A View Into a Life
How the Smallest Vignettes Can Make A Visitor
More Welcome In Your Home
Story by Sarah Baird | Photos by Erica George Dines
The vignettes I see in my life, more often than not, come to me haphazardly.
I can cobble together a still-life painting from the contents of my purse — a concert ticket, shock-red tubes of lipstick and rouge, a fun-sized candy bar — telling me exactly where I’ve been. I see a snapshot at my bedside: a wobbly yellow table stacked high with a leaning tower of books, thank you notes and an elk ivory ring, a gift from my father.
Often, it’s not elegant, but it’s always (unequivocally) mine.
Barbara Westbrook, on the other hand, is a master at crafting well-designed vignettes that are both deeply personal and stunning. Her expertise at helping to structure these smaller, subtler parts of a room’s layout — a tucked away corner brightened by family heirlooms and a bouquet of dahlias — speaks to the way design is able to go deeper than simply form or function. The items in our lives are a part of our identity.
Through a well-crafted vignette, you’re not just in someone’s home — you’re a part of their life. In the right circumstances, the intricacies of their world spread open like the petals of a flower, revealing itself bit by bit.
The word “vignette” has many meanings, but all of them circle back to the same notion: that something is singularly focused enough to allow us to see it with more depth and clarity. A word this diverse, complex and utterly important should be explored through its various iterations.
The graphic Jack Moulthrop bowl sits in bold contrast to the textured brick walls and clean lines of Westbrook designer, Elizabeth Hanson's, loft.
Vignette (travel): A form of road pricing imposed on vehicles in a handful of European countries based on a period of time instead of distance traveled.
When one returns from an adventurous trip, it can often almost seem as if it was all a fever dream: too vivid, too much, too flash-in-the-pan bright to have actually occurred. It seems, at its core, to have been too good to be true.
Used in a smattering of European countries, the “vignette” is a road tax of sorts which charges based on time spent driving — not distance travelled. Travel, in this light, is a currency of time. The treasured objects we bring back with us from trips are the physical embodiment of this currency, becoming memories of another time and place that we can touch, hold and see in our daily lives. It’s not about the distance between where we travel and our homes, but the reminiscences of the times we spent there.
For Barbara, one of these currencies of travel and time is a handcrafted stool she brought back from a medical mission trip to Malawi with her parents.
“I was there with my parents, who do medical mission work,” said Barbara. “I love seeing it tucked under my side table. It’s a whole scene that’s created. It reminds me of that special trip to Malawi. I’ll look at that 20 years from now and still have the same emotions.”
The African stool is a favorite, as well as stacks of books, baskets, antique tapestry pillows, and photography - fresh and simple by Michael Kenna from Jackson Fine Art. The Ted Mehuling porcelain bird's wing dish was a gift from a dear friend and client, so has a special spot.
Vignette (wine): a 500 square meter vineyard which is part of a larger consolidated vineyard, but separate.
Those of us reared in the South are nursed on honeysuckle vines and the intoxicating scent of magnolia blossoms from birth, becoming entwined with the natural world in a way that we just can’t help but want to keep close. We want to keep the bubbly heads of hydrangeas near our bedside tables. We want to cut springy day lilies from the garden to perk up our foyers (and moods).
Much like the way vintners use the word “vignette” to describe a small clustering of grapevines set apart from the whole of the vineyard, Barbara’s designs are able to create glorious enclaves of nature indoors — set apart from the wilds of nature, but still of it.
These natural vignettes bring the ever-growing, blooming and budding world right to our fingertips, become our own private gardens or botanical reprieves.
It is, after all, a part of who we are.
In Barbara Westbrook's home every surface has moments that she loves - from antique sterling silver boxes, lovely porcelain, old English boxes collected from childhood, photographs, and hydrangea, Barbara's favorite flower.
Vignette (personal history): A specific event, place, smell or moment in time remembered vividly.
The use of photographs in a room’s vignette is often a way to bring a singular moment in time — a second captured like a bug in amber — into the larger flow of day-to-day living. For Barbara, this exists through a photograph of her father from her wedding day, which depicts the two of them walking down the aisle.
“On my nightstand, there’s a photo of me with my dad in a faux-tortoise shell frame. I just love that shot,” said Barbara. “He’s such a sweet, gentle man. It just captures who he is and his posture. It was a wonderful day for me.”
The light-filled sunroom is a favorite place to read and relax, so family photographs, books, and plants are the ideal light touch.
Vignette (stamps): The central part of a postage stamp design, such as, a monarch's head or a pictorial design, which often shades off gradually to the edges of the stamp.
This is the story of the misfit items in our lives that we love — and a stamp with a faulty vignette.
In the world of postal service enthusiasts, one strange stamp — called the “Upside-Down Jenny” — rules them all, with a history of scandal and intrigue enough to make the characters on Days of Our Lives blush.
The backstory is fairly straightforward. In 1918, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp with its central illustration — its “vignette” — flipped the wrong way. The error caused a picture of the Curtiss Jenny biplane to appear to be flying upside-down in the center of the stamp, as if in some sort of goofy, slapstick gag. It was almost immediately pulled from printing. Over the past century, it has become one of the most coveted, sought-after stamps in the world for philatelists: beloved not in spite of its oddity, but because of it.
In all of our lives, we have those items — trinkets, boxes, sculptures — that we want in our homes, flaws and all.
Westbrook designer, Kim Winkler, showcases a collection of glass decanters upon a traveling salesman's trunk with a study of birds by Cooper Sanchez. Her beloved grandmother's rocking chair and metal cafe table found on a trip in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue accompany more of her collections of birds.
Vignette (psychology): A research method in which individuals are presented with hypothetical situations and are asked to reveal their values and perceptions based on given situations.
I don’t know the people who live in the houses that Barbara has so expertly helped to decorate, arrange and craft. I don’t know their struggles or joys — and I never will. I only know them through the stories told by their collections, their vases and tables and paintings coming together to create vignettes. So, I imagine.
I imagine going on a horseback jaunt with the family that boldly, proudly displays a painting of a thoroughbred over their sofa. I imagine slathering bread with thick, salty butter at the table with a collection of turquoise-shaded earthenware pottery.
I imagine, most of all that there’s a commonality and connectivity between us. Simply by seeing their treasures arranged like living still-life paintings, there’s an affection that’s fostered. It’s a peek behind the curtain into someone else’s inner world. It’s empathy evoked by objects.
And maybe, that's the most beautiful part of a vignette. In a world that often feels so vast — so full of sweeping generalizations and constant motion — vignettes are a tangible way to feel intimate with another person through design. The focused scope, the tightly crafted arrangement of a well-designed vignette, brings a person more clearly into view and deepens our understanding of them. Through the smallest parts of a room’s design, we end up learning the most.
Perhaps, most importantly, these vignettes created in our homes allow us to be even more intimate with ourselves: uniting past, present and future into a single, beautiful snapshot.
Although this vignette feels dressy, a collection of old leather books, emerald glass bottles, petite reverse painted glass scene, leather boxes, and hand textured Corbin Bronze lamps could translate to any style space. The collection of books continues in the room to the mantel, but displayed in a relaxed way below a striking Courtney Garrett art piece.
~ W ~