‘Does This Sofa Go with My Monet?’ How to Design a Room with Art

It’s no secret that fine art is an essential element in a well-decorated room. “It’s that final cherry on top that’s just crucial,” says New York–based ELLE DECOR A-List designer Danielle Colding. But an artwork has a different emotional and intellectual power than a sofa or a paint job—they are not the same. So the task is how to orchestrate a delicate dance between the two.

As Billy Cotton of the eponymous ELLE DECOR A-List design firm puts it: “Art is so personal. It really doesn’t have any function aside from beauty.” Cotton’s method—let’s call it respectful distance—means being wary of designing around it too closely. “That turns the art into decoration,” he says.

The solution for some big collectors is what Cotton calls billionaire beige, which recedes completely to let trophy paintings shine. “I tend not to take that approach,” he says. “The furniture can be quieter, not trying to be the loudest object, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a color.”

a red armless chair with fringe along the bottom in front of a painting on a wall and purple flowered long curtains

Kelly Marshall

Danielle Colding’s custom slipper chair in a Dedar fabric matches the pink hues of a Deborah Buck painting in a Manhattan townhouse.

For her part, Colding emphasizes the importance of having some tension between the art and the decor. “If something isn’t a little off in a room, it’s too perfect and doesn’t feel good,” she says. That tension can come from color—pick a shade or two removed from the one in the picture—or from the underappreciated factor of scale. “Scale can enhance the story and give you the element of surprise,” she says, using the example of an oversize matte surrounding a small artwork.

“Scale can enhance the story and give you the element of surprise.” —Danielle Colding

Most designers agree that decorating is easiest when the art is in hand from the beginning. “It starts with the client,” says New York architect Peter Pennoyer. “Some clients have a specific collection, and they want the house to be able to accommodate those pictures.”

Pennoyer leans in hard toward highlighting art, making custom architecture to suit it so it doesn’t dominate a room, as he did with a burgeoning picture trove. “We added hinged panels in the wall, so that they folded out with three ‘walls’ where there would normally be one.” (London’s Sir John Soane’s Museum gave him the idea.)

For smaller items, Pennoyer likes to build a “collector’s cabinet” with glass doors, so the objects have a dedicated space but can be easily viewed. Bending over backward for art seems to work for him: He once reinforced a floor to hold a heavy, 20-foot-tall basalt sculpture he was worried might overwhelm a foyer. “It ended up being really fun,” Pennoyer says. Such three-dimensional works are challenging but rewarding if their placement is thought through. When a sculpture is most prominent in a room, “that makes it all about the furniture plan,” Cotton says of incorporating a work in a way that’s comfortable.

half white and half light blue walls, white wood floor covered with a deep red rug, blue sofa and matching chair both with decorative pillows, small desk and chair, large artwork over sofa, yellow ceiling beamjulie polidoro elle decor

Helenio Barbetta

In the home of artist Julie Polodoro, the artwork is her own. Bold colors in the furnishings offer contrast to the crisp white walls.

If clients don’t own art, that could be the time to work with an adviser as the decorating scheme develops. “What I like about art advisers is that they open my eyes to possibilities,” Colding says. “Even if I don’t love the art, it gives me something crunchy to work with.”

“Placement is not as important as the piece itself”—Michelle Smith

ELLE DECOR A-List designer Michelle R. Smith isn’t so sure. “If you have an art adviser, there are three of you shopping,” she says. “That’s fun, but it’s harder than my regular job.” Smith prefers making small adjustments to an extant trove, no matter how humble. “I can make anything likable by reframing it,” she says. “I think my talent is the placement and the framing.”

Whatever you do, consider breaking the conventional one-painting-over-the-sofa rule. “With smaller pieces, try stacking them. But don’t overdo it—stack some and then take a breather,” Smith says. “And hang something over a doorway.” Even if the art itself is the star, never underestimate the impact of thoughtful arrangement. “Placement is not as important as the piece itself,” Smith says. “But it’s close.” 


Buying art today

Before designing with art, one must get some. Here are three cutting-​edge ways to do it.

Gertrude

This new art-buying app focuses on emerging artists, most of whom don’t have galleries, and $1,000 to $5,000 is the price sweet spot. “We catch them on the upswing,” CEO Will Jarvis says. Plus, collectors can spread payments over 12 months if they need to. 

Docent

Launched at Art Basel 2023, the app offers some 10,000 artworks from 100 galleries. Its unique algorithm homes in on a collector’s taste. “The difference is that we are personalized and curated,” says founder Hélène Nguyen-Ban. “The more you interact with the app, the more it gets to know you.”

Artsy

After more than a decade, the site and app have 2 million–plus users, and there are upward of 1 million works in its database. “We excel in our scale and global reach,” says Alexander Forbes, Artsy’s director of galleries and fairs. As a bonus, Artsy also offers collection management services.

march 2024 elle decor cover

This story originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

By