How does it feel to walk into a home with blank walls? Maybe it feels like the owner is there only temporarily—or that he or she just moved in. Either way, there’s a sense that something’s incomplete, or worse, that something’s just plain wrong. Such is the power of art in our lives: It defines and grounds us; it can lift our spirits and sense of wonder; it can make us smile; it can challenge, surprise and entertain.
“FROM A DESIGN PERSPECTIVE, IT CAN BE THE FOCAL POINT FROM WHICH A ROOM’S PALETTE AND STYLE EMERGES. ON A MORE PERSONAL LEVEL, AN ART COLLECTION TRANSFORMS THAT ROOM INTO YOUR OWN SANCTUARY.”
Just as we’re rewarded with sweeping views once we reach the top of a mountain, art provides an interior vista as we walk in the door or turn the corner into a new space. From a design perspective, it can be the focal point from which a room’s palette and style emerges. On a more personal level, an art collection transforms that room into your own sanctuary.
The same idea extends to public spaces, particularly in condo and apartment buildings. At a time when the cost of construction is rising, developers are building smaller units with larger public areas to get the biggest return on their investment. This trend puts the onus on us as interior architects and designers to conceive public space that can double as an extension of one’s home.
“EMPTY WALLS AND SPACES DEVOID OF HAND-MADE OBJECTS CAN BE UNSETTLING—LIKE OPENING A BOOK TO FIND ONLY BLANK PAGES, WITH NO STORY TO TELL.”
The question then becomes: Where do you start? When the project begins, it’s rare that an individual or team of people will express their personal tastes and preferences for art style or genre. At times, of course, the building owner might have a personal collection he or she wants to display, and that collection becomes the design driver. But most often, we start from scratch in determining how to beautify communal space that includes lobbies, lounges, meeting and recreational rooms, chef’s kitchens and eating areas—even pet spas and outdoor “rooms.”
That’s when we as designers look to a building’s location for direction. Whenever we can, we like to bring in local artists whose works tell a story about the community. Is it an area like Georgetown, DC, with a deep sense of history? Or maybe Hyattsville, Maryland, which has a thriving art scene? Perhaps it’s a central urban environment with a grittier vibe or a big sports town? There are all sorts of ways to bring in that local flavor.
At The Signature in Reston, Virginia, for example, we reached out to artist Susan Main, the curator, and director of galleries and exhibition programming at VisArts in Rockville, Maryland. We admired the swirling, whimsical lines in her work—just the kind of thing you’d want in a commissioned piece focused on signatures. We’ve asked her to create a large encaustic work representing 25 autographs of famous people who hail from Northern Virginia—from historical figures such as Booker T. Washington and Thomas Jefferson to contemporary standouts like basketball veteran Grant Hill and comedian Wanda Sykes.
There’s a different narrative in the Crystal City section of Arlington, VA, where The Bartlett—Arlington’s tallest apartment building—enjoys sweeping, uninterrupted views across the Potomac River to Washington’s monuments. We brought that vista inside with commissioned photography of iconic DC images, while we asked acclaimed DC artist Maggie O’Neill to create oils that reinterpret Washington’s symbols—the Capitol building; Uncle Sam; the Washington Monument—with wild splashes of color. The whimsy continues with a huge wall graphic that portrays midcentury-style dollhouses, and look closely in the lobby: The abstract painting that anchors the lobby’s focal wall hides a Bartlett pear etched into the oil.
While location always has a large impact on the art curation of these multi-family residences, the building itself can wield influence as well. We are currently working on Stonehall, a small luxury condo project in Bethesda that channels the charming European boutique hotels where centuries-old architecture plays into the design. Here, we’re combining architectural details with art to create a mood of quiet, urbane elegance. Every elevator lobby will feature beautifully framed, old maps of a great city—Paris, Madrid, Washington, Chicago, New York, and Amsterdam are a few—to identify that floor. Each design project is special in its own way, and choosing art as the finishing touch is always a favorite endeavor—both for the developers who’ve hired us and for our entire staff as well. The energy palpably rises when the discussion turns to art, and trips to galleries both locally and around the country inspire the most passion amidst the countless other furnishings, fabric and finish selections we’re making throughout a building’s public amenities.
Empty walls and spaces devoid of hand-made objects can be unsettling—like opening a book to find only blank pages, with no story to tell. As the interior designers of large buildings that are home to hundreds of residents, we take our mission seriously—and joyfully—in creating environments through curated art that make you feel properly at home the moment you step through the lobby door.
Written by Phyllis Hartman, ASID, LEED AP