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John Lamb, Published April 13 2013

Local arts enthusiasts say what you display should reflect what you love

FARGO - It’s the question that many decorators, artists and gallery dealers dread: What should I hang that will go with my couch?

It’s a question that’s bigger than any loveseat, sofa or sectional.

The person asking the question may not be looking just to take up wall space but also looking for help expressing their personality. What you display in your home isn’t just what you own but rather an extension of who you are.

“Your home isn’t a hotel where you’re just trying to make it look nice and match,” says Tania Blanich, executive director of The Rourke Art Gallery Museum. “Your home should be a place where you’re exploring what you love, and it needs to reflect who you are and not the color of your sofa.”

“What makes you, you?” asks Michael Rohr, owner of Boerth’s Gallery. “I’ve found a way to make my home an extension of myself. Making sure you’re part of that composition is the most important thing.”

Having the right pieces is part of the equation, but finding the right spot for the right piece can be the final solution.

“There are many rules in design, and every rule is meant to be broken,” Rohr says, though he adds it’s best if you know the rules before you break them.

Show your love

One of the cardinal rules that shouldn’t be broken is simple enough: Show what you love.

“Your home is your escape,” says Steve Johnson, who works with Rohr at Boerth’s. “It should reflect what you’re comfortable with. What works for somebody doesn’t work for everybody.”

Johnson has developed an eye for art and design with more than 25 years as a custom framer and previously owning Total Picture.

He says people often decorate thinking of the entertaining they’ll do and forget that they’re the ones who will look at the walls every day.

In his two-story Fargo apartment, Johnson has displayed a fraction of his art collection, yet filled the space with works he’s collected over the years from noted area artists such as Robert Nelson, Carl Oltvedt and Catherine Mulligan to pieces created by his two daughters.

Johnson and Rohr agree that art doesn’t have to be grouped by the artist, or thematically, but suggest considering color schemes, as well as finding shapes and sizes that fit a space.

“If you like it, it goes together,” Johnson says.

Johnson leans pieces against the wall to help visualize how items will play off each other.

The stairway leading up to the second floor of Johnson’s pad provides a stretch of prime real estate to display his collection, but the area ascends at an angle with the stairs rather than a straight horizontal space.

From his first floor to the landing, Johnson used colorful pieces, but as the stairs turn and go to the third floor, he switched to black-and-white pieces.

“Going from this burst of color to black and white makes it look less cluttered,” he explains.

One of the colored walls goes all the way to the roof, allowing him to mix up sizes and put a large, light-hued Leroy Aasland painting toward the top of the salon-style display.

“If I’d done that whole wall in small pieces, your mind would explode,” Johnson says.

For Blanich, who has moved twice in the two years since she’s taken over at the Rourke, utilizing a “fairly compact” apartment space created a challenge. Still, she knew her two favorite pieces would fit perfectly in her new living room, whereas before they’d been in her bedroom.

“What are the things that I want to see all of the time, that I want to live with. And what are the things I want to show off?” she says. “Those are the ones I try to find a place for first … You need to build the rest of the room around that. Then it’s just what looks good where and you decide that by trial and error a little bit.”

Johnson compares it to putting together a puzzle, and with the acquisition of new pieces, the puzzle is taken apart and put back together again.

Johnson says don’t think you have to hang everything at standing eye level. After all, you’re not in a museum, you’re in a home where you spend most of your time sitting.

“You can hang nice artwork low over an end table to see it when you’re seated,” he says.

In the bedroom

Sitting is one thing, but what do you want to look at when you are lying down? What do you want to see when you wake up and what’s going to help you get to sleep?

“People tend to want more calming images and colors in the bedroom,” Johnson says, adding that landscapes are popular. “For our area, landscapes go anywhere.”

Bedrooms are also popular for family pictures, but Johnson warns not to overdo it.

“Nobody wants a picture of your mother in your bedroom,” he says, suggesting keeping much of the family in the hallway.

Feeling the heat

Other rooms around your home may be easier to decorate with art, but two necessary rooms create major problems.

“No kitchen, no bathroom,” says Mark Ryan. As director of collections and operations at the Plains Art Museum, he’s in charge of making sure the art is taken care of, both when it’s being stored and on display.

Heat and humidity are “huge … absolutely massive” factors in a piece’s sustainability.

“It’s just going to expedite the degradation of your work,” he explains.

Hot running water in the bathroom wreaks havoc on paper work and canvases and the temperature swing in the kitchen, as well as boiling water, are detrimental as well.

Similarly, he says in any room, avoid hanging pieces by heat sources like radiators or vents.

Besides, both kitchens and bathrooms have a knack for getting messy.

He recalls a donation of a textured image from a collector who displayed that piece in his bathroom.

“It had toothpaste and shaving cream and who knows what else lodged in there, and we had to clean it out,” Ryan says. “It’s not a good idea to have something that’s going to catch stuff in your bathroom.”

If you really want to decorate, he suggests sturdy pieces with hard surfaces like plastics. Ceramics could also work.

“I know you spend a lot of time in those rooms, but they’re not the ideal place to have art in, for sure,” he says.

But that’s a rule Johnson breaks. Under a kitchen cabinet and above a countertop, he has a nice Dan Jones landscape stashed.

Ryan may wince not only since the work is displayed in the kitchen but also close to an under-the-cabinet fluorescent light.

“Light is one of the worst agents of deterioration we have to deal with in a museum setting,” Ryan says. “Anything you can do to limit light falling on an object is good.”

Both natural and manufactured light create problems, he says. The UV rays can beat up a work over a period of time, just as the heat from an electric light can damage it as well.

Pastels, watercolors, drawings and some photos may be more susceptible to light damage, he says.

Specialty glass in frames can protect from UV rays, but rotating items on display is always a good idea.

Against the wall

So what do you hang above the couch?

Johnson and Rohr both suggest trying to keep furniture from sitting flat against a wall and instead angling sofas and chairs away from the surface to create the illusion of depth.

Rohr does have one rule he tries to live by if a couch is against a wall.

“I don’t want to occupy more than two-thirds (above) the length of the sofa,” he says.

“It isn’t a crime to find something that goes with your sofa, but you have to love it, too,” Blanich says. “If you know a horizontal delicate piece will look beautiful, then you look for five years until you find the perfect thing. I’m opposed to people buying art for no other purpose than they’ve got a hole on their wall. You should buy it because you just can’t stand to live without it and you want to have it and see it every day.”

Other hanging insights

Don’t let finding the right spot for your favorite pieces be too daunting but give some consideration before hammering a nail in the wall.

“It’s always fraught with problems, but a few things will certainly prolong the life of the artwork,” says Ryan.

• Don’t just nail anywhere. Find a stud that will support the weight of a picture or sculpture, says Mark Ryan, director of collections and operations at the Plains Art Museum. Similarly, make sure the art is sturdily secured with wire and ready to hang.

• Don’t worry if you don’t like where a piece hangs after a while, Johnson says. Just be sure you have extra paint to cover the hole.

• The centerpiece on a wall isn’t always a picture.

“If you hang a mirror, make it reflect something of interest, other than yourself,” Rohr says. Hang it opposite a window with a nice view, a place you keep flowers or across from other pieces of art.

• Don’t hang art low around chairs and couches that may get regularly moved back and forth and could bump into the piece.

• Homes have bigger and bigger TVs and more of them take up wall space.

“It’s very hard to put art against it, or above it,” Blanich says. “In my mind, it would be doing the artwork a disservice. I think it’s very hard to find art that would go with (a TV).”

Rohr suggests keeping the TV in a room not used for entertaining, or add height around it with large vases, sculptures or plants.

• Track lighting on dimmers is a good way to control the amount of light on a piece of work, as well as controlling the atmosphere with lights around the outside of a room, creating an intimate space, Johnson says.

A cheaper option is to use lamps around the room.

• While you want the space to be your own, it’s always good to have someone to bounce ideas off.

“It is helpful to have another eye, whether you disagree with them or not,” Blanich says. “I’m of the mindset that if you disagree with them, you know you’re right, and if you agree, you know you’re right.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533