Why we love what we hang on walls

March 15, 2010

My New Year’s Resolution this year was to update my Blog at least once a month, so here we are on the 13th of March with this year’s first update which underlines just how silly it is to make NYE resolutions you’re not going to keep.

Putting that moment of self-flagellation clearly behind me, I thought it might be interesting to talk about the pictures that people put on their walls. Not so much this time about particular jobs I have done, but more about the story of why people buy, collect and hang the pictures they do.

Across the years of my work I have hung literally thousands of images for clients including paintings, prints, photography, memorabilia, rugs and tapestries, awards and certificates, mirrors, wall-sculpture, various collectables such as number plates, swords and woodcarvings and even musical instruments. The one commonality among all of these things was their owners’ desire to have them correctly displayed on the walls of their homes and / or workplaces. Typically, people want to hang these pieces on their walls because, at some level, they mean something to them. And for every person I meet in my work that ‘meaning’ will be something different. There are however, broad categories of people who generally have similar collected images to hang.

Typically for young families there are often lots of framed family photos, especially of weddings, honeymoon snaps and their young children, the latter, often professionally shot. Wedding photos aside, there is often a romantic edge to younger couples’ images. I recently hung an unusual framed poster print above a bed-head for some newlyweds. It seemed a bit incongruous to me as to why they wanted it there; it would have looked better hung in the nearby passageway. But when I suggested that, the young lady asked me to have a look at the back of the poster and there, written carefully in flowing script read a long and detailed poem of love, that her then boyfriend (now husband) had penned for her. Of course it had to hang over their marital bed; what was I thinking!

Art collectors and their collections are sometimes, but not always, what you might expect. Some do formally display their favourite artworks in almost art-gallery type settings, with professionally installed gallery hanging systems and high quality art lighting throughout their homes. But other collectors often overwhelm their walls with art, filling practically every square inch of white wall with artworks. And then when they run out of wall-space they begin stacking them up on the floor, in storage areas and under beds. One collector I visited some time ago had so many paintings (I roughly tallied up about 250!) he had just decided to build a rear extension and a second storey extension to his already large home, specifically to house his ever growing collection. Even then, he confided to me, he still wouldn’t have enough room for it all.

Then there are the car enthusiasts wanting motor racing and motoring memorabilia hung. More often than not, ‘Mrs. Car Enthusiast’ has laid down the law with instructions that “all that car-stuff” can only go up in the garage. But let me tell you that I have hung pictures and memorabilia in garages that are larger and more pristine than a great many homes. One such car enthusiast had approximately 150 personalized number-plates that he wanted professionally hung in his garage (imagine if you will, black walls and black and white chequered-flag-carpeted floor in a garage!). Another had motor racing posters representing some of the World’s most exotic racing cars; of which a great many of the cars in the posters, were actually sitting right there in the garage!

Wealthy collectors aside though, for most of us the pictures we hang often hold special meaning. I hear it all the time; “We got that on our first trip overseas; my elderly father painted that for me just before he passed away; that was the first picture we bought together as a couple; that’s my very favourite photo of my mum; my son painted that for me in second grade; my husband bought that for me as a special surprise for my 40th birthday. For every picture that we love, there is a story, and we love our pictures because of those stories, and the meaning they bring.

I have on several occasions hung pictures in retirement villages. I especially enjoy these jobs as I see, through the pictures I am hanging, the stories of these elderly peoples’ long and often fruitful lives. Photos of themselves as children, together with those of their children and grandchildren; a painting they bought on the streets of Paris in the 1960’s, the antique blue and white Chinese plates that they found in the attic of a house they bought in the 1970’s, the framed ‘Award of Excellence’ her husband received from the company he worked for for 30 years.

You see, most of the things we acquire in our lives such as furniture, furnishings, clothes, electrical goods, decorative pieces and everyday cars are disposable. Often, even the homes we live in get unemotionally sold and replaced several times over as we journey through life. For these things, the high-point of enjoyment is usually when we buy them. From that point on, they gradually get damaged, break down, wear out or get substituted, often many times over in a lifetime.

However the pictures we acquire, often will travel with us throughout our lives. It is true that some may fall by the wayside but the ones that give us real meaning and engender pleasant memories, we keep through good times and bad. Bushfire victims often say that the last thing they grab before fleeing the flames are their pictures and their family photos. Divorces are often heading for amicable settlements; that is until the family pictures come up for negotiation.

Our pictures reflect our interests, passions, professions, lifestyle, personality traits, and often, how long we have been alive for. In essence I believe that what we hang on our walls is so often, who we are. To emphasize just how real I believe this proposition to be, let me relate a story. Some time ago I was enlisted by a prominent interior designer to hang a number of high quality pictures and mirrors throughout a multi-million dollar city apartment. Apparently the designer had been commissioned to carry out a complete furnishing of the apartment on behalf of an overseas owner, with no personal input from that owner, other than an overall brief of high quality and coordinated décor including the selection of images and mirrors for the walls. I spent the better part of a day hanging all the pieces which included several spectacular gilded mirrors and a large variety of classically framed European prints. Some were hung singly above fire-places and cabinetry, others in grouped sets on open walls. I even hung 2 large silver gilt framed bed-heads, ready for the beds to be pushed against. The quality of the furnishings, printed artworks included, was of the very highest order, and yet the final result was a home that looked like an elaborately-furnished display home. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more it actually looked like a truly spectacular mausoleum, in other words, it looked like a place where nobody lived. I believe that despite the designers’ best intentions and excellent decorative choices, none of the pictures on the wall reflected the personality of anyone living there (and to be fair, at that stage, nobody was). Each image had been carefully chosen to coordinate within the overall high-end decorative ‘look’ of the project and in that respect the designer had done an outstanding job. However the key element that was missing, that which was, in my opinion, the most important element of all; was human personality. If you for a moment doubt this proposition, I advise you now to look up from your computer screen and look around the room you are in. Then walk around your home, look at the walls and what you have hung on those walls. What do you see reflected back? Do you see your personality or that of your partners, do you see elements of your interests, your family, your history, do you see the things that make you feel good? For those that see these things, you will know exactly what I am talking about. For those that don’t (what do you mean, you have NOTHING on your walls?), then perhaps it is time to start thinking about what you would love to look at when you walk down the hallway after a hard day at work?

About 12 months ago I hung a rather eclectic collection of family and friends photos and kids drawings in the garage of a prominent Melbourne businessman. It seemed an unusual brief at the time and so when I returned about six months later to hang a mirror in his house I curiously asked him if he was enjoying his garage pictures. He said to me, “you know Russell, sometimes I arrive home after a s*@t of a day at work but whenever I pull up into the garage and stare up at those pictures of my family and friends, I instantly feel better”.

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