Australian artist Jonathan Zawada works on a mural at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm on Jan. 28 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

When Australian artist Jonathan Zawada was putting the finishing touches this month on a 36-foot-by-12-foot acrylic painting that blends the natural landscape of mountains with the pixelated virtual reality of the video game world, it was not at his Los Angeles studio. And the work will not be featured in an art gallery.

Zawada was painting a wall inside the downtown Washington offices of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, the global law firm that commissioned his work for the firm’s new office. The yet-to-be-named artwork, which is made entirely of brightly colored triangles, takes up a wall of Pillsbury’s first-floor conference center and can be seen from the street through the building’s floor-to-ceiling glass windows. It is the first time that Zawada, whose artwork is typically in private collections, has created a piece for a private company.

Corporate law firms, which for many evoke images of stuffy oil paintings and oriental rugs, are increasingly home to never-before-seen works by artists who trade in light installations, lithographs and metal sculptures.

The trend is a stark contrast from a generation ago, when law partners were known to amass expensive art collections. Of course, many law firms still maintain expansive, curated collections. But increasingly, law firms are commissioning artists to create tailor-made pieces that fit the more modern architecture and aesthetics of the firms. The phenomenon is playing out at law firms across the city.

The main lobby of Covington & Burling, the District’s largest law firm and anchor tenant at CityCenter DC, will soon be home to Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez’s first major installation in the Northeast, which will incorporate natural light coming through the building’s glass walls.

McDermott Will & Emery, which in 2013 relocated its Washington office to a newly designed building on Capitol Hill, commissioned two pieces — a series of 17 lithographs by New York City-based artist Peter Coffin and a 20-foot LED lightbox by Spencer Finch, the Brooklyn-based artist who was later selected to offer the only artwork commissioned for the National September 11 Memorial Museum. The lightbox Finch created for McDermott, “Summer Afternoon, 1863, Washington, D.C.,” re-creates the afternoon sunlight at the street corner in Washington where Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln passed each other regularly during the summer of 1863.


This Spencer Finch piece, “Summer Afternoon, 1863, Washington, D.C.,” is an LED lightbox. It is seen in the main reception area of McDermott Will & Emery. (Photo courtesy Jean Efron Art Consultants, photo by Chan Chao)

This Peter Coffin piece called “Untitled” consists of letterpress ink on coated cardstock. It is seen in a hallway of McDermott Will & Emery. (Photo courtesy Jean Efron Art Consultants, photo by Chan Chao)

“Law firms went from, ‘Okay, we have to have some things on the wall,’ to, ‘We should have some nice paintings,’ to now, which is, ‘I’m interested in art and I want to have something that can reflect the firm’s vision and how we see ourselves through works of art,’ ” said Jean Efron, an art consultant who worked with McDermott and has consulted for more than 100 law firms in a 36-year career.

As that transition took place, traditional standbys such as hunting prints, botanicals and maps fell out of favor.

The shift in how law firms approach art reflects a change in how firms think about the design of their workspace and the impression they want to leave with clients and the public.

“The change reflects the times,” Efron said. “I see firms being more interested in what younger partners would like. They’re looking to future leadership. Years ago, one might say the senior partners might have been buying for themselves.”

Over the past decade, as law firms moved away from traditional office features such as big corner offices, and began to favor smaller offices with more communal areas — largely to reduce real estate costs, law firms’ second-highest expense after personnel — their approach to art changed as well. Partners used to hang artwork in their individual offices, but with less wall space, firms are displaying large statement pieces in such high-traffic, public-facing areas as their main lobbies or, in Pillsbury’s case, a conference center that’s visible from the street.

Law firms, which have long been perceived as cloistered, are also vying to play a more visible role in their neighborhoods.

“They’re not hidden in a tower anymore,” said architect Debra Lehman-Smith, co-founder of the design firm Lehman Smith McLeish, which has designed a number of law firm offices in the Washington area, including Pillsbury and Covington. “They’re more public about expressing themselves and wanting to be part of the urban thread. They’re sharing the streetscape and landscape and sunlight.”

As a condition of getting additional square footage in its main lobby, where the Cruz-Diez installation will be displayed, Covington agreed to use the space to host at least 17 annual public events, including poetry readings, art exhibits and speaking engagements.

When Pillsbury relocated its Washington office from D.C.’s West End to downtown, the firm sold many paintings from the old space that no longer fit in with the new office’s more modern aesthetic, said Jeff Grill, Pillsbury’s D.C. managing partner. Firm leaders took the proceeds and put them toward an art budget, about $200,000, which they spent on new pieces from two artists they chose because their work reflected the image that Pillsbury wanted to create.

In addition to Zawada’s work, the law firm commissioned artwork from Rana Begum, a Bengali artist based in London, who is creating metal sculptures that will hang on the interior walls of Pillsbury’s office. The pieces are expected to be completed this month and will be shipped from Europe. In both cases, the artists’ work is meant to be showcased in a visible, communal space rather than in the confines of a partner’s office. They are also — at least in the buttoned-up world of law firms — daring.

“We’re trying to push the envelope a little,” Grill said. “Rather than have a nice Impressionist landscape painting, we looked for artists whose careers are on the upswing, who are a little younger. We like that boldness, and we think their pieces mesh well with what we’re trying to convey what we think is a forward-thinking law firm.”

But they were careful not to go too far.

“We wanted to make it a bold statement, but at the same time we’re a law firm,” he said. “It wasn’t going to be an odd performance piece that wouldn’t mesh with a law firm.”