As a decorator, I can’t expect my clients to agree with everything I recommend. Sometimes I just need to humbly agree to disagree.
Take, for example, my recent experience with my client Jodi Dady, an art adviser, who lives in a postwar apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with her husband and two teenage children. I admire Jodi’s dislike of clutter (we should all be as disciplined as she is!) and I respect her acute fear of pattern and most colors (after a bit of prodding, she acquiesced to using touches of deep turquoise to enliven her otherwise all white-and-pale-gray apartment); however, when it comes to hanging — and living with — art, she and I have divergent opinions.
Jodi is in the art business and is a collector of works by contemporary and emerging artists. She has always viewed her art (and that of her clients) as the most important element in the room and believes that it should be treated as such. Her perspective is that of a gallerist: Art should be hung on white walls with nothing to impede the full visibility of the entire work as, she says, “the artist intended it.”
My task as Jodi’s decorator was to upgrade the furnishings to complement — but never overshadow — her collection of paintings, prints and drawings. This was challenging for me. I like to integrate art with other objects; I don’t mind when a lampshade overlaps the corner of a photograph or if a painting hangs below the horizontal line of a dining table. I, like most stylists, use art and objects to fill out rooms and to create an interesting, layered tableau.
I have a recipe: I hang a piece of art above a side table or chest, then I place a lamp (typically on the right side of the table), a stack of books and/or a box, plus one or two objects. My mix of items is usually eclectic; I like to pair modern lighting or art with antique furniture and vice versa. Jodi would have none of it.
In Jodi’s apartment I was also not able to use any tall pieces of furniture (usually I like to have one tall piece per room, not only to provide storage, but also to guide your eye up). All of her walls needed to be saved for art.
Jodi was also rigid about how the art was hung. Like a curator, she is conscious of the mix and flow of the art, but she is strict about giving each piece its own space. I tend to be more daring with where I hang art and how I group pieces together; I am not afraid to hang a picture over the shelves of a bookcase, and I like to group pictures in visually interesting arrangements.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that my way is right and Jodi’s is wrong, but rather illustrating that the approach to where and how one integrates art is a large factor in determining the ultimate feeling of a space. The furniture in Jodi’s apartment is not that different from what I have in my own, but how we integrate art and objects into each space is. Jodi’s pristine rooms look more modern and Zenlike, whereas mine are layered and “lived in.” Jodi’s art says, “Hey, look at me!” as opposed to mine, which says, “I am here, if you can find me.”
But despite our aesthetic differences, Jodi and I agree on one thing: No matter how you hang it, display art that you love.
More often than not, people hang art too high or too spaced out, or they stress about putting holes in their walls, making the worst mistake: not hanging anything at all. Art ties a room together, adds interest and drama, and fills out empty spaces. Hung properly, art draws your eye up, down and around a room. So you don’t make the mistakes of others, follow these two pieces of advice and hammer on!
● Get the height right. Pictures should be hung so that the center of a picture is at eye level; for most people that means the middle of the picture should be about 5 to 5½ feet from the floor. I say “most people” because one of my dearest friends is 5-foot-11, and every time she is at my house, she complains that the art is hung too low. I point out it is hung too low for her, not for 5-foot-2 me. In general, hang art about three to six inches above a piece of furniture.
●But don’t worry too much about math. In general, I rely more on my eye than I do on a tape measure to figure out where to hang a picture. I suggest using a tape measure and level to get started (I especially like the measuring tapes that verbally tell you the measurement and levels that have a built-in laser light), then eyeball it from there. Hanging art is often a two-person job, so make sure you have someone there to help you.
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”