Living with Art
Excerpts from American Modern
Living with art is a special subject for me, from the choices I make in my own collecting to the art that we sell at Aero, and the art that is selected for my clients’ homes. Growing up, I lived with some art and antiques, and during art school at The Cooper Union I certainly made work of my own and lived with it, and I endlessly visited museums. Art has always been a natural inclination for me. Yet very often I find that people are unsure about art, and so stop short of acquiring original works that could embolden or enrich their environment. For many, it is an education. For others, it is a matter of believing they must wait until they can afford pieces of a certain caliber. My job is frequently to point out that waiting isn’t necessary; it is even counterproductive. Living with art is about being inspired by all kinds and levels of visual talent, inviting those discoveries to fill walls, tables, and bookshelves, and growing in confidence and range as you collect. I’ve always felt that this is a critical part of being oneself at home; and building a collection over time is something that I encourage in ways large and small. It is a reflection of personality: methodical, abundant, spare, naturalistic, whimsical, lyrical, quiet, bold, surprising. Art helps make a home feel spoken for rather than decorated. And after all, there are countless more artworks in the world than types of sofas, or tables, or architecture.
In a previous “From the Desk Of” post, we’ve shared some behind-the-scenes views of how I approach framing and installing art, both for the Aero store and my New York apartment. Art and framing also figure prominently in my book, American Modern. This story is an opportunity to add to that conversation with some excerpts and examples from other homes I’ve designed, as well as a description of my apartment “portrait wall” before more art was added recently.
In this restored Connecticut farmhouse estate, we assembled a collection of very fine, rare historical frames as artworks themselves. Rather than use them to frame pictures, we fitted most of the pieces with antiqued custom mirrors. In other cases, we framed very special antique textiles.
As a design tool, simplicity can be deceptive. It is often the modern part of my job to uncover this principle: to tune a room – and often, the client – to the quieter details and the unseen histories of objects, in order to reveal what is remarkable.
The mantel in the master bedroom, for example, holds one of the most unique pieces in the house, though on first look it may seem no more or less special than anything around it. The frame was made for the artist Edgar Degas from his own drawings dated in his sketchbooks between 187 and 1882. It is one of only two in this original finish known to be in existence. Many times in museums you will see this studio Degas frame fully gilded. Here, the ground is gesso, as he intended, so that it behaves like a plain mat border.
In its simplicity and perfect elegance, the frame is undoubtedly a beautiful object. But its legacy and its placement here, on this unadorned American mantel, in the privacy of this bedroom, make it rare. I look for this rarity as much as value in siting a piece. I am curating not only the physical item but also where it goes, what it combines with, what its location makes you feel: in all, the context for its story. There is real significance to choosing where a special piece lives.
When an object is so meaningful, its story will fill up the space around it. This can be as true for a treasured child’s drawing as it is for a celebrated artist’s frame. Then you need fewer things to keep it company and the most honored place to put it. This is another way to arrive at spareness.
This story is about working with a family to push the boundaries of the art they were collecting: to bring something modern, unexpected, and youthful into the mix with a home full of handsome European antiques. It is one of my favorite projects for the vibrant, creative perspective that the art brings to what could have been an overly serious residence.
Having worked with this family so extensively on their country house, we already had done much of the homework of investigating their style and narrowing choices down to fulfill it. The next threshold for us was to extend the comfort zone we had created and reach for a different kind of boldness within the sophistication of this urban apartment.
I knew I wanted to establish something of the artistic life of the apartment right in the beautiful entrance hall. And I wanted to make the leap into something modern here, to balance the formality of the space.
Early on, I had seen the Irving Penn photograph Mouth (for L’Oreal) at auction. I imagined it instantly in the entry to this apartment. Aesthetically, the picture related to the ideas about color and light that we were working with in the interiors: the lipsticks echoing the rich colors and shine of the cut-velvet pillows on the entry’s settee, the matte powder of the face like the pale grey of so much of the upholstery. And the photograph was disarming in a way that I thought would put the serious antiques and objects here at ease.
It took time for my clients to become comfortable with the idea of this picture and the direction it would take us. But now, they and their children all love it. I believe it says something about their courage that they did choose to live with art this strong and surprising. And I think it’s valuable for any collection to have pieces that are of their time.
Other art followed. We began to carefully select more modern photography for the apartment. Besides the pictures, there are objects which add modernity by virtue of their mix and all their sculptural form: Venetian glass, Roman and Chinese antiquities, and historic silver, from Renaissance-inspired pieces to Georg Jensen and Gio Ponti.
As with any collection, my goal with art is to help guide my clients toward the pieces they aspire to, and to introduce them to things from different vantage points than they might have considered. Photography was a better fit for these clients than painting, as were historical artifacts more than sculpture. What’s important here is the comfortable tension created by fitting pieces together that are striking and soothing, frank and delicate. In this apartment it happens that the art does more of the former and the furniture and architecture more of the latter. This is one way – by juxtaposition – to be modern within a formal setting.
Pale and Luster
For the bedroom of this apartment, we also collected several very special pieces of art. The Monet lithographs, printed in 1908, are framed in different, but related, modern gesso frames. On the other side of the bed is a most beautiful 1949 nude by Irving Penn. With vintage black and white photography especially, I do try to choose frames that have interesting, clean profiles beyond the plain, gallery stock that most modern photography is set in. I look for subtle, refined details, and I am inclined to use gold lead to suite an elegant setting like this one.
One major focus of my (art) collection is the grouping of portraits that congregates around the fireplace (of my New York apartment). I know that portraits tend to be difficult for people to live with; perhaps they feel like strangers if they aren’t familiar faces. But I have always been intrigued by them. I grew up with one of two American portraits in my house, and they seemed to have wisdom to me. The mood of them became so much the character of that place; I can still see their faces all these years later.
This wall started with a smaller group of pictures, then grew. Now I think it’s at its maximum, but I leave the possibility open that it can still change . On the practical front, hanging a large wall of art such as this one requires staging and planning. It is a concerted effort, in terms of how to lay out all the pieces, in this case so that profiles are posed left and right, and frames and pictures sizes are balanced next to one another. This is not a wall that is meant to be uniform, with all the same type of work or equal spacing between things. It is hung, like all the walls here, in a vintage salon style that I think is most interesting and chic as a way to assemble a mix of art.
To begin, I choose frames for each individual image. As in other projects in this book, there is a good amount of white framing, which I like for its freshness and modernity. Many of the frames have refined profiles that are connected to the vintage era of the pictures. Typically, I will lay out the art on the floor, in order to shift pieces around and figure out combinations, including taking old pieces down when new things are added. This process helps me decide on relationships of scale, subject matter, or the feel of various frames. I’m searching for the measure that will tie a complex group of things together. Sometimes there’s a story, sometimes just a design consideration; there are any number of ideas that can be the glue. And then some abstract paintings filter through for a different texture. Pairs are broken up. These different beats make a rhythm that carries you along. The rhythm has something calm about it, even though the installation is so full. It’s always been important to me that the art here still feel tranquil.