How Art Drives Design

Ever look at a gorgeous room where fine art is the focus and wonder what made it all work so well together? You’d be lying, I think, if you said no. At least I would.

Some artists will tell you décor is irrelevant, that a work of art should stand on its own, regardless of surroundings. And while there is truth in that, surroundings can either work against or in favor of the art being noticed and appreciated.

Certainly BEGIN with the art and build around it rather than the reverse. But in so doing, here are 10 design strategies to guide you. Though you may not use every one every time, you’ll likely use more than one as you build layers and add depth to each room of your home.

1. Repetion of color and line

Jonny Valiant

Brown patches in the rugs, bronze tones in the metals and the brown sofa all repeat the dark, earthy tones in the painting in this New York living room designed by Fawn Galli. The shape of the sconces, the curve of the chair backs and tabletops, the rounded cushions on the sofa, and the swirling pastels in the draperies all repeat the curves of the vining crown above the subject’s head. There are trees in the background of the painting, and a side table and a lamp sport tree-branch bases. There’s also a crown sitting on the white end table to mimic the crown of vines in the painting.

Restraint is used here, too (see #6). All the cushions match the sofa, and the throw draped at one end is earth-toned as well. The pink and red in the chairs, rug and flowers work because they aren’t as close to the painting. But to have placed a pink or red cushion or throw ON this sofa would have distracted from this painting, don’t you think?

2. Balance of color

Atlanta Homes & Lifestyle

Always depend on black to ground a room. The black sofa mimics and magnifies the patch of black in the lower right of the painting by Will Kay. Pops of yellow, orange and red come out elsewhere—the chair, the books, the flowers, the art on the right—to make sure the room has enough of the predominant colors in the painting without being swallowed up by it. Scattered as they are in the room mimics the painting and draws the eye in.

3. Multiple works of art

Emily Jenkins Followill

This arrangement includes two pairs of paintings that resemble each other closely. And overall, each one has strong horizontal lines and amoeba-like shapes that at best I can describe as loose ovals. They share a color palette, and the two with white backgrounds seem a bit like enlargements of the shapes found in the others, but presented in reverse. All this is only to say that they work well together, something you probably already realized, thanks to the skills of interior designer Tish Mills. See/read more about this art-filled Atlanta home at Traditional Home or Mills’ website, Harmonious Living.

4. Furniture placement

Mary Summers

Compare these two photos of the same room. The painting is on a white background but hung over black built-in bookcases. The white walls on either side mimic the white background of the painting, as does the white sofa beneath it.

Mary Summers

Now look what happens when two white chairs are added: The painting is underscored even more, with the two chairs repeating the white “wings” of the wall. This furniture placement leaves no doubt about the focal point of the room.

5. Reflection

Mary Summers

This photo is from the same room as #5. And, depending on where you’re standing, you see the painting by Dara Burriss reflected in the quatrefoil mirror. Consider that this is the FIRST thing you see as you approach the room. Wouldn’t it encourage you to come on in and see the rest? Yes.

This room was my favorite of those created in this fall’s One Room Challenge. See/read more about everyone involved in its gorgeous results at Hi Sugarplum.

6. Restraint

Architectural Digest via La Dolce Vita

This lounge at the JK Roma Hotel in Rome, designed by Michele Bönan, is all about elegance and restraint. The color palette is restrained to allow textures and the over-sized painting to assume center stage. The painting itself holds the only bit of red in the room, and furniture design and placement reflect its overall horizontal lines. Michele Bönan: The Gentleman of Style, is scheduled for release later this month. Follow the link to preorder.

7. Color palette

Via Adore

This room repeats the colors of the painting in the various throw pillows and, more particularly, in the chair in the foreground. That the chair sits across the room from the painting foreshadows the art and points the viewer toward it.

8. Style

Michael Partenio

A lively coastal scene makes sense in this home on Martha’s Vineyard, decorated in a breezy coastal style.

Michael Partenio

By viewing the entire room, you see just how well the style of the painting sets the tone of the casual but collected atmosphere of the home. See/read more about designer Carol Vietor’s getaway home at New England Home.

Don’t misinterpret this technique to think that the room and the art need to be matchy-matchy. A complement, after all, is defined as something that brings something else to perfection. On the color wheel, that something is an opposite.

9. Humor (whimsy, fun, quirk)

One Kings Lane

To save you time searching, there’s nothing particularly humorous in this photo, and the art above the table is not the art I want to focus on. I do want you to take in the entire room before I spring the humor on you. The wallpaper reminds me of tree bark, and coupled with the leaves and flowers of the draperies and the use of warm but muted earth tones, the room seems like a sheltered forest. Now, on to the fun part…

One Kings Lane

Out of the forest hops a band of bunnies! The only other use of blue in the room is in the geode bookends on the mantel and the incidental blue covers of some of the books. But the painting works because the bunnies themselves are outlined in umber. They seem to explode from the forest of the room, and they add unexpected charm.

See/read more about this New Orleans Garden District home at One Kings Lane.

10. Lighting


Have you ever looked up in a forest and noticed sunlight breaking through the canopy of the trees? The recessed lights stationed on the ceiling near this painting are turned to shine into its center, where the four panels of trees meet, and emulate that meeting point of perspective. See/read more about this home in  London’s west end at HomeDSGN.

Above all, don’t be intimidated

This holds true for those of us who appreciate art as much as those who make it. Live, explore, learn, enjoy, and follow my blog with Bloglovin.






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