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EYE ON DESIGN

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By Patricia Dane Rogers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2000; Page H05

How-to articles routinely proclaim that the correct way to hang pictures is at "eye level." Okay, whose eye level? Shaquille O'Neal's or Dr. Ruth's?

We went in search of more reliable advice.

"The classic error is to hang artwork too high," says Steven K. Roberts, a professional art installer in the District. Instead of going by eye level--which depends on the height of whoever is hammering the hooks in the wall--he uses the dimensions of the art itself as a starting point.

"As a general guideline, the center of a picture should be about 60 inches from the floor," says Roberts, who hangs fine art for area galleries, museums and interior designers as well as in private homes. This applies whether you're hanging individual pictures or a grouping: In the latter case, the center of the group should be about 60 inches from the floor.

"Architects like to hang artwork with the tops or bottoms all lined up, but I think a better sense of balance comes from aligning the center points of each picture," he says. "It's less rigid."

To achieve the best results, Roberts says, you'll need a flexible metal tape measure, a hammer and good quality picture hooks. He likes Floreat Wallhooks, a German brand made of solid brass sold locally at Strosniders hardware stores, and Ook Professional Picture Hangers, available at Home Depot.

To keep pictures on the level, he always uses two hooks placed near the edges of the art rather than one hook in the center. And keep the hooks close to the top of the frame, so the piece won't tilt out from the wall.

Roberts offered guidelines for three common places where artwork is displayed. These rules are not hard and fast, he says, but merely a good place to start. The size of the art, the height of the ceiling, the scale of the surrounding furnishings all will affect the result. What matters is the eye of the beholder. But not necessarily the distance from that eye to the floor.

Over a sofa

"You don't want a picture to look as though it's floating off by itself," says Roberts. "The idea is to limit the amount of space between the top of the sofa and the bottom of the picture frame. If the gap is much greater than eight inches, there's a disconnect."

The style of furniture affects the placement of art. If it's a low, contemporary piece, you might hang the art so the center point is 58 inches above the floor, Roberts says. Over a camel-back sofa that's high in the middle, 60 or 61 inches would be more appropriate.

And ideally, he says, a picture or group of pictures should be no wider than the sofa because it will look top heavy or unbalanced. In most cases, Roberts says, it looks better if centered.

Above a mantel

"Dealing with mantels is trickiest of all," says Roberts. Sometimes, the 60-inch rule is out the window because the mantel itself is 60 inches high to start with.

Usually, he says, the space between the top of a mantel and the bottom of a picture should range from three to seven inches.

If the mantel is tall and the room has a soaring ceiling, bring the artwork down to earth by hanging it on the low side. If the mantel is low and used to display candlesticks, vases and other decorative accessories, the art should be raised a bit so it won't be blocked by all the tchotchkes.

Up a staircase

On a staircase wall, Roberts strongly recommends sticking with artwork or even photos that are the same size and in identical frames. "My personal opinion is that a series of similar images--trees, flowers or even Josef Albers's squares--work well in settings like a stair," he says. "You're creating a visual pattern and can get a lot of impact even with a small group of inexpensive pieces."

The works should be hung to duplicate precisely the rising levels of the stairs, with a uniform distance between the step and the midpoint of the picture directly above.

As a general rule, Roberts allows the requisite 60 inches from the top of the baseboard to the center point of the art. To determine the horizontal spacing, he measures the length of the stair wall, determines the number of pieces to be hung and then works out the math so that pictures will be equidistant from each other.

In a long hallway, repeating pictures with similar subject matter and matching frames creates the same kind of pleasing rhythm.

"These guidelines work for me about 70 percent of the time," says Roberts. "Somehow, everything hung from a similar center point just makes the room feel right."

Have a decorating or design problem or solution? Share it with us. Write to Eye on Design, Home Section, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071; or e-mail Patricia Dane Rogers at rogersp@washpost.com. We regret that we cannot answer each message because of the volume of responses.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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