Fine art is like fine wine: You can buy the very best, but its pedigree is meaningless unless you love it. You don't need to be a connoisseur to make a great selection, but the more you learn about it, the more ways you can enjoy it. And if you don't surround it with complementary fare, it can fall flat.
No matter the medium - painting or photograph, sculpture or sketch - there's an art to displaying fine art: You have to make it feel at home in your home.
That's not as hard as it sounds, says Alexa Hampton, a Manhattan designer who owns a home in Southampton. "The thing about all kinds of design, art and creativity is, it is enshrouded in a sense of mysteriousness . . . But all of it really is driven by practical considerations."
The first step is to find art that you love. Don't overthink it, says Hampton: Simply put: "Beauty is beauty. It's legitimate if you like it."
That's why even if it's a pricey investment piece, your first step should be to imagine yourself living with it - not selling it, she says. "Does it speak to you, is there a connection? Whether it's cheap, middle or expensive, it has to resonate with you."
Next, trust in your choice - and let it guide your interior design decisions. For instance, if a favorite painting inspires a color theme for the room, just go with it, says Huntington designer Eileen Kathryn Boyd. "If you make the commitment and use the color again and thread it visually through the room, it will look cohesive," she says.
Finally, find your beloved artwork the perfect place to call home. There are some rules of thumb that can help with proper placement, but your eyes should have the last word. "You don't have to worry that there's some secret, ritualized method of hanging artwork," says Hampton.
In other words, if a picture on the wall looks right from where you're standing, it's in the right spot.
Still, it takes practice to develop the knack. In the photos that follow, interior designers show you how it's done.
COMPLETE THE PICTURE
There's an almost tangible bond between Boyd's own interior in Huntington and the artwork that adorns it: Each would seem incomplete without the other. "You want the art to have some friends," explains Boyd, who is also an artist and a collector. "You've got the leading actress and then the supporting cast."
To create that elusive sense of connectedness, pull a color or theme from your star piece and repeat it elsewhere in the room with additional pieces or accessories, she says. "Your eye wants to see it again somewhere else. When it does, it completes it in your mind."
Unless they're really artistic photographs, family pictures can look out of place - and a bit vain - when displayed in places that Hampton considers "the prime art real estate," such as above the fireplace. There's an intimacy that makes them suitable for the less-public parts of a home, such as bedrooms and hallways. Since families grow and change constantly, the pictures can quickly become dated-looking. "Better to have lots of them in a hallway so progress can be charted," says Hampton.
To create a dynamic layout, choose a couple of favorites to crop and enlarge, suggests Lucille Khornak, a photographer with a Bridgehampton gallery. "It's about anchoring the wall and creating your points of power. Where is my eye going to?" says Khornak, who designed this wall for a show house in Southampton.
When displaying several pieces of art in a grouping, "there's got to be something that pulls them together," says Boyd. You can group like with like, as Hampton did with a collection of sketches in this space she designed in Bridgehampton. But a common thread - such as similar frames or a shared color - can tie together even mismatched media, such as photos and paintings.
"Maybe it's just black in every one, or it's colorful, but they all have a modern frame on them," she says. "Or the ground space might have a lot of white matting. Then the images all kind of talk to each other because there's a common color that pulls them together."
MAKE A STATEMENT
"A single statement piece of art can set the tone for an entire room, so it's important to select something that truly appeals to you in every way," says Huntington designer Kate Singer. "It should also suit and enhance the room's overall decor."
A single painting brings color and drama to this space in Laurel Hollow, which Singer designed. "It's the bold punctuation on an otherwise quiet, subdued room," she says.
CARVE OUT A SPACE
If you've got a sculpture in the round - that's one that's carved on all sides - "try and find somewhere you can appreciate it from all angles, such as a center table instead of a corner," says Hampton. Also think about the lighting, she adds. "A downlight will cast aggressive shadows. Just like people don't look great under downlight, neither does a sculpture. You want it to be lighted so you can enjoy it, but being near a variety of light sources is best if possible."
In this space at the 2009 Hampton Designer Showhouse in Water Mill by Glen Cove designer Greg Lanza, artist Robert Kuo's "Rabbit" takes center stage on a custom-designed entry table, with a pleasing combination of light sources from the windows, floor lamps and the chandelier above.
Making it all hang together
"Art is meant to be enjoyed by us, the viewers, so it should relate to our sight line," says Alexa Hampton, a Manhattan designer. "If you stand and hold it in front of you, it should be intuitive," she says. If it's not, try these tricks of the trade:
1. Do a practice run. Before making any holes in the wall, arrange the art on the floor till you find the right layout, photographer Lucille Khornak says. Cut out paper templates of your pictures and tape them to the wall to be sure you like how it looks, says Hampton.
2. Hang it lower. "You can often see paintings hanging way too high from where a typical eye-line would be," says Hampton. "It's not just how the art looks on the wall, but how it relates to where their eyeballs are."
3. Mind the gaps. Don't leave too much space between pictures, says Huntington designer Eileen Kathryn Boyd. "Have them snuggle a little bit. . . . I like to use three or four inches apart. There's something really off about it when art is too far away or too close."
4. Align the centers. "I think it's nice when you're hanging a group of paintings, don't line them up at the top or at the bottom, line them up together at their center," advises Hampton.
5. Ask an expert. "If you're buying an investment piece . . . take advantage of the expertise and services many gallery owners offer. Most will deliver and offer to hang art for you," says Huntington designer Kate Singer.
6. Create a hierarchy. Decide whether you want to elevate a picture's importance - or downplay it. Then frame it and hang it accordingly. "If I had a big Picasso, I don't know if I would camouflage it with 10 other pictures," says Hampton. "But there's something cool and nonchalant about mixing it with other things."