By Jay Johnson

There are ways to finesse your clients to purchase works of art. Here are a few helpful Do’s and Don’ts.

Every interior designer will identify with the problems of buying artwork for a client project. My partner Irwin Weiner and I have cataloged the following trip-ups we’ve encountered through the years.

  • For some clients, there’s no way to justify art to demanding clients other than to have “art for art’s sake.” A work of art is beautiful, but you can’t sit on it (unless you’re talking about the Hand Chair by Pedro Friedeberg). Some clients only want to make functional
  • Some clients are intimidated by art. They shy away from art because they know nothing about it.
  • There are those who would judge people by the quality of the artwork in their homes, and some clients don’t want to be judged—they avoid artwork entirely. They’re usually the homeowners whose only wall decorations are sconces, mirrors, and family photos.
  • Art is very personal and visceral, and art selection oftentimes boils down to matters of taste. Some couples can’t agree on which pieces of art they should purchase. One of our clients screamed at her husband, “That’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen! You really like THAT?!” Of course, the husband’s choice was immediately returned to the gallery. Today, the bare patch of wall commemorates his ill-fated choice and reminds the couple that they couldn’t compromise.
  • We’ve seen people have difficulty buying art because they’ve told us it’s a long-term commitment—if you buy art, you’ll have to live with it for many years, whereas it’s easy to replace a computer or reupholster a chair. “Our tastes will change, and what we love today, we might hate tomorrow.”
  • Designers are often worn out as the end of a project approaches—and so are clients. Budgets are stretched thin or exhausted, and the lack of money mirrors the lack of endurance to formally conclude a decorating scheme. Art purchases are often what gets sacrificed. “Forget the art; we’re done.”

We could go on—but we’d like to focus more on the positives. Here’s what you should tell your clients.

  • Art is hugely important in any interior. Tell clients that art in a room is like jewelry chosen to accessorize a particular dress or make-up and a hairstyle to complement a face.
  • Artwork includes paintings, textile weavings, handmade ceramics, sculpture, fine art photography, video installations, and the like. You don’t have to be married to just traditional framed pieces hanging on the wall. If you love texture, choose a woven piece of art to hang on the wall instead of a flat acrylic work.
  • Art belongs in your home because it’s beautiful. There are no alternative reasons for having art other than for its beauty and the way it fits well in any room, enhancing the color scheme, the mood, and the overall symmetry.
  • Tell clients that art completes a room. Manage their expectations at the start of the job and say, “We’re going to go through a rather long design process, but I want you to know upfront that I don’t consider a room finished until we’ve hung artwork on the walls.” So there you go. Throw down the challenge upfront and give your clients an end goal: artwork = job completion.

Getting to that final step can be tricky, so here are 11 tips for getting your clients to embrace works of art.

  1. Some clients are intimidated by artwork because they lack knowledge. Take clients to some local auctions or galleries and give them a walking tour of various works that would harmonize well with their design scheme. Give short master classes on the artwork. Defend why you believe certain pieces will work well for them. These talking points will help them rationalize their purchases—for themselves and their guests. “This impressionist painter is a good example of the Hudson Valley School, and we love the confident brushstrokes and the way it reminds us of our antiquing trips up the Hudson River.”
  2. Get clients to purchase art during the construction and decorating phases of a project. It’s important that they get a jump on buying artwork by doing it gradually, then you can sprint to complete art purchases at the end. Here’s one way to get the art party started: tell clients that when they travel and have free time to relax, finding artwork is a great shopping purchase. The art will always evoke special memories of their trip.
  3. Don’t allow tight budgets to close the door on purchasing art. Steer budget-conscious clients to a website such as com. Irwin tells them, “Don’t think of what you’re purchasing from these websites as ‘art.’ Think of these reproduction pieces as ‘placeholders.’ When you find something better that you really love, you can move this placeholder purchase to another room, give it away, or throw it out, without a shred of guilt. But meanwhile, you’ve made the effort and you’ve finished the room!”
  4. There are resources for “real art” at great prices. We steer clients to websites like 20×200. This site encourages everyone to collect art, offering limited edition prints at prices that are sometimes as low as $20. Make large piece purchases there, or order lots of smaller-sized works to group on walls.
  5. One of our clients has a country house with a huge double-volume entry foyer. For little money, we covered the entire foyer in artwork. Irwin spent an hour with the client on eBay buying framed botanical prints. They chose a theme, they set a budget of $50 maximum per piece, and within an hour and a half, the entire area was done. The client got a great look, for little money. The art and framing were both inexpensive, but it was still art, and the project had a strong decorating impact.
  6. As work progresses and you get your clients used to purchasing pieces of art here and there, you might find that you can suggest good places in their home for a small art collection around a specific theme, color, mood, etc. Give them a goal, and turn them loose to go shopping. For instance, a collection of historic prints with “fruit” as the subject would add color and punch to a breakfast room wall, or a country home’s grand staircase is a great wall area for displaying various sized landscape pieces.
  7. Tell your clients that art can be their children’s or grand-children’s drawings and watercolors, all finished in the same frames. Buy bunches of frames from a discounter and you’ve got a great collection on a kitchen or hallway wall. As new masterpieces are created, add them to the collection or just switch out old pieces for newer ones.
  8. Visit a local art school or college when they’re having a student art sale. We like to encourage clients to seek out and “invest” in up-and-coming young artists as their works are less expensive than established artists, and these earlier purchases help give young artists confidence and much-needed capital. That’s a feel-good reason to buy art.
  9. Art is everywhere for purchase. Street fairs, church halls, and community arts events are great opportunities for you and your clients to browse and make purchases.
  10. For clients with a more generous budget and an eye towards investment, go to a good auction house like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Doyle, Rago Arts, or Phillips to purchase reliable investment art. Clients will get a strong sense of the market value for different works of art at reputable establishments.
  11. Don’t forget to re-use a client’s existing artwork. Reframing and professionally restoring older art pieces (cleaning and varnishing), plus giving newly-hung artwork proper lighting can give tired pieces a dramatic new look. And fresh frames and mats are like adding new lampshades on a lamp; you wind up with a cleaner, updated decor punch.

A final word: never push big-name artists or works of art with amazing provenance on your clients in order to do your job. Art is not about snobbery. A friend of ours was installing art at the Walker in Minneapolis, and she overheard David Hockney tell a mover who was carelessly unloading his crated work into the museum, “Don’t worry. It’s only art. I can make more.”

We like decorating with art in that same “art ain’t precious” spirit. It’s much easier to “fake” art than it is to fake furniture, and we’d prefer to have our clients invest in a great piece of furniture as a focal point in a room rather than a great piece of art. (Yet, even if it’s just getting your clients to add placeholders to the walls in a room, artwork always gives spaces that all-important final touch…and if we’re really pressured by a client, we’re not opposed to hanging a Picasso in a place of honor!)