How to Design with Art
Much like designing a space for your home, collecting art can be one of the most personal endeavors a homeowner can take on. But with so many choices, and so many considerations for making sure your selection seamlessly blends with your home’s aesthetic, where should you begin?
For many, the perfect solution is to consult an art advisor; an expert who specializes in sourcing options that speak to a collector’s personal taste, aesthetic, and lifestyle — while simultaneously keeping an eye on scale and context within a home.
Enter Hadley Powell, founder of Powell Fine Art Advisory. As a Boston-based art consultant, Powell has eyes and ears on emerging artists exhibited at art fairs and museum exhibitions, the latest and most in-demand works to hit the auction block, and an understanding of the genres and styles that align with her clients’ unique interests and aesthetics. “You can really show who you are even more through art, or what your values are or what you’re engaged with,” says Powell.
We sat down with Powell to understand what she looks for when sourcing the perfect piece for her clients. Whether you’re an established collector or looking to start, or you’re simply looking for the right work for a specific location, let’s take a closer look at how it works.
Where (and When) to Begin?
How would Powell advise new collectors on where to start? “I think one big thing is just staying open,” she says. “People sometimes have preconceived notions of what they think they should have, or what their parents owned, or what they’re used to seeing. But if they’re open and honest with themselves, they may actually venture into a whole different space that’s much more ‘them,’ because [buying art] is really personal.”
So what’s the most important question to ask yourself before you set out to find a new work? Much like the first question our design team asks our design clients before embarking on any project — What’s the feeling you want to get when you’re using your space? — Powell’s approach is about understanding your collecting philosophy and purpose up front. She says to ask yourself, “What do I want to look at that’s going to either give me a lot of joy, or be calming to me, or actually challenge me and be more intellectually rigorous?”
When to Consult an Art Advisor
When working with interior designers on client projects, Powell says the moment she’s brought in varies. “It really depends on the client,” she explains. “Usually, the interior designer has established a relationship with the client, and in that moment the designer assesses what are the art needs and interests. In a lot of cases, we’ve done the artwork toward the tail-end of design, so [the designer] will have worked through design boards with the client and really get the client’s vision and dreams for what they’re expecting.”
Powell says that, generally speaking, she joins a project in its early stages. This way, she can begin thinking about specific works or themes. “It’s really valuable, because it gives me a few months to start sourcing artwork I think the client will like. That happens in a couple different rounds.”
The Chicken, or the Egg?
So, how do you incorporate art into your space? Do you design a space to complement a single work (or group of works) that you already own? Or, do you create a larger design and then source a work to suit the design?
Powell says there’s a bit of chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to designing a space with art. Either a client already owns a fabulous piece of art, and the design team sources furnishings around that, or the client is keen to purchase a work of art, and its selection becomes part of the design criteria. “I think it’s really interesting when there’s a blank slate and art becomes the driving force,” Powell says.
Understanding Your Aesthetic
To source the right work of art for her clients, Powell digs into her clients’ lifestyle and aesthetic, which includes a site visit to their home and getting a sense for how they live. Is the home more modern or is it more traditional? Are there young children in the mix?
Once she starts to get a better understanding of her clients, Powell compiles a proposal, which includes visual examples of different styles and art movements, so that she and her clients can speak the same language. “For example, does the client like bright colors, graphic works, or only abstract art? It quickly becomes clear what clients are drawn to when they can say, ‘oh, I like this, but I don’t like that.’”
Visual Cues from Architecture
In the case of more modern homes, with a white, clean design, the art selected tends to be less figurative and more pared down, with a focus on basic colors or a monochromatic color scheme or about texture. In sourcing works of this nature, Powell aims to echo the minimalism of the home with minimalist art. But with more traditional New England architecture, the options open up a bit.
“If the home is really traditional, I like some traditional art in the home, but I also like to have something that could be a little bit more abstract or contemporary feeling just to make it not feel all the same,” she says. This careful balance is one that Powell finds herself often striking, especially with New England homes that carry a certain overarching architectural aesthetic. “When introducing [a work] that’s more representative of the modern era, I’m sensitive to how that looks in the context of a colonial home. Does it work or does it not? Some people love super-edgy contemporary art in traditional homes, and sometimes it’s less successful.”
While Powell focuses her search based on what she knows her clients will like, she’s not opposed to introducing a curveball now and then. “I do like to bring in artwork that the client may not have naturally gravitated toward as a way to push them a little — because I do think that’s why they hire me. I’m looking at things all the time across tons of different styles. I like to share other things with them so they can start to grow their own taste and style.”
Buying Art on a Budget
With your philosophy, purpose and personal style secured, the art you choose ultimately comes down to your budget. But even if you’re setting a more modest art budget for your project, it doesn’t mean you have to compromise on quality.
For new collectors, or for clients with a more limited budget, Powell says there are fantastic ways to start building a collection without breaking the bank. “There are great opportunities out there,” she says. “I’ve been getting more creative, too, in looking at galleries in different regions. I look a lot now in Portland [Maine], or I’ve been looking on the Vineyard off-season.”
While it’s a natural instinct to look to powerhouse New York galleries and auction houses, they do tend to come at a premium. “New York has a price-point, Boston also has a price-point…but the minute you step out even an hour north, you start finding interesting work. It’s not blue-chip, it’s not name-brand, but it’s great work and the price-points are a lot more accessible.”
Entry-Points for New Collectors
Other great entry points for new collectors include works on paper — which oftentimes are actual studies for larger, significant works on canvas — photographs, and vintage posters. Vintage posters, in fact, offer an incredible breadth of subject matter, styles, and color palettes.
As an example, Powell cites the recreation room from Acampora Interiors’ Wellesley New Traditional project, for which she sourced several works. To make her recommendation, she considered the context: a basement recreation space intended for family game nights and casual gathering — and the placement: an expansive, open wall.
To fill the space, she sourced a selection of five vintage posters from the 1972 Olympic games. “They were so punchy and it was a really nice way to span that whole wall and find something the client really identified with. I wanted the sports theme, and [the clients’ children] could pick what sports they liked out of a bunch. You can get really creative.”
Sourcing for a Specific Location
If you’re hunting for works independently, what are some of the most important factors to take into consideration? While there’s no magic formula to selecting the right work, Powell says that fundamentally, it comes down to scale and subject. “Don’t believe that art over a couch always needs to be ‘x’ dimensions. Sometimes a smaller work that has more impact can hold the wall,” she explains.
Other factors include:
- Subject matter or color palette
- Context and placement
“A small painting that has an intense hue — a deep red, or an intense subject — can hold its own in a big space.” For other works, depending on the color or subject, a project will require a greater quantity of individual works in order to command the space (like the recreation room from the Wellesley New Traditional project, cited above).
Next, consider the placement or context in which a work of art will be displayed and enjoyed. “If the space is narrow and the piece would require that you step back to look at it, then I won’t recommend it for a narrow space, because you can’t actually see the work, fully, ever.”
In the case of a hallway, instead look to a quiet, contemplative work on paper that you’ll want to see up close to catch the details. “Scale really relates to the scale of object and scale of room, coupled with how the viewer will be connecting with a piece.”
Pulling it All Together
At the end of the day, a work of art can be the finishing touch you didn’t even know your room was craving. “Across the board,” Powell says, “People don’t feel like it’s ‘done’ until art is on the walls. You can have so many accessories, you can have incredible design, but the minute the painting goes up — or whatever goes up — it’s like ‘okay now, it’s complete.’”