Michele Lerner, Special to The Washington Post
When George Dant decided to downsize, he didn't go far from home. He moved from the upper two floors of his Washington, D.C., rowhouse to the basement.
But when you descend the four steps into his lower-level abode, you don't feel like you're heading into darkness. Instead, you find yourself in a light-filled art gallery with a contemporary living space.
"I wanted a clean, open and light home without any clutter that would take attention away from my art collection," Dant says. "I had been living in the basement for a year or so to test it out and realized the space would be perfect if I just remodelled it. I especially wanted to put in hardwood floors and get rid of the wall-to-wall carpet, which is just skeevy in a basement."
Dant, a hairstylist and former salon owner, had previously rented the English basement to a tenant but realized he could bring in more income for his future retirement by leasing the larger upstairs unit. So, he hired Anthony Wilder Design/Build of Cabin John, Maryland, to convert the dark and cluttered basement into a sophisticated yet neutral home that functions as a backdrop to his art collection.
"I've been collecting art since the moment I left my parents' home, but I was always looking forward to the day when the art I could afford was worth more than the frame," Dant says.
He buys many of his paintings in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which he has visited frequently for decades; he also buys pieces from local artists in Washington and Annapolis, Maryland. His collection now totals about 40 pieces, including a small quintessential painting of Provincetown, by renowned area artist Anne Packard, and two unusual paintings that resemble Russian icons but are really layers of comic strips by Annapolis artist Gail Watkins. Dant's favourite paintings include the first he purchased in Provincetown, a single house under a purple sky by Robert Cardinal, and a 6-by-6-foot abstract in his bedroom by Washington, D.C., artist Stanley Petroski.
The centrepiece of the home is a 25-foot-long gallery wall, which combines traditional and modern art. The bulkheads above the wall and ledges along the bottom of the walls (they're actually part of the home's foundation) were challenges that Sean Mullin, an architect with Anthony Wilder Design/Build, chose to turn into works of art themselves. The ledges, about one foot above the floor, have natural hardwood on top for consistency with the hardwood throughout the home. Dant uses them to display small sculptures and art books.
The choice to focus most of the art on one wall was Dant's from the beginning. Keira St. Claire-Bowery, a lead interior designer at Anthony Wilder Design/Build, says that he "wanted the art to stand out even more because it had been just part of the clutter in the apartment. We made it light and bright by adding lighting to the wall and having white walls and light floors so the colours of the art-pop."
That lighting was the biggest challenge of this project, St. Claire-Bowery says because the bulkheads meant recessed lighting wouldn't work and the narrow hallway required precise placement of track lighting to avoid hitting the closet doors. "I was skittish about track lighting because I pictured something looking dated," Dant says. St. Claire-Bowery was able to find slim rods with small angled lights that can be adjusted and dimmed.
You might think displaying dozens of paintings in a 725-square-foot home could be overkill. But every detail of this space works against that, providing an openness that lets the art shine.
Beyond emphasizing Dant's art, St. Claire-Bowery says she wanted to address his other priority: creating a stylish, open space for entertaining.
"George dresses very well - he has this amazing shoe collection - but his home didn't match his personality," she says.
Dant, who freely admits that he never cooks, wanted to upgrade the drab galley-style kitchen to create more storage and lighten the space. The new design includes high-gloss lacquered cabinets; the upper cabinets open upward like garage doors to reduce the space they occupy. A white glass backsplash reflects both the under-cabinet and recessed lighting. (For mood lighting, the under-cabinet lights can be turned different colours by a remote control.) The apartment-size refrigerator, dishwasher, pantry and coffee maker are all hidden behind glossy cabinet doors, and a small white convection-microwave oven is tucked below a white cooktop.
The focal point for the kitchen is a dramatic peninsula with a waterfall-style countertop.
"George and I found these amazing pieces of natural striated marble with nearly perfect symmetrical stripes of pale grey running through the white marble," St. Claire-Bowery says. "We deliberately mounted the faucet to the side of the sink instead of the front of the sink so that we have a clean look and a wide-open surface that faces the living room."
The peninsula has room for two white leather bar stools that complement the furniture in the adjacent living space, where Dant likes to sit with his dog, Lola, and his cat, T3, or host friends for cocktails. "My friends love the kitchen because it's so modern," he says, "but the art wall is truly the first thing that catches everyone's eye."
As was the curator's intention.
Displaying art in small spaces
Give it top billing
"Put your art on important walls in the public spaces of your home so your visitors can see it and you can enjoy it," says Mullin. "You want the space to be deserving of your art."
Plan your display first
Mullin suggests measuring everything before you try to hang your art to make sure it will fit where you want.
Play with scale
Mixing paintings of different sizes makes it easier to see individual pieces, compared with a row of similar-size frames. St. Claire-Bowery suggests spacing your art evenly but avoiding too much repetition.
Focus on your lighting
Dant's home uses a mixture of picture lights over a couple of his larger paintings, recessed lighting in the living area and a rail of track lights that can be adjusted. "Angle your lighting towards your artwork rather than washing it down over the art," St. Claire-Bowery says. She also recommends using dimmable LED bulbs that come in multiple colour temperatures, allowing you to choose whether cool or warm lighting works best for your artwork. "Make sure neither your art or your lighting overpowers the other," says Mullin.
Prioritise emotional connection
When your display is limited, showcase art that speaks to you personally. Dant has a story for every piece in his collection - about the artist, the scene portrayed or how he acquired the art. For instance, there is the fertility statue he received from the former ambassador of Ceylon.
Leave room for rearranging
I occasionally rehang my art and add new pieces," Dant says, adding that he places them by feel and uses simple nails. "There are a few pieces in a closet and some large canvases staying with a friend for now, but I do have space for most of my art."