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If you went on a scavenger hunt for a tray in my home, you’d find one in every single room. In the 33 years I’ve worked in the world of interior design, some of the decorating foot soldiers I use to style my home have come and gone (anyone remember tassels?). But trays are here to stay. Here are my favorite ways to use trays in my home to keep my life organized and beautiful: 


Stage Beautiful Displays

There is nothing more fun for me than dressing up bare tabletops with beautiful displays. Nine times out of ten, those displays are built on top of a tray.

Trays make the perfect stage. Magically, when an odd assortment of accents is placed together on a tray, the individual items suddenly come together with one voice and have a powerful impact.

Trays also ground a cluster of accents, giving them a visual place to land in the expanse of a bare table. Have a collection you want to show off? Put a few choice pieces on a tray.

Here’s another delicious example of how trays can be used for tabletop displays. This ornate silver tray holds an accent lamp and coffee makings in my friend Marsee’s breakfast nook.  Somehow, using a tray turns mundane activities – like getting your morning cup of Joe – into an event.


I like to use trays at tabletops. Sometimes, I’ll top a stack of books with a tray to use as a table next to a reading chair. They also work wonderfully on top of urns or garden stools. By placing a tray on top of this bamboo bedside table, Marsee turned the tabletop into usable space that is also stunning.


Keep the Kitchen Organized

Since I’m not a cook, I am clueless about the differences in all the specialty oils and vinegar my husband uses when he crafts dinner for us. (But, I know I love the results!) Instead, I see all these lovely bottles as decorative items for the kitchen counter. All you need to do is place them together on a tray, like my friend Julie did in the photo above.

My kitchen is pretty small and storage space is at a premium, so I have to keep things out on my counter tops. That doesn’t mean that the items on display shouldn’t look nice, right? Case in point: I take a few place settings of silver straight from the dishwasher and put them in these lovely glass cups, collected on a tray that sits near our little kitchen table, ready for dinner.

Try using a tray as a backsplash in your kitchen. I always keep a tray behind my sink to keep water from splashing on my kitchen window. Plus, I just love how they look layered on the counter.


Dress up a Bar

A beautifully set bar raises the spirits as much as the libations set upon it. A favorite trick of mine is to build a simple bar on top of a tray. Marsee created a bar on her sun porch that is so lovely, you just want to drink it in. This simple wicker tray is a perfect pick to hold the bottles and bar supplies. Notice how she used other versatile decorating tools to add to the ambiance, like the cast iron garden urn holding the serving pieces and the silver candy dish displaying the napkins.


Act as Artwork

My definition of “artwork” is very broad, and stretches to include just about anything I find delightful and can somehow manage to hang on my wall. Trays definitely fit in this category. The above photo of my kitchen shows how a tray adds to the montage of curiosities I have hung on the arch that frames my stove. All you need is a large plate gripper and your tray is ready to hang.

Another way to treat a tray as a piece of art is to use it as a backdrop for a tabletop display. My friend Anne placed this very simple tray against the wall next to her stove to frame the white jar. I like how the lines of the tray mimic those of the plates hung above the stove. Poetry!


Elegant Entertaining

When you are entertaining guests or just want to make your daily life more beautiful, trays can be your best friend. Food is so much lovelier when presented on a tray …

…so are drinks!

Trays are also great at anchoring place settings on your dining table, keeping individual elements like silverware and linens tucked up tight.

The shot above is my dining table set for a party, made magical by trays. A common mistake people make when setting up buffets is to place all the food on plates and platters that are the same height. It’s functional, but not very fun. For a table service exploding with drama, use serving tools like these glass compotes that allow you to display food at a variety of different heights.

Next Week … If you want to make a statement with color in your home, check out turquoise. I’ll show you ways to add punches of this powerful color to your décor.


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21 Responses to “5 Terrific Ways to Use Trays”

  1. Lisa Fernandez Says:

    I have to say this is my favorite topic. After reading this I walked around my house and counted 13 trays. I have used them for different things all visible all useful and all beautiful. This is my favorite Nell HIl/MCG style. It was the first trick I fell in love with the first time I picked up one of her books in my hand. Then after walking through her home and seeing her signature design touch at use in every room I was hooked. I would never dream of placing anything anywhere without adding a type of tray to group things. It is truly genious and affordable and stylish and beautiful to add to any room. Love this post so much.
    Lisa Fernandez

  2. Julie @ Creating This Life Says:

    It’s taken me a while but I have just come to discover the same thing as well! Now I am using trays everywhere. I use the tray for oils and vinegars next to the cooktop, like you, and I had a few things lined up on my kitchen counter that just didn’t look quite right. Grouping a couple of them on a tray was just the trick. Easiest thing ever!

  3. Ramon Says:

    As any other Nell Hill’s fan, I stared collecting trays ( silver trays still my favourite way to display collections around the house)after the very first time I had the chance to vicit nell hills stores and Mary carols home, and to this date one of my ultimate items I keep an eye for while shopping.

  4. franki Says:

    Très chic!! Honestly, I use trays EVERYWHERE!! Oh, no…tassels are passe’?!?! franki

  5. Marilyn McKenzie Says:

    My coffee table has a glass top. Left it clear & put a collection of Antique Doll & also a few baby shoes on the lower shelf. Started with a tray, a small doll quilt, some round wooden boxes that nest inside each other & place the shoes hither & thither, some on the boxes, etc so the arrangement flows up & down. I love it as I get to look at all those darling shoes. The dolls are displayed downstairs.
    I love your ideas. Will try a few. Thanks Marilyn McKenzie

  6. nanci Says:

    I love the look of trays and use several but I also still hang tassels and think they look great. If they make me happy…well who cares. Love this post.

  7. Beth Says:

    Going to round up all my trays out of cabinets and look for places to use them. Great ideas.

  8. Robbyn Says:

    I love to use trays too, however; mine never look “put together”. Would you consider a post regarding how to put together a great looking tray display??

    Love your blog!!

    Thanks much!


  9. Lorraine Lynch Says:

    Loved all the looks you provided. Very well done! Thanks!

  10. Ann Bickel Says:

    I joined your love of trays early on. I am constantly looking for new trays and places to put them. You just gave me some new ideas.

  11. Catherine Says:

    I love these sparkling photos… and the trays look fantastic. I use them all over my home as well… couldn’t do without them. I have storage issues too so my unused trays are in an old fashioned leather ‘grip’ under my tall Plantation bed.

  12. Jo Ann Hobbs Says:

    I love trays too and can’t seem to get enough of them. I like having one on the bed in the guest room with a cup/saucer, teas and faux flowers. Just makes it look like I’m expecting guests any minute.

  13. Mary Carol Says:

    Thanks for all your comments and the examples of how you all are using trays in your homes. It’s so fun to hear what you all are up to — inspires me!

  14. Lynda carrier-Metz Says:

    Wait! I’m still back on the beginning. Tassels are out!? When did that happen? Thanks MCG for ideas on trays. I love trays!
    You didn’t mention to use for breakfast delivery to porch in the spring. I load mine up with breakfast, newspaper and devotional and head to lounge chair early every nice day!

  15. Sandra Says:

    I’m totally obsessed right now with trays and pillow covers. This post was right on time for me. Love all the ideas you’ve shown and I’m sure I will use a couple of them. Lately I’ve been scouring the thrift stores for trays to repurpose. No luck so far but I’m no quitter! Thanks again for the inspiration.

  16. Linda S. Says:

    Mary Carol you did it again! Just when I get in a decorating slump and grow tired of all my “stuff” and generally bored with it all then magically a post will appear from you that ignites my enthusiasm all over again. This post did just that! What a wonderful inspiration you are and I want you to know that I really appreciate it! I’m going to gather up all of your books this evening and browse through them. And I think I’m ready for a road trip to visit both of your stores too! I need a fix!

  17. Mary Carol Says:

    Great ideas! OK, I need to backpedal on my comment on tassels. I should not have used the word “out” because I’m not a believer, in general, in decorating trends. I AM a believer in filling your home with the things you find lovely. My own decorating tastes evolve over time and I like to try new things here and there to keep my decor fresh, but some decorating items I don’t think I will ever grow tired of, like trays.Yes, definitely keep the accents your love in your home — it’s your sanctuary.

  18. Nann Says:

    YEA!!! for trays…my daughter in law needed a place for her “stuff” while nursing baby, but needed to be able to put it up and away. A tray was the perfect thing to sit beside her when needed and move easily when not in use.

  19. Robin Frank Says:

    Having a decreative range hood instead of a microwave , standard white ceramic behind my stove .. I hung a large old black metal tray with yellow lemons painted on it from the most fun black and white polka dot ribbon ever ……. Makes me smile every time I stand there to cook …. ( I also use the term cooking loosely …) and my friend set a lovely silver tray on an old stool right next to her tub … Great place for lotions , her book and … Glass of wine …..

  20. Mary Carol Says:

    Ohhhh … I love it!

  21. Mary Carol's Favorites: Tables, Beds and Bringing The Outside In | Clutter Interrupted Says:

    [...] were a beautiful touch throughout the store. If you love trays as much as Nell Hill’s read 5 Terrific Ways to Use Trays on their [...]

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