The Art of Displaying Art
A celebrated interior designer shares his tricks for hanging pictures like a pro
Discovering the perfect piece of art, whether at a flea market or in a Main Street gallery, can make anyone’s heart beat faster. You spot it, you fall in love with it, you buy it and take it home.
And then comes the moment of reckoning, when you have to figure out exactly where to hang the thing.
Displaying art is an art in itself, and many homeowners leave the task to a designer. But for those brave enough to tackle the job themselves, we turned to designer Carey Maloney for advice.
Maloney is co-founder, with partner Hermes Mallea, of the award-winning M (Group) architecture and design firm, a regular on the design world’s “it” lists (including Architectural Digest’s “AD 100” and House Beautiful’s “100 Best Decorators”). His most recent book is “Stuff,” in which he illustrates how to display everything from antlers to abstract impressionists. We hung on his every word.
While Maloney maintains that displaying art isn’t a science, he agrees to set a few ground
rules. The biggest mistake most people make is hanging things too high. This is often because an above-average height homeowner displays things at his own eye level, rather than at a height that works for most people. Regardless of how tall you are, Maloney says to aim for the center of the artwork to sit
58 to 60 inches from the floor.
Next, he addresses arrangement. If he’s creating a group of art on one wall, he starts by laying everything out on the floor.
“I like to place one large piece at the center,” he says. “The other pieces should radiate out. The mass in the middle should be the largest.”
Size also matters when stacking pieces; Maloney almost always puts the smaller piece above the larger, to avoid a top-heavy look.
And then there’s question of how to hang images in a row. Most importantly, Maloney says to “never, ever” line up artwork with a doorframe or window frame.
“If you are hanging art in a row, you want to stagger the tops of the frames to create a pleasing variation, like in a skyline or a landscape,” he says.
Order in the house
It’s clear from viewing Maloney’s work that he enjoys order. Even more than order, he is fond of pairs.
“I like identical sets laid out
in completely regimented order,” he says.
Examples from his home include a pair of 19th century painted zinc window shutters flanking a gilt pier mirror and two large Indonesian pelangi textiles framing a window.
So when it comes to arranging disparate items, Maloney strives to give them a sense of cohesion. Recently, when he had to make space on his walls for a new acquisition, he chose to stack two pictures with gold frames. “The gilded frames worked together although the art is 200 years apart. It also helped that the work was of a similar quality.” To that point, unless your child has a piece in the Guggenheim, he advises not to hang the youngster’s watercolor next to a fine piece of art. “Don’t mix the masters with the friends.”
How to mix it up
The trickiest part of displaying art comes when combining textures and sizes. “You can put a bas relief next to a carved ivory next to a flat print next to aboriginal art. But it must reflect a conscious choice.”
In order to artfully arrange things, Maloney says to first prop it all up against the wall or lay it all out on the floor.
“When working with a lot of stuff, you have to group things that work visually together,” he says. Not feeling visually sophisticated? “Look at Pinterest. Honestly, there is so much information there.”
And he cautions that collectors need to reassess their displays as they add to them. “People who collect drawings, for example, don’t rehang everything when they acquire something new. What starts as order ends up at chaos. At some point you have to take it all down and start over again.”
Here’s where homeowners should distance themselves from what they see in a gallery. “Contemporary painters and art dealers show works against white—that’s how it’s conventionally shown.”
But, Maloney says, “White walls are like white clothes—they have to be really good to be successful. Things look better against color, and gold frames look much better against color.” That goes for wood walls, as well. “Black and white photography is great against natural pine or wood walls. It really stands out.”
Maloney also cautions against placing a piece of art on a wall that matches it in any way.
“The wall color should not be incorporated in the painting,” said Maloney.
“If you want something to pop, it has to stand out,” he continues. “The frame doesn’t do enough to stop your eye.” He recalls one client who donated a Milton Avery to a museum after homeowner and designer determined that tones in the painting came too close to the “perfect mouse” color of the walls.
The designer says it’s a rule that extends beyond what’s usually considered artwork. “We recently designed a room featuring a beautiful green-y blue oriental rug, and didn’t use those colors anywhere else. That carpet popped.”
Bring in the pros
Whether you’re hanging an Old Master or a framed kimono, Maloney urges homeowners to rely on professionals. His own art handler, who has installed everything from Cézannes to family photos, is an expert in placement, as much as he is a technician.
“He knows how to get artwork up and keep it up so that it never tilts, but he’s also talented in terms of aesthetics,” Maloney says. “He’s the first one to tell you to ‘cheat’ something in order to achieve balance.”
You may have measured precisely in order to center a painting on a wall, but in the end you’ll have to move it two inches to the right, says Maloney.
“The math might be working but perhaps a dark molding or an off-center archway is throwing things off,” he says. “In the end, it’s all about the eyeball.”