Art Brings the Drama in These Intriguing 1stDibs 50 Spaces

The world’s top designers explain how they display art to elicit the natural (and supernatural) energy of home interiors.
Malene Djenaba Barnett's Brooklyn living room, designed by Leyden Lewis, features West African art and contemporary furniture.
Photo by Pratya Jankong

In a residence in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, Leyden Lewis broke up the wide-open living room into “little vignettes punctuated with art and storytelling,” as he puts it.

“This home belongs to artist and activist Malene Djenaba Barnett, who explores her craft and identity through her work,” he adds. “The interiors were designed to showcase her artwork and art collection, and also celebrate the visual and cultural history of this turn-of-the-century house in a historically Black neighborhood. It’s about bringing these important cultural markers of identity into the intimacy of one’s own home.”

To that end, Lewis flanked Barnett’s contemporary textile piece Made for Mom, 2022, with traditional West African sculptures and paired a streamlined mid-century Adrian Pearsall sofa with a custom rounded bench he created in collaboration with fabricator Wesley Daniels. The mask above the Pearsall sofa is also West African.

“Everything in this room feels like it has dimensionality,” Lewis notes. “In our designs, we aim to create visual and harmonious balance between furniture, art and objects. There is no hierarchy.”

Bryan O'Sullivan-designed dining room in London's Notting Hill, with four female portraits on a mural wall.
Photo by James McDonald

In the dining room of a townhouse designed by Bryan O’Sullivan in London’s Notting Hill, many of the elements, including the custom mural, botanical chandelier and armchairs upholstered in a floral BDDW fabric, reflect the garden visible outside the windows. So, O’Sullivan hung a quartet of antique and vintage portraits of women to introduce a human presence.

These are (clockwise from left) Portrait of Blonde Girl, 1950, by John Miles Bourne Benson; Anne Burges, 1751, by Francis Cotes; A Portrait of Marianne Langham, ca. 1808, by Jacques-Laurent Agasse; and Sunlit interior, the artist’s daughter Ellen is playing the piano, date unknown, by Peter Vilhelm Ilsted.

“The paintings not only complement the room but they also stand out on the mural, as they are in bold, ornate gold frames,” O’Sullivan says. “They work well within the space, considering its bespoke contemporary pieces like the dining table, but they also hold their merit against the mid-century sideboard and table lamp. We love how these Old Master paintings add depth and intrigue to the room. We also love how they are all women-focused.”

Sasha Adler brought in loads of color, texture and whimsy to brighten the basement of a house in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Photo by Douglas Friedman

Sasha Adler brought in loads of color, texture and whimsy to brighten the basement of a house in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

“There is a subtle Pierre Frey pattern on the walls and a grass cloth on the ceiling, which is a fun play on sophisticated texture, paired with the white-oak modular millwork we designed,” she notes. “We found the large rattan palm tree on a sourcing trip and decorated with it tassels and birds. The oversize beanbags were custom upholstered in embroidered Otomi textiles sourced at the local markets.”

Both the beanbags and the tassels in the palm echo the rainbow-hued wall hanging near window, which the homeowners picked up in Mexico.

The elephant in the room is Katherine Bernhardt’s acrylic and spray-painted canvas of children’s book icon Babar. “This area is ready for anything from a game night to a cocktail party,” says Adler.

Whitewashed trad-meets-mod living room of a home in Washington, D.C., designed by Darryl Carter.
Photo by William Waldron

Stephanie Bachiero’s large sculpture Pinnacle, made from aerospace composite materials, looks right at home in the whitewashed trad-meets-mod living room of a home in Washington, D.C., designed by Darryl Carter.

And while the swooping abstraction pairs perfectly with the subtly figurative mid-century pencil drawing over the marble fireplace, “this responsiveness was frankly accidental,” Carter says. “What intrigued me about the drawing was its sinewy androgynous response to the forward sculpture.”

Neal Beckstedt calls his design for this Atlantic Beach, New York, house "modern beach with a casual nautical touch."
Photo by Stephen Kent Johnson

For the living room of a residence in the village of Atlantic Beach, New York, with sweeping views of Reynolds Channel, Neal Beckstedt went with a design scheme appropriate to the setting: “modern beach with a casual nautical touch,” as he describes it.

A plush contemporary sectional sofa and ottoman are accompanied by Børge Mogensen’s Spanish chairs. But the tour de force here is the collection of epic paintings depicting traditional seascapes and sailing vessels hanging on the moody gray wall, whose color echoes the boulders, waves and skies found in the scenes.

“The art was a great and ongoing collaboration with the client,” Beckstedt says. “I worked with the client closely to figure out what to select and where each piece should be displayed.”

The design of this neutral bedroom in an Austin, Texas, house started with Mallory Page's large painting over the custom Savoir bed.
Photo by Douglas Friedman

“I’m a big believer in gallery or salon walls,” says Fern Santini. “Nothing makes a room more inviting than collected art in the space.” The design of this neutral bedroom in an Austin, Texas, house started with Mallory Page’s grand canvas, She passed a note to her adolescence and wondered if she would ever hear from her future, 2018, over the custom Savoir bed.

“The client, jewelry designer Kendra Scott, owned the painting. Since it’s a large single piece, we felt that the surrounding pieces should be groupings.” Santini explains. The cluster to the left of the bed includes blue-chip works by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Wayne Thiebaud and Agnes Martin. A suite of Martin lithographs from the same 1990 portfolio appears on the right side, along with Elizabeth Schwaiger’s Warm Flow, 2017. The gleaming artwork visible through the mission-style doors beyond the Paolo Buffa armchairs is Mica Painting (Chirp), 2017, by Catherine Howe.

“Art consultant Amy Sawtelle was an integral part of the design process,” Santini says. “I felt that it was really important that the work have the depth and diversity to feel accumulated over generations, and I think we really hit the mark with this wonderful collection.”

Nicola Harding reintroducing color and eclecticism to the interiors of a grand country estate in Northamptonshire, England.
Photo by Kristin Perers

A grand country estate in Northamptonshire, England, had been stripped of its character by multiple renovations that left it “beige and flat,” says Nicola Harding. The latest owners asked the London designer to give the house a soul transplant by reintroducing color and eclecticism in its interiors.

Case in point: this seating nook in what Harding calls an “otherwise underwhelming corridor,” where she placed a 19th-century portrait of a French gentleman in a glossy fire-engine-red picture frame as “a way of offsetting any pretensions he might have aspired to.”

The rest of the furnishings are an odd amalgamation “that shouldn’t really work together but somehow do,” she adds. There’s a Georgian chair, a mid-century lamp and a Victorian seamstress’s stool used as a side table, all set atop a bespoke Vanderhurd rug that matches the mauve walls. “Because the mix is unexpected, it creates a dynamic energy,” Harding says. “I can’t help smiling when I look at it.”

country house in New York's Hudson Valley, Sheila Bridges
Photo by Pieter Estersohn

In the stairwell of her country house in New York’s Hudson Valley, Sheila Bridges hung an eclectic array of works to express her passion for “the landscape, culture and travel,” she says. Although Bridges has a penchant for “classic, thoughtful and colorful interiors,” the walls and trim here were kept stark to allow the art to shine.

Among the outstanding pieces on display are abstractions by Danièle Perré and Sol LeWitt, juxtaposed with figurative works by Clementine Hunter, Calvin Burnett, Dox Thrash and Henry Ossawa Tanner, with Garrett Rittenberg’s pink-backgrounded portrait of James Baldwin staring right into Bridges’s eyes as she goes up and down the stairs.

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