How artists decorate their living spaces

Iain Machell’s home. (Photos by Dion Ogust)

When I walk into an artist’s house, I often notice it looks different from a non-artist’s house. I find myself thinking, “This person really cares about how things look.”

Maybe the rest of us could learn something from finding out how artists make decisions about furnishings and what they hang on the walls. With this idea in mind, I toured the homes of three Hudson Valley artists, probing their thoughts on interior decoration.

I expected a lot of bright colors, but apparently the creative process that dominates the studio makes a somewhat chaotic environment, and all three artists said they seek order and calm in their homes. Color-wise, painter and sculptor Jenne Currie of Woodstock leans towards earthtones, while Chichester artist Christie Scheele is drawn to gray, brown, black, and muted blues. “I find bright colors jarring,” observed Scheele, a painter of subtle landscapes.

Curves and colors harmonize disparate objects (Jenne Currie).

In Saugerties, I was pleased to find Iain Machell, who makes two- and three-dimensional works of paper and cloth, had placed a mustard-yellow couch in the sunroom and a blue couch in the living room. Two other rooms sported yellow walls. However, the brightness in each room was balanced by cooler colors, while the main hue was echoed in small details. In the sunroom, for example, the sunny couch faces blue-gray chairs with blue pillows that contain dashes of yellow, and more yellow is found in a lamp, a watering can, and replicas of the iconic Andy Warhol banana.

Balance is a critical topic. As all students learn in art school, said Machell, a former art professor at SUNY Ulster, contrast is stimulating and to be desired. But order is equally important.

The living space should be a place where you can relax, agreed Currie, adding, “But you need interesting things to look at all the time.” In her living room, among the widely disparate pieces that coexist on one wall, the skull of a long-horned steer hangs between a copper Turkish vessel with a long spout and a Greek vase with an intricate leaf pattern. Alongside the vase is one of Currie’s sculptures of welded steel shapes. “

Pillows with geometric designs enhance the texture of a wicker couch (Christie Scheele).

What enables these pieces to work together? They are all in shades of brown and off-white, and they all have curves: the spout of the vessel, the steer’s horns, the bulge of the vase, and the sculpture’s undulations.

Scheele also likes to juxtapose diverse items. Years ago, her husband and son built a series of monsters from classic films, assembled from kits and meticulously painted. Godzilla, Dracula, and others stand atop a bookcase, beneath a friend’s semi-abstract drawing of a martial arts movement that curiously echoes the dramatic poses of the monsters. On a low table nearby sits a meditating Buddha.

“Memory and reusing are important to me,” said Scheele, whose years of raising her twins come to mind when she looks at the monsters, as well as at drawings and paintings by both her artistic children, set here and there around the house. Her parents also have their places, through wood furniture they handed down and through stoneware pottery created by her mother.

Monster figurines contrast with a martial arts drawing (Christie Scheele).

All three artists cherish old wood, both for the warmth of its color and for the historical and emotional value of furniture inherited from family members. In a nook of Machell’s kitchen, he eats at a table shipped from his native Scotland and used by his family when he was a child. It served as a work table in a workshop, where his rebellious brother carved his name into the wood.

Young Iain decided to imitate him, but felt so guilty that he ended up adding the names of everyone in the family. Still visible are “Daddy” and “Mummy” at the end of the line of carved names. In a whimsical touch, the walls of the dining nook are lined with drawings and paintings of animals.

Currie lives in the house she grew up in and returned to after 35 years in New York City. Her parents, both artists, bought the house in the late 1940s, and their paintings hang on many walls. They remodeled the former barn so the kitchen was open to the living room, long before open-plan designs were popular. “My mother was a proto-feminist and wasn’t going to be stuck in the kitchen with the door closed,” said Currie.

The living room (Iain Machell).

 

After moving back to Woodstock ten years ago, she remodeled the kitchen, using the earthtones she favors. The gray and black granite countertop looked “soulless and cold” when installed. Currie remedied the problem by selecting off-white tiles from a local building store for the walls above the counters. She coated the tiles with oil-based polyurethane mixed with tan paint, for an antique Tuscan look. To mediate between the gold of the wood floor and the silver of the new refrigerator, she selected cabinets in an intermediate color, a cool beige.

On the shelf over the kitchen table, she lined up plates hand-painted with simple drawings, made in a village in Mexico. Below them hang eight little copper pans from Florence. Contrasting with the two rows of circles, the lamp on the sideboard has a rectangular lampshade over a base adorned with twists of driftwood.

The artists agreed that trial and error is most useful in determining what objects work together. When a new item arrives, Scheele said, “I stick it somewhere, and two weeks later, or maybe two months later, I might move it. I usually have to try a few spots.”

A workshop table from the artist’s childhood, scored by knives and nails, adds character and memories to the kitchen (Iain Machell).

“It helps to be playful,” said Machell’s wife, Rachael Bower, a scientist with a creative bent, deeply involved in the décor decisions. When she put yellow tulips on the Noguchi table in the living room, she recalled, “Iain said, ‘You need a tulip pillow.’” Bower promptly broke out the spring pillowcases, in pastel pinks and yellows, lining up the newly dressed pillows along the blue curved couch. In June, she will change to the summer cases, which involve less velvet and more linen.

The three houses I visited all included an abundance of pillows. Scheele has chosen pillows with geometric patterns that provide texture, while Currie’s solid-color pillows add a touch of muted maroon and purple to the gray couches, reflecting streaks of color in the mostly dark-hued paintings above.

Another habit the artists have in common is that they place their own work sparingly on the walls, in preference to compositions by friends, relatives, or the occasional modern master whose work was obtained in a trade. Why put up their own art in the house, when its bounty fills the studio?

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