Master class in home design: Buying art |

Master class in home design: Buying art

By Sally Kilbridge
For Steamboat Homefinder
Art by Dressed Design in-house artist (photo courtesy of Dressed Design).

Before she launched her design firm, Beth Ann Shepherd worked at Christie’s, one of the art world’s most prestigious auction houses. Today, whether her Dressed Design team is staging a Beverly Hills estate or glamorizing a Deer Valley lodge in Utah, a big part of the project is curating the art.

Even if the last drawing you framed came from a kindergartener’s crayon, Shepherd says you can start acquiring pieces full of personality and polish. 

Question: Tell us why a home needs art

Beth Ann Shephard: Art tells a story. Art is a visual display of one’s life, personal liberties and proclivities, as well as one’s evolution, often amassed over decades. Art tells us who you are, what makes you happy, what makes you sad, what makes you remember a moment that illuminates a corner of your development.

From an aesthetic standpoint, art is the icing on the cake, the sparkle in the fireworks, the polish in the performance. Art is mandatory for the completion of a home’s design.

Common advice is to buy what you like, but what if you’re unsure of your taste?

Shephard: There is no reason to buy something you do not like. However, relying on professionals who follow trends, know the classics, and make it their job to know you and your taste, as well as color palette and proportions, will probably yield a better look and make your art adventure a more pleasurable one.

I love introducing people to the world of art, who previously have not purchased gallery or auction level artwork. I also love working with people who know something about art and like to collect. But my favorite
part is presenting them with artists and works they have not seen. The excitement in bringing something fresh
is unmatched.

Is it possible to develop a good eye?

Shephard: There is a naturally good “art eye” and then there is a “studied art eye.” It’s very similar to music. There are savants and then there are those who work for years to play a perfect “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

There are several levels of education and ways to develop your art eye. The internet has a plethora of sources, including online magazines, where you can research and study new talent and follow auction results, which show declines and surges for specific genres and artists, to find out which direction the buying bend and trend is headed.

When I worked at Christie’s, the fine art specialists would speculate based on collector interest. While a Picasso or a Chagall was always desirable to the modern art collector, the Latin American artists weren’t as well known. At that time, buying a Wifredo Lam or a Rufino Tamayo was considered a risky investment, but those artworks, which could have gone for hundreds of thousands in the early 90s, are now worth millions.

Let’s talk about money, and how much you need to acquire decent art. 

Shephard: For $100 you can discover fabulous hidden gems at estate sales, vintage stores or consignment shops, which you can customize with the right framing. One of my favorite pieces came from a junk shop. No one was interested, or could see under the inches of dust, but I was transfixed by the very unusual rubber mold of a woman’s face, leaning in a corner of a garage. After selecting a black wool liner and a double frame to add dimension, she holds a place of honor in my home.

If you prefer a poster print, which can be fun in the right areas, many retail stores and online outlets can assist.

For $1,000 you can buy plenty more, especially size-wise. Never underestimate the power of well-proportioned, large-scale artwork. There are several web sites where you can order to your own size with or without a frame.

For $10,000, you are entering the gallery-buying zone. Fabulous pieces, priced upwards of $20,000, can often be negotiated down to $10,000, depending on the market, the medium and the potential of a gallery earning your future business. You can also commission a personal piece from a talented artist, usually an unknown. We have had an artist paint an owner’s parrot, we’ve had a woman’s dog drawn in charcoal, and I had an artist paint a portrait of me with my favorite dog, Baron.

Is an original better than a print?

Shephard: While “better” is a highly subjective word, an original is generally of better quality and a better investment. But a better price, no. Fine prints of renowned artworks can be quite valuable and sell at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Case in point would be Andy Warhol’s “original” screenprints, like the famous “Marilyn,” which often sell in excess of $100,000.

What do you think about posters in grown-up homes?

Shephard: In the luxury home market, posters are rarely used, but in a bar area or a screening room, we may use a vivid Toulouse-Lautrec poster or, in a home office, posters of architectural drawings, which you can even make at home. Certainly in children’s rooms, posters can be fun and colorful and range from animals to astronomy.

Give us your take on mixing genres in a room. For example, an equestrian oil and a graphic B&W photo.

Shephard: We always mix our genres, as well as our mediums. We encourage a room with a traditional equine oil-on-canvas, which may be a family heirloom; an investment piece such as a text-based painting by Ed Rusha; a black-and-white photograph from a notable photographer; or a special shot taken by the homeowner and properly matted and framed. Mixing mediums and genres demonstrates a well-curated or collected home and a vivid life. Art spans decades and centuries, so to tell the story takes many layers.

Do you have advice on buying art online?

Shephard: Online is certainly reliable from vendors that guarantee authenticity, such as auction houses, which are now all selling online — and on your own time schedule. There’s also 1st Dibs, which is the five-star Ebay, if you will, and guarantees its products. Galleries and even artists are now selling their products online. Do your research and be smart when buying anything online.

What about negotiating prices — is that acceptable?

Shephard: Absolutely. We went to purchase one piece for a home and ended up buying six pieces, at a fraction of the asking cost. Even if you are purchasing one piece, please negotiate. The seller may have to call the artist or the owner of the artwork “from the back room,” but every artwork is negotiable. Do not be embarrassed to ask. It is expected.

Are gallery walls still a thing?

Shephard: Yes, the gallery wall is a classic. Whether it is your family, all in black and white prints, or a collection of your favorite readings and photos from over the years, the gallery wall will never go out of style.

Hanging art: A cheat sheet

Designer Beth Ann Shepherd has a few guidelines when it comes to displaying art.

IN THE LIVING ROOM: Shepherd says the most important guideline is scale and proportion. “Do not put a 48-inch square artwork above a 9-foot sofa. Use the largest artwork you can on the largest walls, smaller pieces on smaller walls. The largest pieces are the hardest to find, but well worth it for impact.” A diptych (two-part artwork) or triptych (three-piece artwork) provide major impact and may be easier to source.

IN THE BEDROOM: “Displaying art over a bed is a bit tricky, as the bed height will determine the ability to properly present your work. If you have a platform bed or a low headboard — say 40 inches high — hanging a great horizontal piece or a set of three images together would work well.” If you have a higher headboard, Shepherd suggests placing artwork elsewhere in the room.

IN THE DINING ROOM: “Art is beautiful in a dining room, as is a very large mirror. Some of our most requested items are our custom mirrors, often 8-feet plus. Size brings light to darker rooms and views to both sides of a room, which is priceless in mountain or beach regions. Again, size is important. There is nothing worse than a mirror that is too small. Ugh.”

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