The basic building blocks of a room’s design include rugs, furniture, paint or wall coverings, lighting and art. But in order of importance, do the blocks line up side-by-side, or do they stack one upon another?
Many designers would say that art is the most important block, and it can function either as the foundation or the capstone of a good design.
James Bacchi — who, along with business partner Annette Schutz, owns the ArtHaus gallery in San Francisco — says original art is the most important element in a design because it may be the only unique thing in a room. “Unless you’re also collecting original furniture, art is what distinguishes your home’s design from another’s,” he says. “Ideally, you’d start
The bright colors of the art grouping in this otherwise neutral contemporary office space draw in visitors. (David Duncan Livingston/courtesy SagreraBrazil.)
with the art and design around it.”
Yet Bacchi acknowledges that most people choose art only after the bigger pieces for a room are in place, and the art often gets short shrift.
“Designers will wait until the end of the process to present art to their clients, and by then, they’re often over budget,” Bacchi says. “There’s nothing more frustrating than seeing clients hang up inexpensive posters that detract from the design — especially when by the time they pay for a custom frame, they’ve spent nearly as much as it would have cost to buy an original piece of art.”
Alamo-based designer Kriste Michelini says that art completes a room’s design. “Without art, a room is unfinished — it’s like a blank canvas waiting for a story to unfold.”
Sometimes that story is not about only the images and mediums that attract us, but also how they came to be in our homes. Michelini says, “Art generates a narrative of how and when a piece was purchased, the artist’s background and intention, the subject matter and the medium used by the artist. It can start a conversation with friends, your family and yourself.”
Fear of getting it wrong keeps many people from seeking out original art. Bacchi says people shouldn’t worry so much about whether a work of art is deemed “good” or not, but instead try to discover what appeals to them and choose accordingly. He recommends talking to collector friends and visiting galleries, museums and open studios to discover what’s out there and what particularly resonates with you.
“Sometimes it’s easier at first to decide what you don’t like,” Bacchi says. “Then (gallery personnel) can help steer you toward other things that you’ll love.
“If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t buy it.”
But is love enough? Sometimes art is deployed to solve a particular design challenge.
Designer Cecilia Sagrera-Hill, of San Francisco’s SagreraBrazil Design, says she helped a client living in a San Francisco high-rise condo select a colorful cityscape to provide contrast with the room’s expansive views of the bay and sky. “The subject matter, vibrant colors and texture helped ground the space,” she says.
For another client, she chose a brightly colored but more monochromatic cityscape that would add light to a dark dining room. “The subject matter was Rincon Tower, but what you really saw was the bright blue color palette of the sky and the beautiful texture made with the palette knife,” Sagrera-Hill says. “Art often adds texture to a room.”
Framed art and a sculpture add interest to a utilitarian corridor. Wayne Miller/courtesy Kriste Michelini. ( Wayne Miller )
Michelini talks about using art to create symmetry in a room. She describes one space that had a centered fireplace with only one window on the wall. So she put matching chests on either side of the fireplace, then hung a piece of art that approximated the size of the window on the opposite side. “It really helped create a pleasing sense of balance in the room,” she says.
Bacchi recommends visually tricking the eye into the impression that a room is bigger by hanging a piece of art with a lot of depth to it. “Cityscapes, landscapes or representational art that includes a figure … can give the sense of another room beyond,” Bacchi says. “On the other hand, if a room feels too cavernous, hang a flat piece of abstract art to stop the eye and make the space feel more intimate.”
Careful placement and installation also are desirable for successfully incorporating art in a home. Sagrera-Hill likes to use brighter art at the end of a hallway or in a room with neutral colors and furnishings. She reserves quieter pieces for a bedroom. And she likes to position art on a room’s focal wall, and create a carefully chosen gallery of pieces along a hallway.
“In a hallway, it’s great to do a series of small works and hang them at eye level, so you can get close to them and really look at the details,” Bacchi says.
Designers and art dealers often recommend the services of a professional to install art, but you can also tackle that job yourself. One key piece of advise: Aim low. Bacchi says that most people hang art too high. A good rule of thumb is to shoot for having the center of the piece at eye level.
“Of course, if one partner is 5 feet, 4 inches and the other is over 6 feet, that can be tricky,” he says. As with other decisions, a couple might need to compromise. “There may be conflict in the selection process as well,” Bacchi says. “I’ve seen couples alternate purchases based on individual preferences. It’s actually quite inspiring to see how people work things out.”
One way to avoid buyer’s remorse is to take art home and try it out. “It’s really hard to tell what a piece will look like without seeing it in your space, since the scale and lighting in a gallery are so different,” Bacchi says.
Reputable galleries will let you take pieces home for several days to decide if they work or not. Rental galleries such as the SFMOMA Artists Gallery at Fort Mason Center will permit you to rent pieces for several months and apply a portion of the rental fee to the purchase price, if you decide to keep it. The Oakland Museum of California closed its rental program a few years ago, but the museum does have a substantial art collection available for sale at its annual White Elephant Sale, which takes place in March. Starting Dec. 1, those interested can purchase a $ 15 ticket to attend a presale Jan. 26.
Michelini says that not trying out a piece of art before buying it, or settling for a piece you don’t really love usually causes the biggest disappointments.
“I would rather have a blank wall than settle for a mediocre piece of art,” she says. “It doesn’t need to be a masterpiece, but art should resonate with you. It should bring you joy!”