“I find that mixing exciting contemporary art with antiques and modern furniture creates a room that will stand the test of time.”
One of the most challenging aspects of creating a truly timeless space is straying away from a singular style. The most intriguing interiors are full of unexpected combinations—a mix of pieces that span many eras all mingled together in a single floorplan. Today let’s take a look at how marrying furniture from different decades with contemporary art can create a space that will never feel dated.
“Never design a room around a piece of art. That’s the worst thing you can do.”
While a client’s existing art collection can undoubtedly serve as a source of inspiration, Bunny warns against designing around artwork. Assembling a color scheme around art, or trying to match the two too closely, does the art a disservice. (“It kills the painting,” were her exact words.) Creating contrast, in turn, lets each piece sing and stand on its own.
Take this example: Where an intricate, large French iron console table is paired with a contemporary painting in a simple black frame. Viewed as a vignette, the juxtaposition of these two pieces makes each more important. A nineteenth-century Oushak carpet, seen in the foreground, was the catalyst for the living room’s color palette.
Another danger of designing around art is the fact that it often moves location. “Art collectors of every level are always adding to their collections and rehanging their art as new pieces are acquired,” Bunny reminds us.
Bunny and her design team, led by Partner Elizabeth Lawrence, have worked with clients that range from amateur to avid collectors. For budding collectors, Bunny might suggest young, emerging artists to kick-start their acquisitions. For clients with existing collections, the team starts by surveying the walls they have to work with and the artwork with the right scale to fill it.
“What makes things work is how you hang them. Hanging a large picture over a sofa or mantel will give exciting scale to a room,” Bunny says. Here, a large-scale painting hangs in a small seating area situated in a corner of a kitchen with wood paneled walls and cabinets.
In another wood paneled room, two paintings with big brush strokes and bright, saturated colors stand out in the more neutral scheme. “Super Bloom,” a painting by artist Brian Calvin, hangs above the fireplace. Opposite the windows hangs a vibrant tropical scene by Josh Smith.
The situation to avoid is hanging a small piece of art on a large wall, which Bunny says can be “unnerving.” With smaller-scale pieces, you might want to stack them or hang them salon-style, as Bunny did here in her New York dining room on a wall where contemporary art mixes with works from other eras.
As you may have guessed, Bunny doesn’t succumb to the idea that art is best enjoyed in a white, gallery-like setting. For this project, her team went to great lengths to match the exact shade of blue as the drawing room from the 2005 movie Pride & Prejudice. The resulting wall color is an energetic backdrop for this client’s abstract art.
Elsewhere in the room, a detail shows a floating frame on another painting. Bunny advises that large-scale contemporary art is often best showcased in simple, contemporary frames. For smaller-scale pieces, the contrast of a modern work in an antique frame might be interesting in its own right.
She notes that artists can often have their own opinions on how they want their work framed as well. This idea traces back to artists like John Singer Sargent, who commissioned frame designs for his work from the architect Stanford White. James Whistler took the idea that a frame was an integral part of the artist’s vision even further, and marked his frames with a stylized butterfly signature so the two would stay together.
Framing also becomes an opportunity to build in a light source so artwork is visible even when overhead lights are lowered. Picture lights can provide a sense of intimacy with the work, inviting you to take a closer look.
We know now that no colors are off-limits. Taking it a step further, Bunny also likes to play with the idea of hanging art on a patterned surface. The small scale pattern above is a beautiful backdrop for two pieces hung over a pair of matching console tables.
In a client’s office, nailhead trim gives texture and definition to walls finished in bleached oak with leather panels. A painting by artist Will Barnet is centered on one section.
A painting set against textured grass cloth wallpaper plays off the large-scale graphic pattern of the rug. Hand-blocked fabrics mixed with modern ikats contribute to an inviting seating group. One of the side tables, a treasure from a European shopping trip, holds a Bunny Williams Home Turquoise Lamp.
On the opposite side of the same room, two smaller works flank a fireplace. A carved, gilded mirror catches the reflection of the painting across the room, giving it an ornate frame when viewed from this angle.
The process of problem solving, while forging unlikely conversations between furniture and art, is the essence of design and often the catalyst for a more interesting room. We've seen that exciting contemporary art can spring a room to life with its energy. Though, as Bunny writes in her book Love Affairs with Houses, "No matter how hard an architect and designer work to make a space come alive, its really the client who fills it with energy."
Zane, Peter. “Letting the Frame Speak for the Artist and the Era.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/arts/design/letting-the-frame-speak-for-the-artist-and-the-era.html
We did our best to include artist’s names where possible. Please let us know if we missed any at firstname.lastname@example.org.