How to Display Items in a China Cabinet

Jann Seal

The art of placement is the key to setting up a china cabinet. Avoid cluttering it with all your pieces; instead, give hints as to the size of your collection.

Because it displays pieces from your family history, your china cabinet holds a place of honor in your home. Called a variety of names in Europe and America -- a Welsh dresser, curio cabinet, hutch and breakfront -- it serves the same purpose no matter the name: to store and display china, crystal, artwork and heirlooms safely, yet openly. Some china cabinets feature shelves behind glass or wooden doors, while others have open shelving. Position your collectibles in the cabinet to form a display in which shape and color mingle effectively.

Pre-Plan Your Display

Put all the pieces you want to display on a large table to determine the scope of your items. Base your layout on what goes into the china cabinet: crystal glasses, china, silver, small sculptures, family photographs and heirlooms. Separate the items based on the number of shelves you have and the purpose of the pieces, placing the most delicate items on the upper shelves, out of danger, yet glistening. Keep color in mind to avoid a shelf composed entirely of see-though crystal.

Building Your Shelf

Height matters. Keep the taller items at the rear of the shelf, and build out from there with shorter pieces, giving each enough space to be appreciated individually. Think in groupings of three, not in a cascade, but ranging from tall to short to medium, in a triangle. Inject color onto a shelf of crystal by adding a small piece of art, a burst of purple amethyst crystal, a family photograph or a piece of sculpture within the layout of the clear glass. Keep your most interesting pieces at eye level, so they can be more easily appreciated.

Tell a Story

Your collection should tell a story, whether it's a history of crystal with many different patterns displayed; a collage of fine china pieces, with one place setting displayed and the rest tucked away out of sight; a collection of crystal animals gathered around a sculpture of a brave young man; or a statue of a young boy and his dog, sleeping alongside a fishing pole, while another statue of a running boy, heading to his swimming hole, sneaks past. Lean a small oil painting against the rear panel and arrange your pieces in front, giving visual space to the art. Consider all your pieces as part of a greater story, and the arrangements will come to life.

Spice Up Your Cabinet

If your china cabinet is in a less-formal position in the house, such as a kitchen or living area, consider painting the wall behind it a feature color and continuing that color into the interior of the cabinet. This unites the piece with its environment. Display casual items, tying the colors together. Avoid cluttering the shelves and making it look like the scattered pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. An artful display is one that looks cohesive, yet has a hint of frivolity within.


If you live in an earthquake-prone area, consider sticking museum tape on the bottom of vulnerable pieces to prevent movement.