Fall's a great season to create a 'cabinet of curiosities'

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This Sept. 21, 2017 photo provided by Katie Workman shows a "cabinet of curiosities," with touches of Autumn, inside a home in New York. Fall is a great time to create a "cabinet of curiosities," an idea that goes back centuries. You collect and display knickknacks and oddities, often but not exclusively from nature, for study, inspiration, contemplation or conversation. (Katie Workman via AP)

Digging around in a favorite flea market a couple of years ago, I found a handmade, compartmentalized box that someone had lovingly crafted from wood, probably 100 years ago. It looked like it could have been a tool kit, fishing tackle box or something a builder would use. Undeterred by the fact that I had no need for any of those things, I bought it.

But it looked a little forlorn empty, so I decided to create a "cabinet of curiosities," with autumn as a theme.

I started with a few colorful fall leaves and a polished acorn. Later came a birds' nest that had been vacated earlier that summer from a nook under a woodshed roof. A long, skinny pinecone. A pressed flower that fell out of an old cookbook. Some beautiful stones. A canary yellow squash, a ruddy pomegranate, a seckel pear.

To these natural objects, I added an old recipe booklet from a company called Worcester Ivory Salt (my husband is from Worcester, Massachusetts) and a century-old butter-making paddle. Little cocktail forks. Some old glass bottles with interesting shapes.

The box sits on the counter underneath our living room windows, and every day I look at it and feel a little sigh of pleasure. I love that I know exactly where each item came from, and that the collection is always evolving and will never be "done."

So what exactly IS a cabinet of curiosities?

The idea goes back at least to Renaissance Europe, where "wonder rooms" full of knickknacks and oddities from nature were created for study, inspiration and contemplation. Often these collections were gathered on one's travels, and then displayed. Imagine a Pinterest board of quirky natural objects come to life.

These days, a cabinet of curiosities might include all sorts of collectibles. They can be housed in any kind of box, on shelves, maybe in an actual cabinet with a glass door. The cabinet of curiosities can sit on a counter or be mounted on a wall.

It's a wonderful conversation piece, since many items probably have stories behind them. A stone from a trip to the Hawaii, a peacock feather from a hike in Australia, or just a discarded snake skin from an expedition in the woods behind your house.

Fall is the perfect time to consider creating your own cabinet of curiosities.

How to begin?

Yolanda Edwards, creative director at Conde Nast Traveler and Brides magazines, is an avid collector who takes her cues directly from nature.

"In the fall, I like the idea of collecting fallen things, like the first red leaf I spot, feathers, porcupine quills, a twig and, if I'm lucky, a nest all in an autumnal palette," she says.

"I get to bring a moment of the season into the house, and live with it."

Beth and Ryan Fowler, former antiques dealers from New Preston, Connecticut, advise restraint: "When collecting, you want to pick with theme, curation and editing in mind. Not everything that catches your eye should make it into the mix," they say in an email. "Remember that less is often more, and let the pieces stand on their own as well as amid their group."

Remove redundancies. And use all your senses, not just the eyes, when choosing pieces, the Fowlers say.

"Sight, sound, smell and touch subtly and not so subtly inform a rounded collection," they say. "How does something feel in your hand? Does it smell smoky from being tucked in a barn for decades? Does it crinkle or rustle from weathered use? Does it have that perfect, muted patina of a well-loved item?"

The idea of a cabinet of curiosities seems to be trending: It's the theme of this year's annual, raucous Halloween parade in Greenwich Village, New York, sure to be a walking, talking collection of eclectic-ness.

So this fall, find yourself a box, any box, and use it as a reason to take that extra walk in the woods, around a lake or into a park, and open your eyes to the huge natural array of curiosities around you. Watch the collection grow, and tell a story that is uniquely yours.

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