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Publication Date: 2018-07-02

Design Insights

Thad Hayes on Designing with Art

Renowned New York designer Thad Hayes is known for creating elegant, refined homes, both contemporary and classic, and for gracefully incorporating artworks without ever making his rooms feel like sterile gallery spaces. Here he reflects on training your eye, working with collectors, and finding the right place for both masterworks and funky finds. 

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A Manhattan living room with a 1955 painting by William Baziotes. All photos: Scott Frances

You are known for skillfully integrating artworks into your refined rooms. How important do you think good art is for a successful interior?

It really depends on the project, location, budget, and client. Some clients feel more comfortable investing in art for their primary residence, where air and light can be easily controlled, and the pieces enjoyed for longer durations. Second homes, especially if around salt water, moisture, and adverse temperature changes, may need other considerations. I personally like many types of art—painting, sculpture, and multiples (prints) that vary in quality and price. Also, I don’t think every interior needs art; sometimes an empty wall is beautiful if the materiality and proportions are really good. I have friends who collect prints and photography, both contemporary and vintage, and spend very little money for wonderful things. A country home or beach cottage might have pieces from local antique stores or estate sales that have great character and interest. 

A Fifth Avenue penthouse with a William IV table and custom dining chairs in front of a Damian Hirst triptych; the sculpture is by Antony Gormley.

What's your preferred way to keep abreast of the art world: museums, galleries, on-line sites, art fairs?

All the above. Seeing art in person, whether at an auction preview, art gallery, or museum, has the ability to train your eye to the nuances and subtleties of art. For emerging artists, art galleries owned by younger people are a great way to discover and learn about what’s happening right now, and actually buy something. Fairs are great but the art tends to be pricier; still it’s a good way to see lots of higher-profile galleries together under one roof.   

I personally look year-round at all the major auction houses, domestically and in Europe and Asia, for art and furniture. All the big auction houses have very good user-friendly sites. One can browse all the current and past sale items and check what they sold for, compared to their estimates. Online auction sites, hands down, have the potential of educating all of us to the ever-changing art world and art as a commodity.

The off-white palette of a Fifth Avenue living room highlights artworks by Mark Rothko and Alexander Calder.

What do you think is the best way for clients to educate themselves about art?

Seeing art in person. Nothing else compares with looking at the texture, the brush strokes on canvas, the surface of bronze, how light and shadow falls on a piece. Trying to make an emotional connection to a piece that interests you, and delving deep into yourself and asking, how am I feeling, does it move me either in its execution, beauty, or something more psychological or abstract. Regardless of the depth of your pocketbook, I always recommend falling in love first, not thinking of art as an investment.   

In a Hamptons living room, neutral furnishings offset a vivid Tadashi Sato painting of 1983; in the entry beyond is a 2006 painting by Pat Steir.

Do you prefer for your clients to work with an art advisor, or is that a role that you feel the designer can take on?

I would love to take on that responsibility, but often during the process we are heavily involved in architecture, interiors, and landscape. Also, many of my clients have already started a collection and might add to it as they find things they like. Often the process is a lifetime project. Many clients, whether they use a consultant, buy art on their own, or both, will consult with me about purchases, especially as they relate to rooms, walls, and the possible rearranging of existing art in the home. We are very involved, meaning that  for most art installations, we work with our clients to place the art.

The pre-war architecture of a Manhattan apartment serves as a refined setting for a Donald Judd wall piece and a painted sculpture by David Wojnarowicz.

Do you like to design a room knowing what artworks will be installed there, or to select artworks for the room after the décor is established?

Everything! Sometimes we have a complete inventory of the pieces, with an image and dimensions, and we will look at placement as we design the architecture of the interior. Sometimes we will place an artwork after the project is designed or built. We almost always produce an image of the piece rendered in elevations, showing architecture and furniture, so there is always a context. Rarely are there any surprises.When art is purchased during or after the design process, there is no strong bearing on color or style of the piece. To put it bluntly, we don’t match color palettes to art—or vice versa.  

The entry of a Tribeca duplex with a John Chamberlain painted sculpture, a custom bronze bench, and a Dan Flavin light piece.

How closely do you think the palette or mood of a room should be aligned with the artworks presented there? 

I think if there is good communication and sensitivity between client, art consultant, and design team, one can have compatibility without things looking too coordinated. That being said, we tend to use more neutral palettes for clients that have art and collect art. We never tried to attract clients with art collections. The clients came to us because they saw in our work a quieter more serene interior that they could imagine their collections in. Our clients inform our aesthetic as much as we inform theirs.

The guest room of a Westport, MA, house with a 1998 drawing by Sol Lewitt.

Has an artwork or style directly influenced your work? Have you ever created a room inspired by a painting or sculpture? 

Subconsciously, it happens all the time. A particular piece that a client owns will affect me in a more substantive way, striking a chord, and the image of that work, or several works, will play over inside my head during the course of the project. Since we have the client's art inventory on hand and often pin images of the more important pieces up on our board, we are constantly reminded of the artist and works.  

A recent example is a client who owns a very large Morris Louis painting, 12 feet long by 8 feet high, with deep, saturated rust to orange-brown tones. We were especially sensitive to it in our selection of materials, because of its scale and dominant location in the home. Also, the period of the painting, the 1970's, played into the shapes and forms we created, and in some instances, the found furniture pieces that we selected for the home.  

A Milton Avery painting on a custom oak console.

What was the last artwork that you bought for your own collection?

I recently bought a Harry Bertoia “bush” sculpture. I love all his sculpture and furniture, but the “bush” pieces especially speak to me and my background in landscape architecture. The natural environment—soil, trees, flowers, and water—ground me and continue to be my major influence and inspiration.  

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