These days, showing off one’s artwork is no longer a matter of a strategically placed nail, a gilded frame and a clip-on picture light. As art prices have climbed, so, too, has the demand for professionals who know how to install and present these works with style and impact. For anyone who has a piece worth flaunting — whether a priceless Picasso or simply a treasured family photograph — there’s a good deal to be learned when it comes to framing and installation. We dropped in on a few local experts to learn some pointers that will help anyone with collections to display, and walls to fill.
The Frame Up
Walk into any frame shop and you’ll see row upon row of “corners” — right-angled segments that, when held against the corner of a piece of art, give you an idea of how the finished frame will enhance the piece (or not). However, getting your eye to quickly discern the right frame for a painting, print or photograph is not so easy. In fact, when you’re surrounded by hundreds of choices, it can be downright frustrating and a bit intimidating. What’s needed is a professional who knows how to sort through the rare woods, fine carving and multiple shades of gold leaf — someone with the training and experience to pick a frame that brings a picture to life and makes you glad you made the investment.
“Framing is educating the eye,” says Diana Wyant as she guides us around The Avenue, her downtown Westport custom- framing business and print gallery. Her long tenure in the world of Parisian haute couture has enabled Diana to bring together fashion, design and personalized service in addressing her clients’ needs. Her shop specializes in antique prints, maps and navigation charts, and has a strong local following as well as a clientèle of collectors and designers from all over the world.
“We frame for the art,” she continues, using a fashion metaphor to illustrate her philosophy. “The frame is like a dress, the art is like the woman. The woman should wear the dress. When the dress wears the woman, it just doesn’t work.” It’s an apt comparison. One would not usually frame a child’s preschool sketch in a gilded Renaissance style frame. Good fit between the art and its border is important. And finding the proper fit requires a talented framer. Nothing can be more daunting to a customer than a salesperson who asks, “What did you have in mind?”
“Big mistake,” declares Thomas del Spina, whose eponymous shop on the Post Road is filled with enough attractive choices to make even the most discerning designer’s head spin. “Fitting a frame to a piece of art is the reason you need a professional. Otherwise, you might as well do it yourself.”
Del Spina has been framing art since he first began making simple, inexpensive frames as a teenager in New York in the 1970s. Since then, he’s spent more than twenty-five years in the business of custom framing, working with manufacturers, designers, galleries, museums and private collectors. He points out a large abstract canvas leaning against a wall of his shop. Painted by an aboriginal artist in Australia, it was bought by local collectors who asked Thomas to find the perfect surround. He chose a floating frame, a standard treatment for large abstract and contemporary works. However, to the ebonized surface of the frame he added a slim band of white gold inlay. This small extra step seems to enhance and further animate the intricate pattern of the painting — thousands of silvery drops on a black background. The frame, with its metallic silver, makes the art come alive.
The Price of Perfection
Of course, like an interior designer’s spatial acumen, fine framing is a skill that comes with a price. Says Diana Wyant, “People will buy a $25 print and are astounded that a good mat, an appropriate frame and UV glass (which protects the art from ultraviolet damage) can easily multiply the cost of their bargain purchase, sometimes by a factor of ten or more.”
She and her employees take care to explain the components and cost of any framing job, no matter how small. “We like to walk the customer through the process,” Diana says, “so they understand where the bottom line comes from. We’ll always offer at least three good framing options for any piece. Because we take the time and care to show our clients how it all comes together, we also have the enjoyment of seeing their pleasure when a piece is surrounded by the perfect frame.”
To ensure that a finished work will blend in with the surroundings for which it is intended, Diana will also ask key questions relating to the client’s home: What are the colors and the fabrics? In which room will the art be installed? The staff will even use a thousand-hued fan deck from Benjamin Moore to get the right tint or shade in order to pull everything together.
Del Spina takes the same painstaking approach to teach his clientèle the merits of fine framing. His encyclopedic knowledge of frames provides him with an international repertoire of fine borders for any piece. He’s even conjured original frames based on old designs and added a personal touch. For a child’s photo portrait in which a boy is hanging on monkey bars in a Batman costume, del Spina had his artisans craft little bat carvings in the corners of a custom-made frame. Such detail is as much fun for him as it is pleasing to the customer.
To sum up the intrinsic value of what he does, del Spina paraphrases eighteenth century American painter Charles Wilson Peale for the benefit of his twenty-first century customers: “A good painting deserves a good frame. A bad painting needs one.”
Once you’ve chosen a frame and it’s time to hang your artwork, guess what? Dilemmas still abound:
1. How high should you hang a picture?
Sixty inches from the floor to the center of the artwork is a traditional height for hanging. However, David Kassel of iLevel notes that in an intimate setting (above a nightstand, for example) a small piece can easily be hung lower. And he notes that art in children’s rooms should be hung below the traditional height, “so the children can see them.” (For safety, he also recommends using picture locks, available in most framing supply stores.)
2. Should all the frames in a grouping match?
While a large grouping of art in matching frames can make an interesting run along a long hallway, there are many ways to group pieces of art. Don’t think inside the box.
3. If you want to build a grouping, where on the wall should you start?
Kassel’s advice: “I always start a group as if that were all that were going to be installed. I start for example in the middle of a wall and build out, adding as I go along. I can always add asymmetrically or symmetrically since both work well as time adds more frames. If there is enough visual space, it is easy to add in the future. I can reconfigure to make adjustments for odd sizes or different colored frames.”
4. Is there any “best” place to hang the good stuff?
Most people put their best art where it will be seen. The living room, dining room and entries are popular locations. Less important art is good for private spaces.
5. Is a wall of family photos a no-no?
For advice on family photos, we consulted with Sasco Hill resident and home-furnishings entrepreneur Victoria Hagan, who has worked her magic in some of the most beautiful homes in Connecticut and around the country. Her belief in family-friendly interiors and a timeless, elegant style make her a favorite of young, fashion-conscious and family-oriented design mavens.
A portrait wall is great for the family room, or up the back staircase, Victoria says. “I like to keep the mat sizes and frame sizes the same because it’s always easy to add more to your collection. There is nothing more fun than a family photo wall that grows with your children.”
Do’s and Dont’s
“People have a lot of misconceptions about the rules of art installation,” notes David Kassel, who has built a thriving business on this lack of clarity. After holding positions at the Guggenheim and Neuberger museums, where he installed diverse exhibitions from Russian Constructivism to French Romanticism, he launched iLevel, which has become a nationally recognized service, in 1990. Fascinated by the impact of good installation, Kassel has worked with a number of collectors in Connecticut and the Westport area.
“In fact, there are no intractable rules,” he continues. “What you want is for your favorite pieces and collections to look great. That’s where iLevel has stepped in to help home and business owners. We assist them in installing their works so that the art gets the attention it deserves.”
Kassel and his staff, which now numbers fourteen, do nothing but placement and installation, and they are always busy.
“One of the rules people worry about is the convention of placing a large painting over the sofa,” he says, “to draw the eye and make the main seating area a focal point. But you can achieve the same look with a lot of small pieces grouped together. Or your large artwork may be balanced with another item — a well-placed lamp, or two or three smaller pieces beside the large work.
“Another idea people always believe to be sacred is that everything must be symmetrical. For example, a big piece hangs in the middle, flanked and aligned on both sides with smaller works to achieve balance. But this isn’t always necessary. Sometimes it’s fine to be playful.”
Kassel’s installations go far beyond paintings. In addition to conventional fine art media — prints and photography — iLevel has developed installations for African masks, golf balls (“Big in the suburbs,” notes David), even a collector’s precious assortment of Pez candy dispensers.
“It’s a fascinating business,” he says. “In addition to the people we meet, we see things that we might otherwise never see. People have some amazing, quirky collections, and it’s great fun to help them share their prized possessions through display.”