From the stones Madine Pulaski found when she was a child walking behind her grandfather as he plowed the field on his Oklahoma farm, to the ethnic art piece that Marilyn Lynch found on a trip to the Southwest, to a colorful cross Margie Shackelford bought directly from the artist, the best collections are personal.
They are, in fact, tangible memories, a visual diary of a life.
And although the concept of decorating a house with personal collections is not new, it is still the best way to give a room interest and character.
The best collections celebrate the owners' loves, travels and history. And, important especially in today's economy, a collection need not cost a fortune.
What is does require is time and energy and the passion to hold onto something that has personal value.
For Lynch, South Coast Repertory board member and supporter of the performing arts, the collections in her and husband Frank's home document their travels and interests over a 30-year period.
"They're not purchased because they're an example of a particular kind of art or because they're valuable. They just have an appeal," Lynch said.
In her home office Lynch has white cardboard mannequin heads arranged on the wall wearing her necklace collection. This idea allows the works to be displayed and enjoyed when she isn't wearing them.
"With the different times of the day, you get different feelings by the changes in light and shadow coming through the windows. I love watching the heads change. The big thing to resist is the temptation to take out a felt pen and draw features on them," she said with a laugh.
She also displays jewelry in her dining room under plexiglass frames designed by Newport Beach interior designer Joan Neville. The plexiglass covers slide up, allowing Lynch to take the pieces out and wear them when she wants to.
"I've always liked ethnic art, even as a child. And I like color," Lynch said. Displayed against plain white backgrounds, the blues, oranges yellow and reds in the necklaces and other works in her collections come to life.
The Mexican folk art collection of Shackelford, director of development at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, and her husband, architect Alex Carragone, is the result of more than 20 years of collecting.
"Most of the works come from trips we made to Oaxaca and to the state of Michoacan. This art is something we are very interested in," Shackelford said.
The folk art is everywhere in their Dana Point condo, but in one area in the living room Shackelford has displayed crosses and other folk art on a table covered with kilim rugs. Los Angeles artist James Westwater created the colorful crosses out of recycled materials.
Also on the table are an old tin shrine, many silver milagros (good luck charms) and carved wooden Santos figures, such as a man in a black suit sitting in a chair to protect the house.
"What is the most fun for Alex and me is to go to the artists' houses in Mexico and meet the families," Shackelford said. Many of the pieces cost as little as $25; all are one-of-a-kind objects.
Another public area where Shackelford displays the art is among the books on the shelves in the living room/dining area. Because the condo is relatively small, every available space is used.
The interplay of the colorful books and figures warms the room, even though many of the figures are celebrating the Day of the Dead.
"If they have skeleton faces, they are for the Day of the Dead. But in Mexico, death is a thread that runs through life, so even the Last Supper tableaux will have devils depicted in them."
The collection is contemporary, with most of the pieces dating from the 1970s. The materials used are paper, clay, wood and colorful paints. As Shackelford moves from work to work offering descriptions, each one comes alive with a story and a memory of the artist who created it and the day and place it was purchased.
And that is another thing about collections: Often the objects take on more meaning the longer they're owned.
Personal memories associated with how an object was acquired are also important to Pulaski and her architect husband, Rolly.
Madine Pulaski, who is a pilot, has traveled to remote areas around the world, and her collection reflects those experiences. The objects themselves are not necessarily valuable; what is valuable is their personal meaning.
For a collection of disparate, small objects, Pulaski took her cue from a jeweler's case and placed them under glass in her living room bar. "There I have a wooden alligator from New Guinea, arrowheads and stone grinders from Oklahoma, a weaving from Tibet, a small butter dish I took as a child from a restaurant in Germany and a colored Russian Easter egg given to me by an Israeli," Pulaski said.
There is also a human skull--silver-plated and made into a drinking vessel for a Tibetan monk--a crudely carved ball-and-stick game from Copper Canyon Indians, a tiny medicine phial from Tibet and a Tibetan sewing kit made from eagle legs wrapped with yak hide with a heavy metal needle and bone and hide thimbles attached. She traded some Tibetan candles for the kit.
Taken separately, these pieces would not be as interesting as they are the way Pulaski has positioned them. Their value is more sentimental than monetary.
"Many people here in Orange County have the money to buy beautiful environments, but they don't have the personal history," Pulaski said.
"Without that, the beautiful environments lack feeling, warmth and character, because the owners haven't lived it. If you surround yourself with your past as well as your present, it's much more meaningful, and I think deep down most people know that."