Knowing how to display art can be tricky. Artists begin a sentence when they render a work—a statement you finish when you hang the piece on your wall. The context of that conversation depends on where the art resides, and just as importantly, what surrounds it. Once you’ve found your masterpiece, make it the focal point of the room.
The key to remember before hanging art on a wall is that the room’s design should take inspiration from the artwork. Not in the sense that its colors or subject matter should be repeated throughout the space, but in creating a striking contrast within the room so the artwork is immediately recognizable and appreciated as the most important thing present. Often the attempt fails when homeowners try to match the colors in the art to the paint on the walls or coordinate it with the draperies. A work of fine art should never be treated as a decorative accessory that merely blends into the surroundings.
Let the artwork inspire the room, the same way it inspired you to buy or hold on to it. How does that painting make you feel when you look at it? Is it traditional or modern? Does the subject matter calm or energize you? The answers to these questions are cues that should influence the other elements to achieve a balance between the cherished object and the furnishings necessary for a room to function—this isn’t a gallery after all, it’s a living room.
Barbara Simons of Simons Design Group in Huntington is a collector-turned-interior designer with more than 25 years experience arranging homes around artwork. Simons recently based the design of a room in an upscale Jericho home around the homeowner’s sizable collection of paintings by Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Frank Stella—each with a decidedly modern aesthetic and a strong use of color. The objective was to create a salon-like environment in the large living room that would inspire and nurture conversations about the artwork. To do that, Simons kept the art as the focal point, making a conscious decision to incorporate only tints of neutral tones in the rest of the room. This essentially creates a quiet backdrop—a stage from which the art can shine. “There would be no other pattern or strong use of color whatsoever,” Simons says.
The paintings sit across the expansive, pale walls in the wide-open space of the home. To finish the room she added sleek furnishings that exude elegance in a quiet, classically modern way. “We used clean-lined armchairs and an extra-long, wavy back sofa, which were custom made in luxurious, creamy-colored silk, velvet and wool.”
There is another way to design a space around modern artwork and that is to balance old and new in the same breath. “You can design a beautiful room around contemporary artwork by juxtaposing classic, European furnishings in the space,” Simons says. Antique French or English armchairs with softer shapes and intricate carved detail on the frames complement the art without competing with it. But the same rule applies with color and prints in a room that walks the line between present and past: Keep the walls and textiles neutral with only a subtle use of patterns, at the most.
Decorating with art is intimidating and can get out of hand if the designer loses focus on the art. “If someone has been collecting art, antiques or other valuables over time, it is critical to resist overcrowding a room,” Simons says. “You must avoid that museum look.” Assess the artwork for its style, size and always consider how many pieces you have. To fully appreciate art, it can’t be clustered with too many other items in an attempt to create cohesion. In the end it distracts the eye instead of focusing it.