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Captivating Collections

When Alice In Wonderland commented that things kept getting "curiouser and curiouser," she may as well have been talking about Wünderkammern instead of Wonderland. Wünder-what, you say?

Translated as "wonder cabinets," Wünderkammern are intricate 16th-century German collections that reflect the life experience of the collector. Contained within a display cabinet, these amalgams of plant and mineral specimens, fossils, shells, exotic human artifacts, weapons, tools and other examples of the human and natural world are now thought to be precursors to much of today's academic basis in humanities and sciences.

Regardless of its pedigree, the idea of the wonder cabinet (more commonly called "cabinet of curiosity" after the French Cabinet de Curiosités) has found its way into interior design. Valued for their seductive and often very crowded blend of found objects, rarities and oddities, cabinets of curiosity can add a dimension of whimsy and drama to many living spaces.

"They're odd, interesting, eclectic, eccentric and remind one of travels and unique things that were found along the way," says Becky Neuman, owner of the Ashland Springs Hotel. They have 19th-century cabinets of curiosity that she and her design team researched and purchased as part of the redecoration of the 1929 historic Rogue Valley landmark.

From a cabinet featuring daintily posed birds of every feather to a case that came all the way from Europe and is filled with one collector's personal rarities to a vast collection of seashells displayed behind glass, the boxes are both entertaining and educational. "And that's what we were after-creating a room that looks like somebody's life from the 1920s, possibly a lecturer on the Chatauqua circuit," Neuman says. "The cabinets keep a room from looking too much like a museum of antiques by adding a sense of character that truly transports you and has that wonderful spirit of times past."

For a smaller version of a Wünderkammern that has more of your own touch, consider building a reliquary. Traditionally referring to a collection of a saint's personal effects, reliquaries can also encompass a layperson's precious objects.

"It's an assemblage of things in our lifetime that we have attachments to and want to display," says Cantrell Maryott, an Ashland artist who creates custom reliquaries. "For me, it's all about telling a story of a place or a person by bringing disjointed elements together in harmony."

This could result in a box made from the weather-washed and salvaged sides of a boat Maryott came across in Alaska. Inside the box might be four or five stones she's picked up on global journeys, a chime fashioned from rusty bolts that once lay on the dusty ground of her grandfather's Arizona ranch and maybe an old animal bone. "As a design element, the reliquaries are both sentimental and artistic," says Maryott. "And whether it's one that's purchased or one that's created on commission, people will find their own meaning, their own story, in it."

That's the fantastic thing about a good, artfully arranged collection: It allows homeowners and artists to reinterpret history with imagination, producing individual wonderlands!

Captivating Collections