A Local Women Offers Design Tips on Decor Collections

Kathryn Swanson’s tips for building a new collection


Kathryn Swanson is sometimes called “another set of eyes” by her friends for her talent in helping them decorate with what they already own. A retired Teacher Librarian in the Barrington School District, she sits on the Advisory Board of the Bristol Warren Education Foundation and is a volunteer at Blithewold. Kathryn and her husband David have made Bristol their home for the past 16 years. We spoke about her collection of blue and white dishes, starting a collection, how to display it and when, if any, is a good time to stop collecting.

You have an extensive collection of blue and white dishes. How did it begin?

I had admired my mother-in-law’s large blue and white bowl 30 years ago. One day she gave it to me and that was the start of the collection. It is English china and was given to her parents by their employer in America when they came from Sweden. I think that is why she wanted me to have it. Of all the items I own it is the one I use the least because it is so precious to me.

How many pieces do you have?

Oh my goodness, I would say over 100 pieces, large and small. I try to use all of the pieces, – the coffee cup you are using for example. The pitchers, the vases, platters, all of it here are used frequently. My pieces are not necessarily rare. Some of them, like my cereal bowls, are from Pearl River/Chinatown in New York City or some of the platters are contemporary blue and white. If something breaks it can be repaired or replaced.

What are your thoughts about how to start a collection?

When you create your home, look at what gives you pleasure. Some people collect maps, vases or even iceboxes. So whatever you enjoy is a great starting point. I think it is more meaningful if you can use it but often people collect for the design of an item.

How to know when to add to a collection and what are some good resources?

If it is something unique then you want to add it to your collection. The search is the fun part of having a collection. Years ago I went to a Skinner auction in Boston and I bid on a boxed lot of blue and white china. I could barely carry the box it was so big with platters and cups, and that is when the collection really took off. We are so fortunate locally in Bristol with Jeff Gladding at Epilogues, Jesse & James Antiques and Alfred’s Antiques. Additionally Benefit Street Antiques on Wickenden Street in Providence owned by Marian Clark from Warren is also a wonderful resource.

How do you feel when people give you something for your collection?

I love it. Friends recently went to Turkey and brought me back a blue and white bowl from Istanbul, my college roommate was visiting family in Holland and returned with two cups and saucers from her mother’s home, my niece in New York has brought me items from Pearl River/Chinatown – just a few examples.

So that friends and family think of me on their travels is wonderful. Last spring I went to an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston called New Blue and White, it was china from all over the world and it got me thinking of my own collection in a di!erent way and all the countries represented here.

What are some suggestions on how to display a collection?

When I looked at this house 16 years ago and saw the eating area of this kitchen and the open shelving I immediately thought how wonderful it would be for my collection. In our previous home my husband David who was a contractor had built me a display case in the kitchen, which we left in the house. Since then the collection has grown, but I limit it to this room as I think restraint creates balance with a collection. It should not overwhelm a home. I have seen many ways to display collections from aluminum 1950s ice buckets decorated with penguins going up a staircase, silhouettes used as a border around a living room, silver topped glass powder jars grouped together on a coffee table or cream warevessels on glass shelves across a window appearing as a window treatment.

As your mother-in-law did for you, have you ever started someone on the collection journey?

A few years ago I gave my nephew and his wife glasses from Pean Doubulyu Glass in Providence as a wedding gift to start them off, and I have continued to do this with other friends. If I know someone is a collector I keep that mind. At this time of year with the holidays coming I like to give someone a gift for their collection. It is always appreciated.

Do you ever feel the collection is complete?

I am always thinking I have ended it but then it may be a wonderful day spent with friends or family and I will see something in a shop and I may buy it to remind me of the day. My collection is not valuable in dollars but is very precious in the memories of the people and the places that it represents. Kathryn Swanson can be reached at


No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment