Art is one of the most powerful tools in a designer’s toolbox. In choosing particular pieces, catering to the clients’ personal tastes and collecting habits is always the primary goal. But for other aims, both traditional and contemporary art can serve equally well, depending on the mood you want to strike.
Either can anchor a space, lead the eye through it, evoke a feeling of calm or liveliness, create a rhythm. Classical art can heighten a sense of formality and history in an otherwise cutting-edge dining room, while modern art might signal a bold, adventurous spirit in a living room filled with traditional furniture.
The myriad styles within each category can bring wistful romanticism to a bedroom, a wow factor to an entry or a graphic punch to a sedate library. Really, the possibilities are infinite.
The gravitas of this Washington, D.C., Tudor home is perfectly complemented by the stunning art and antiquities belonging to José Solis Betancourt and Paul Sherrill’s clients. “We needed something important at the end of the axis in the entry,” says Solis Betancourt, explaining the prime placement of Anthony van Dyck’s Madonna and child. Also present: ancient Roman rhytons (animal-shaped cups) and Egyptian canopic funerary jars. “Nothing’s under glass,” points out Sherrill, “so the homeowners feel they’re living amongst these things rather than in a museum.”
“It’s a formal Greek Revival–style townhouse,” Brian Murphy says of the residence in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood that he designed for clients he describes as “kind of quirky.” So, after painting the classical architecture white, Murphy explains, “we wanted to make it dynamic and exciting, like their personalities.”
In the entry, he set the new tone with Li Tianbing’s arresting 2003 self-portrait and Maria Silveira’s aerial photograph of a crowd entering the Metropolitan Opera. Patrick Naggar sconces, 1940s French chairs and a 19th-century inlaid Chinese console ramp up the wow.
“I believe in the old definition of art, which is that it has no other purpose than to please the mind,” one of the owners of this Northern California home told Pamela Shamshiri, who collaborated on the grand residence when she was a partner at Commune Design. (She now runs Studio Shamshiri with her brother, Ramin.)
The owners had hung a series of Italian Renaissance paintings that emphasized the soaring ceiling height. Shamshiri explains that she wanted to “temper the room’s scale with design, making it intimate and warm, with inviting colors and rich finishes.” The subtle waxed wainscoting around the room really helped. Anchoring the fireplace is an 1888 painting by Julius Grimm created from his scientific photographs of the moon.
“When working with bold collections,” says Thomas Pheasant, “I like furnishings to rely on strong forms that stand up to the art without distracting the eye with color or patterns.”
In this spacious Washington, D.C., salon, a massive Color Field painting by Paul Jenkins grounds one seating area, while Lori Cozen-Geller’s polished steel cubes and James Austin Murray’s Black Circle define others — all featuring Pheasant’s clean-lined furniture designs. “Even when collections exert power,” he says, “my goal is a serene space to enjoy their energy.”
“I don’t take too seriously the idea that I have to be reverent with historic architecture,” says Jennifer Vaughn Miller, explaining how she approached this home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights. In the dining room, she left the 19th-century architecture intact, adding an Osborne & Little contemporary wallpaper, a table with an industrial steel base and a Murano glass chandelier.
A traditional portrait of unknown origin provides dramatic contrast, she says. “The color, scale and texture of the old, crackled painting lend some weight to the whimsical Victorian details.”
Samuel Amoia is known for tactile interiors. In this dining room in New York’s Soho, Hisao Hanafusa’s graphic artwork contrasts with the textures of a blackened-steel and wood table surrounded by Comité de Proyectos chairs made of natural fiber and Mexican tzalam wood.
“We loved the bold black-and-white, geometrical aspect of Hanafusa’s work,” Amoia explains. “It served as a strong focal point to anchor the entire room and creates interesting tension and balance with the chairs and Volker Haug chandelier.”
“I used to live on the Hudson River. Now, I live in town,” Sheila Bridges says, referring to her past and present weekend places north of New York City. “These paintings of the Hudson connect me to my former home, and they’re a way of creating a view in a room without one.”
The client for this project on San Francisco’s Russian Hill “is an avid art collector focused on emerging California artists,” says designer Nicole Hollis. A work by Matt Lipps pops against the inky moodiness of charcoal-gray grasscloth and an expressionistic Marc Phillips rug. “The nature of Lipps’s work is collage — a collection of ideas — which seemed fitting inspiration for the office of a tech CEO,” says Hollis. Appropriately for a study, the work is from the artist’s “Library” series.
“In this particular bedroom, we loved mixing new and old,” says Paolo Moschino, who runs the noted British firm Nicholas Haslam Ltd. with Philip Vergeylen.
Nestled within a West London townhouse, the space contains “different shades of colors, from pale to bright, furnishings from different periods, as well as eighteenth-century Italian engravings with nineteen sixties bright-red wall lights,” Moschino notes. “I believe this creates layers and humor, which we feel always achieve great atmosphere in any interior.”
In this Madrid bedroom, disparate bold artworks animate the classical millwork. “It’s a collection of small oil paintings and photographs by different contemporary Spanish artists I often use,” says Luis Bustamante, who is based in the Spanish capital. “Eduardo Chillida, Hernández Mompó, Joan Hernández Pijuan, Chema Madoz and Maria Yelletisch. They are framed identically to connect them as a collection that becomes its own artwork sensation. Using white matting and white-lacquer frames also illuminates and brightens the wall.”