The Decorating Guide You Probably Own: A Beloved Painting

IN THE DESIGN World, almost no crime is more offensive than the pursuit of a “matchy matchy” room. For this reason, in order to save their customers from committing this unspeakable faux pas, decorators advise against choosing works of art that harmonize too slavishly with their surroundings. A person with taste, this dictates dictates, would never choose, for example, a storm-thrown seascape that is predominantly blue for a room that is itself already full of coastal colors.

Oddly enough, the reverse of this rule does not apply: choosing the art and then creating a space around it can produce hugely successful results, especially if the painting or print is relatively complex. “It’s much better when art comes first,” said Elizabeth Pyne, interior designer at McMillen Inc. in Manhattan. “It provides a starting point for brainstorming and parameters within which to work.”

Another benefit of this egg-before-chicken approach? The gift of foresight. “If you start with a piece for reference, you can create a deliberate dialogue between everything else in the room,” said Brian Murphy, an interior designer in New York City. Of course there are advantages and disadvantages. “It’s really about being inspired by the colors of a painting and sometimes the mood,” advised Dallas designer Michelle Nussbaumer. An overly faithful rendition – for example, Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Yellow Red and Blue)” as a catalyst for a blocky bonanza of yellow, red and blue – will likely accuse you of the above sin. Frau Nussbaumer warned: “A literal translation would be the kiss of death.” Here are five examples of reverse engineering done right.


Sergio Villatoro

Basquiat weaving

After renovating their Manhattan apartment, Brian Murphy’s clients were keen to make a statement to anchor the newly adjoining dining / living area. Enter this 1981 work by the late Jean-Michel Basquiat that was bought at auction. Bronze Egyptian resuscitation lamps bookend the painting – “the extent, strength and simplicity went with the basquiat,” said Mr Murphy. In keeping with the owners’ eclectic tastes, the French Regency French velvet dining room chairs from the 18th century were combined with a sleek French glass table from the 1940s. (“We didn’t want a big, heavy table that could keep up.”) An Italian turquoise-colored spiral vase offers “an unexpected dash of color that is not in the picture, but shows its energy”.


Stephen Karlisch

Far East forms – in Texas

For a 25-year-old first-time homeowner, a 1940s house in Dallas was a completely blank canvas. When she fell in love with this pair of early 19th-century Chinese ancestral portraits, they set the course for a bold, vibrant living room. Her interior designer Michelle Nussbaumer leaned on the Asian theme with a Chinoiserie table lamp converted from an antique urn, a Manchurian throw pillow with a tiger print and Schumacher’s Chiang Mai Dragon wallpaper in the next room. “The references were exotic and bizarre,” said Ms. Nussbaumer. The decor was rounded off by a contemporary European sofa and chairs as well as a custom-made acrylic coffee table by Allan Knight. The result: a riot of colors and patterns. “It’s a fun, nifty mix that doesn’t feel formal,” said Ms. Nussbaumer.


Kathleen Virginia

Portrait of a lady making an entrance

The owners of a 1911 Italian / Prairie style residence in the Lake Forest suburb of Chicago wanted this family heirloom – an early 19th century oil portrait of the man’s great-great-grandmother – to set the tone for the front entrance. To highlight its rich color palette, interior designer Athalie Derse of Charleston, SC chose a soft, supportive gray-green for the walls, then flanked the original gilded frame with Continental gesso candelabra from the 1920s as if to say, “Hey , notice the paintings we especially love. “With customers eager to combine the old with the new, an 1810 French Empire walnut sofa made of geometric Fern Tree fabric was salvaged by Schumacher and designed by Kelly Wearstler. “It added a younger edge,” said Ms. Derse. “We honor history, but we also modernize.”


Ngoc Minh Ngo

Cartographic details

Designer Elizabeth Pyne’s clients wanted this map of New York City to pinpoint their dining area around 1855. The challenge: showcasing the vintage find while keeping the modern aesthetic in the rest of the Park Avenue apartment. The solution: create a library context with a twist of the 21st century. “We ignored the old-fashioned rust and hunter greens on the map and highlighted the steel-colored sky by painting the wall and bookshelves dark blue,” Ms. Pyne said. Faux leather dining room chairs provide a stronger blue-green hue, while their Klismos shape almost unrecognizable corresponds to the elliptical perspective of the map. The Sunburst lamp with the roots of the 1960s from Remains Lighting combines old and new. About the joke in the sun, Ms. Pyne said: “It winks at the idea that for most New Yorkers – today and in 1855 – our city is the center of the universe.”


Peter Frank Edwards for the Wall Street Journal

The location of the landscape

Alexandra Malloy, the founder of a public relations firm in Charleston, SC, chose this gift from her parents – an oil painting of the French countryside by Roger Mühl (1929-2008) – to play in the parlor of her row house from the 1840s. “I love how quiet it is, and I wanted to bring the same colors into the room,” said Ms. Malloy, who has learned trading tricks from her many clients as an interior designer. For calming tones: a day bed made of French walnut wood from the 19th century, upholstered in azure blue linen by Elizabeth Eakins, and a mandarin lamp made of silk with a navy blue tassel, handmade in Paris by designer Thomas Boog. Elements like the Dwell sharkskin finish studio coffee table that isn’t particularly valuable or pretty are a reminder that this is a welcoming, functional space for a 2019 family. Ms. Malloy said: “Children are welcome here – if their hands are clean!”

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