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Many years ago, an interior designer told me that ‘a room without books is like a face without eyes.’ I knew what he meant. You can tell a lot about a person by the books on their bookshelves (not to mention the way they organize and display them), but in my opinion art speaks even louder. If books are the eyes then art is the mouth, the smile, the voice. I believe we bare our souls and our passions through the art we choose for our walls, and that through art – even more than furniture and decor – a house becomes a home.
When my partner David and I lived in an inner-Sydney terrace, we had 108 artworks on our walls. I know that because I once counted them for an article I was writing. And because each and every one of those artworks had to earn its wall space, they represented decades of stories and memories. From art collected on our travels together in Vietnam, India and China to works gifted during my years as a magazine editor; from personal photos and mementos (our teenage mothers posing like 1950s mannequins) to sketches, watercolours, prints and posters. Op-shop and flea-market treasures rubbing shoulders with gallery purchases and degree show finds. An enormous print by Australian artist Jack Britten purchased in Sydney, framed in London, and shipped back across the world to its resting place on our walls; a vintage photograph once gathering dust in a Myanmar market, now lovingly restored in its original frame. And all proudly displayed in a chaotic but mesmerizing French hang that ran the length – and height – of our home. The complete opposite of the precise, gallery-style presentation so beloved by interior designers, ours was a work in progress, an organic art exhibition that evolved – and grew – over more than a decade. In our current home on the NSW south coast, we no longer have the footprint of our creaky, three-storey Sydney terrace, but what we lack in wall space we make up for in spirit. There’s art everywhere you turn and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I don’t believe in rules. Homes are to be lived in and loved. My advice is always to follow your heart and fill a home with things that bring you pleasure – not things that are of the moment or deemed essential by others. And that same freedom – in my opinion – applies to art. Let me explain. It’s completely OK to match art to your furnishings, to echo the colours of a favourite rug or cushion in an abstract canvas or a vintage poster. Many of us choose art in this way, and while I would never suggest colour-matching be the only consideration, it’s a sensible place to start. It’s a way of editing the daunting amount of art out there. But by the same token (and this is where I get passionate), it’s 100% OK to clash. Nothing makes my heart beat faster than seeing contemporary art in a classic setting; traditional art and craft in an industrial environment or brilliant colours against a neutral backdrop. My belief is that art is independent. It’s personal to you, and the fact that it won’t appeal to everyone is what makes it intriguing and special. The art I put on my walls might not be what you would choose for your walls, but do you know what? That’s fine. Let’s talk about it. Art is the best conversation starter.
In a decade of judging The Block and more than a decade of editing interior design magazines Belle and Vogue Living, I’ve seen our passion for art grow exponentially. I love the fact that young and emerging artists now have portals through which they can reach an audience, beyond the confines of the traditional gallery environment. Just as I’ve never lost the thrill of trawling markets for that one-in-a-million find, so I love visiting websites like Art Lovers Australia in search of that artwork that will make my spirit soar. When you find it, it’s the best feeling in the world.
If I can offer practical advice, it’s this. Go with your heart. Don’t ever think that an artwork won’t go with your décor, because if you love it, it will. Artworks always look good grouped together but make sure you keep them close. A gallery-style hang demands togetherness above all else. Frames and dimensions can differ, but five is the minimum number. If you have a wall that will allow your collection to grow, then so much the better. And before you buy that artwork, think about why you love it. Because I can guarantee you will be asked a thousand times over, and everyone loves a story. I know I do.