in Hawaii, California, and Martha’s Vineyard); from play, as with the set of marbles missing a few members or the Scrabble set no longer joined by its board; and from entertaining, as with the collection of sentimental wine corks and antique coasters, which we elevated to art by framing in an alternating group of multiples. Each of these collections went from being hidden and forgotten (or close to being thrown away) to being celebrated under glass.

To create an arrangement, choose objects to accompany your focal point that would naturally be found near them in life: a sprig of driftwood and (silk) butterflies reflect sentiment and whimsy in the beach elements collection, a musical instrument and a classic camera reflect merriment in the bar memorabilia collection, and a tennis racket as bulletin board reflects activity and events in the sports and games collection. Think about each arrangement as a postcard from a happy memory — just remember to think outside the box and leave your interpretations loose, not literal.

The two best things about using found objects as decor are that they are easy and affordable to create, and they are ever evolving. You don’t have to spend a cent to achieve a completely new and fresh look for your home, and depth is added to your displays when you start small and expand upon a collection with thoughtfulness and purpose over time. Here are some of additional tips, both for displaying and for collecting found decor:

5 Tips for Decorating with Found Objects:

1. Look around at the things you already own and choose things that have a personal story or history, then group them together as a themed collection.

2. Take a walk through nature and have an eagle-eye for debris. Look for things like pine cones, river rocks, seed pods, and fallen branches on a mountain walk, or look for shells, sand, driftwood, coral, and sea glass washed up on a beach.

3. Look for objects with a similar color scheme. It will help to bring order to the arrangement and the final aesthetic will be easier on the eye.

4. Start with what you have, and be creative. Things found on the curbside don’t have to be perfect. Perhaps they are the backdrop for the display, as is the old school desk and chair.

5. Even the most ordinary objects can make a statement when displayed in multiples. Wine corks double up as display and elevate a collectible bottle of old spirits.

10 Tips for Displaying Collections:

1. A glass vase can be used as a terrarium or display globe by turning it upside down. You can also use a drinking glass to create a smaller-scale effect.

2. Books, blocks of wood, or upturned stacked glasses are great to create different levels, which is key to creating an interesting composition.

3. Using mirroring and repetition is a good way to add interest to a display.

4. Consider the area where your display will be set. Displays can be positioned in all sorts of interesting corners and on pieces of furniture — not just on mantles, bookshelves, or tabletops.

5. Lighting plays a huge role in the effectiveness of a display and can add drama to the chosen pieces. Think spotlights or candles.

6. Mix modern with vintage, and combine the simple with the surprising. For example, the vintage tennis racket is used as a notice board and displays tickets to upcoming sporting events. Past, present, and future all working together creates a very modern look.

7. Position large objects on their own or layer them against another piece. The small viola was given a prominent stage on the larger chair.

8. A small object can be given added significance by being displayed on a mount. The camera sits on a plastic stand, which in turn framed a vintage box of bar matches.

9. Be thoughtful and place pieces with intention, unraveling a story through the things that are arranged together.

10. Objects that are of similar theme have greater impact when arranged together.

For more inspiration on decorating with found objects, check out these tomes, which have nearly become bibles in the Shoestring offices: the books Re-Creative, by Steve Dodds, and The Scavengers’ Manifesto, by Anneli Rufus and Kristan Lawson (soon to be featured in our June 2009 issue); as well as the magazines Found and ReadyMade, kindred spirits in our quest to save money and the planet while having fun doing it.



Produced by Meghan Udell and Melissa Massello. Styling by Kara Butterfield. Shot on location and photography courtesy of StudioShare

Story Copyright 2009 Shoestring, LLC.

  • Seane

    Oh! My favorite pastime is going to trash and treasure markets. Sourcing second hand treasures is such a fun activity and your special finds create wonderful talking points in your home.

  • Steve Hand

    Oh my passion in life is hunting and collecting. If it is one thing I miss about living abroad and traveling frequently is the regular garage sales and even the local dump stations now have places set aside for recycled treasures.