Courtesy Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
I have strong opinions about gallery walls. Mainly, that every home should have one. When done correctly and without pretension, a gallery wall is a deep personal expression—a Gesamtkunstwerk making use of canvases and ephemera that is itself a sculpture. OK, that sounds a little pretentious, but it’s true.
There are so many examples of great gallery walls to inspire you, from the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome to some wild projects from the portfolio of ED A-List designer Miles Redd. My biggest inspiration, without a doubt, is the Blue Room at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. (Full disclosure: My mother-in-law was the director of the museum for 26 years. Hi, Anne!)
There’s just something so wonderfully kooky about the helter-skelter way that Mrs. Gardner arranged paintings, objects, and fabrics, many without tombstones, in the museum she built for herself in 1903. Most of the time, there doesn’t appear to be a hierarchy of any kind; many frames are too big for the space she allowed for them.
Like a facade of Giulio Romano’s Palazzo del Te, symmetry is incidental—or an illusion entirely. I tried to channel that and the spirit of Mrs. Gardner while staying home under social-distancing guidelines in my apartment in New York City. Most of what I had available was in my childhood home. Nothing helps pass the time better than “gallery walling” during a pandemic.
Here, the five most important things to remember when taking the plunge:
Ask your relatives if you can take some family photos off their hands—and walls.
I’m all for hiring a decorator to attend art auctions on your behalf to buy gallery-wall material in bulk, but what you already have or have access to may be all you really need. Your parents or grandparents (or you yourself) can be especially good sources for framed family photographs, which can blend in beautifully beside a few paintings. I’ve got news for you: Those patinated black-and-white portraits of your ancestors from the 1940s? They’re chic as hell; grab as many as you need. Remember that the Hapsburgs commissioned Velázquez to paint them so many times because they didn’t have a camera. These are your Velázquezes.
All gallery walls should start on the floor before a single nail is hammered.
There is no more useful way to realize your vision than by laying everything at your feet. A gallery wall is like a puzzle, but only your subconscious knows the solution. (Yeah, that was really pretentious.) As you push pieces around, take into consideration the media—for instance, place a photo next to anything except another photo. Also think about the scale of the wall you’re covering, and of any furniture or lamp obstructions. Take photos as you progress, and consider at least two different setups. This is the fun part, so don’t forget to have some.
Symmetry is for the birds! Perfection is in the askew.
You’re not curating a show at the Met! If you’re daring, I’d suggest treating each placement like a chess move—i.e., when you remove your finger from the piece, you’ve made your move. Unless it’s dangling dangerously at a 45-degree angle, just let it be. Jackson Pollock spilled paint the same way. You won’t find any erasures on Autumn Rhythm.
Frames are great, but not compulsory.
I’m sure you’ve seen gallery walls featuring canvases that all have the same frame color or finish. That approach is fine, but I have my own pell-mell proclivities. On my wall, there are gold frames, black ones, white ones, and ornate ones. But I also have pieces with no frames at all. It’s as if the artist took the painting off the easel, still wet, and sent you home with it. Then, thrown into the visual melee is an African mask my friend Najwa Borro gave me, right above a golden portrait of Ava Gardner in a black wooden frame by the artist William Rand and beside a frameless oil painting of a gondola, also by Rand. You see? They were all meant for one another!
A gallery wall is the sum of its parts, so leave out the showstoppers.
This point is hard to articulate, because not everyone has a Monet in his or her collection. Yes, if you have historically significant, museum-quality pieces, give them room to shine in their own area. But I’m also referring to anything particularly large that would throw off the scale of your mix—a movie poster immediately comes to mind—or something that just radiates character and energy, which could just as easily be a Warhol soup can as your child’s first finger painting.