Crowded Museum Spurs New Appreciation for 3-D Design

By Marni Jameson

Last weekend, while in New York trying to stay out of the freezing drizzle, DC and I, along with half of Manhattan, ducked into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The packed museum seemed more so because visitors were bundled in coats, hats and scarves. Each body was twice its normal size, so you felt as if you were in a crowd of corndogs. Thus, the art of seeing art turned into a combat sport. When I tired of jockeying between the padded players, dodging, tackling, craning my neck, extending on tiptoes, and inserting myself like a comma to catch a glimpse of Van Gogh’s “Cypresses,” I gravitated away from the walls toward the salons’ centers, where I discovered, or rediscovered, the beauty of sculpture.

The museum’s many sculptures were blessedly surrounded by air, enough space to appreciate them.

So, while others formed a gaggle around John Singer Sargent’s “Madame X,” I could take in Degas’s “The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer,” in bronze, from all sides.

And so I have the grim New York weather and a thick Sunday crowd to thank for my renewed appreciation of three-dimensional art. I left the New York Met that afternoon wondering why we don’t do more with sculpture in our homes.

Now I’m not talking about installing Michelangelo’s David or Rodin’s Thinker in the living room, but sculpture by definition is any figurative object that is lovely to look at from a variety of angles, that can be seen in the round, or half round, and that can bring depth and dimension to a room that flat art simply can’t.

I had to call someone to talk about this.

“I love when a piece of art is not just flat,” said my friend Christopher Grubb, a Beverly Hills designer whose rooms, to my eye, always manage to strike a perfect pitch. “Sculptural objects do what paintings can’t by giving that third dimension. They have a richness of shadowing, and give a room visual relief.”

“So sculpture is to painting what television is to live theater,” I added, getting carried away as usual.

“Sculpture feels more personal because it shares your space,” he said.

“But why is installing sculpture in a home so intimidating?”

“When you frame a work and hang it on the wall, you tell the world, ‘I think this is important,’ but set it out in three dimensions, and you’re saying, ‘I think this is super, super important,’” he said.

And that can quickly cool creative courage.

“The idea of adding sculpture makes people nervous,” added Grubb, “because they think it needs to be a Roman bust or a Giacometti piece, something that should be in a museum. But sculpture is anything that cuts through space.”

“Like a great chandelier,” I said.

“Or a fantastic lamp base,” he added.

“An arching orchid.”

“A side table of twisted wood.”

“An architectural fragment.”

And, of course, a statue.

When designing a room, most of us think in terms of backgrounds (floors and walls), furniture and wall art. And while that can pull a room together well enough, what really punctuates a space, I decided in that overcrowded museum, is sculpture. We all could use a little more depth.

Here are some tips from Grubb to help you perfectly place sculptural objects at home, and suggestions on where you might add some 3-D design:

  • Don’t have too many. One sculptural item is fabulous. Three can be overkill, says Grubb. “I often tell my clients, not everything can say, ‘look at me, look at me.’ You want to avoid too much visual competition. A good designer knows when to turn it down.”
  • Give sculpture breathing room. Not putting enough air around a piece of sculpture is another common mistake. Think of how museums display sculptures. They need room to breathe.
  • Avoid busy backgrounds. For a sculptural object’s silhouette to be appreciated, it needs to be seen against a plain field. Try not to set them against patterned prints or busy bookcases, though small sculptures set in a bookcase a can look great.
  • Give it light. The best light for most sculptural pieces is diffuse daylight. Second best is a well-placed art light. Beware of up lights, which can cast awkward shadows.
  • Don’t impede traffic. Putting a sculpture in the middle of a home’s traffic zone is asking for trouble. Even if they’re out of the way, consider stabilizing fragile pieces with museum mount.
  • Place with proportion in mind. A sculpture that is too small, too low, or too big for a space will look off. Trust your eye. If a piece needs a boost, elevate it with blocks or a pedestal.
  • Find prime 3-D real estate. Here are some spots to consider placing sculptural art at home: on a table or pedestal, in a niche designed to display objects, on a hearth or mantel, on a shelf, on the floor, or in the garden.

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the newly released Downsizing the Family Home – What to Save, What to Let Go (Sterling Publishing 2016). You may reach her at