Custom Art is Helping High-End Homeowners Paint a Clearer Picture

May 2020

The Wall Street Journal
by Christina Poletto

When Jason Saft, a real-estate agent at Compass and founder of Staged to Sell Home, was called in to style a $2.495 million apartment at 44 Gramercy Park North in Manhattan that was about to be listed, one of his first moves was to take inventory of the artwork and fill in the blanks.

For the home’s drab foyer, Mr. Saft commissioned the work of Chicago-based fine artist Josh Young, known for his provocative printed portraits featuring a signature hand-painted slash of color across the face. Mr. Saft, himself an artist, also created a custom piece for the foyer. In the master bedroom, Mr. Saft and his team culled artwork from around the apartment to create a new gallery of framed pictures for above the bed.

Tired of searching in vain for just the right piece to complement a room or home, real-estate agents and homeowners alike have caught the custom-art bug. Sellers are commissioning specially designed works to set the right tone in high-end listings, and owners and interior designers are hiring artists to create pieces to work with the existing décor.

Rachel Bickerton, an artist and one of Mr. Saft’s Compass colleagues, is becoming well-known for custom acrylic and charcoal artworks created for staging projects throughout Manhattan. Mr. Saft asked her to create a custom piece of artwork at a $2.75 million loft condo on East 20th Street in Manhattan. He wanted something that would bring contrast to the home’s strong, linear design but harmonized with the space’s minimalist color palette.

“We wanted to add some curvature and femininity to the space,” said Mr. Saft. The result was a sensuous nude print that cost $1,000. Once the space sells, Mr. Saft intends to keep the art for subsequent projects.

“Custom art can be a great tool to attract buyers as it adds to the allure of originality and exclusivity,” said Mr. Saft.

When potential buyers view multiple listings, Mr. Saft says, they often see the same generic artwork hanging in every model apartment, but “original pieces stand out in a crowded sea of sameness,” he said. The practice of creating site-specific art or curated art installations is also a great way to help affluent buyers envision how they might create a private gallery space in the home.

Mara Flash Blum, an associate broker with Sotheby’s International Realty, and Richard Grossman, president of Halstead Real Estate, both believe that powerful art pieces can successfully boost a home’s value.

“Art by a well-known artist can also lend a cachet to the property, which is particularly important in higher-end listings,” said Mr. Grossman. Both Ms. Blum and Mr. Grossman have worked directly with artists and galleries for staging and open-house art tours. “Walking into a home with high ceilings and a 9-foot high Christopher Wool painting in the foyer is very dramatic—and it certainly says someone successful lives here. That statement resonates with high-end buyers,” said Mr. Grossman.

Leonard Steinberg, a broker with Compass in New York City, said that showcasing art is an important real-estate marketing tool in general. Mr. Steinberg is selling a $10 million, three-bedroom condo at 100 East 53rd Street that has been staged using pieces by Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly and John Chamberlain from real-estate investor Aby Rosen’s private collection. Art from New York-based Yossi Milo Gallery adorns the walls in a 2,015-square-foot condo located at 152 Elizabeth Street in Manhattan, on the market for $5.985 million, also a Compass listing.

Interior designer Amy Lau hired artist James Kennedy to create this large custom painting, titled “Lunette Composition.” The work was inspired by the views in this Manhattan penthouse and the owner’s love of jazz music. PHOTO: JOSHUA MCHUGH
Interior designer Amy Lau hired artist James Kennedy to create this large custom painting, titled “Lunette Composition.” The work was inspired by the views in this Manhattan penthouse and the owner’s love of jazz music. PHOTO: JOSHUA MCHUGH

Art-curation firms, like Creative Art Partners out of Los Angeles, have also found a lucrative niche in the luxury real-estate market by leasing customized fine-art collections to residential developments, luxury high-rise projects, individual CEOs for their offices, and homeowners.

Brian Ludlow, president and founder of CAP, says that since launching in 2017, the company has doubled its revenue each year. Commercial and luxury high-rise projects currently have a year-long lead time. It now operates in multiple cities including New York and San Francisco. Last fall, CAP curated and leased $1 million of fine art staged in a Beverly Hills listing that sold for $70 million. The new owners also purchased the art, said Mr. Ludlow.

“Our goal is to always curate a collection that the new homeowners couldn’t imagine living without,” said Mr. Ludlow. “Yet we’re always pleasantly surprised when one of our art collections sells with a home because art is incredibly subjective and so is its curation.”

For design professionals, custom-made art is a great way to get a piece that reflects not only a home but the owner as well. For one Manhattan East End Avenue penthouse, New York City interior designer Amy Lau hired artist James Kennedy to create a custom abstract oil painting for a client’s formal living area.

Mr. Kennedy took style cues from the textured fabrics, rugs and other design elements within Ms. Lau’s Brutalist-inspired design scheme, which includes a Paul Evans-style lamp and the pair of custom bronze coffee tables by Silas Seandel. The dynamic cityscape outside led Mr. Kennedy to christen the 75½-by-65-inch piece “Lunette Composition,” a nod to the French word for window. Mr. Kennedy’s piece—the interplay of clean lines and spatial objects—drew on the client’s affinity for jazz music.

“Architecture is often described as frozen music, and music as liquid architecture, and in the final stages of the commission [the owners] input was certainly an informative voice in my head,” said Mr. Kennedy, who constructed the piece in three months.

Ellen Catanzaro, a painter and textile designer out of Chadds Ford, Pa., spends up to six weeks creating commissioned pieces, which are priced from $2,500 to $4,500. Some of her designs have evolved into a line of textiles, wallpapers and pillows.

Mrs. Catanzaro begins by meeting the client at their home. “I get to know them, their home and their style. Then I tell them to erase any expectations, because I’m not even sure how it will look! And it has worked.”

Despite uncertainty, the approach works for clients who seek stronger connections to their belongings. “People love to have art that reminds them of a place they love, or has meaning to them.” Currently, Mrs. Catanzaro is doing virtual house calls.

For one client’s home renovation project in Mountain Brook, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, designer Dana Wolter decided to update existing art from the home’s entryway for display in the husband’s newly refurbished lounge.

“It is a place to call his own where he can relax, watch football, and drink a little Bourbon with friends,” said Ms. Wolter, who outfitted the space with dark, moody walls, textured gray sheer drapes and a modern-day bar.

The painting, created by Birmingham artist Maggie Grier, was purchased for the home’s entryway in 2016, and originally exhibited more vivid hues. Ms. Wolter and the client felt it would integrate seamlessly in the new lounge, so long as the colors could be tweaked to complement the darker, masculine environment.

Ms. Grier toned down the piece’s turquoise accents and added gray, which took about four weeks to complete. “I didn’t drastically alter it, more like I continued it,” said Ms. Grier. She said it is the only piece she’s updated and that “changing it to look best in its new location made sense.” Her noncommissioned paintings cost around $8,000.

San Francisco designer Noz Nozawa took on a project in a 19th-century Pacific Heights Victorian in November that had a 14-foot-by-12-foot front parlor space with dated buttercream yellow walls and hefty furniture. The assignment: design an atmosphere in which its owners could read and relax or share a cocktail hour with friends. It also needed an injection of art, badly.

Ms. Nozawa hired local decorative artist Caroline Lizarraga to create custom “statement” walls for the space. “We kept the glaze darker around the perimeter and as we get closer to the middle we keep it lighter and to give a more dramatic effect,” said Ms. Lizarraga, who charged $25 a square foot for the custom application. It was accentuated by a necklace of brass resin drips descending from the top of the 9-foot-high walls. “The brass resin has to be done quickly, so you only have a few minutes to get it on the wall,” she said.

According to Ms. Nozawa, the hue aligned with the turquoises and teals in the client’s rug and new sofa. The burnished wash application also resembles the warm wood of the client’s Tansu chest.

Ms. Lizarraga said she frequently works with a project’s architect, designer, homeowner, or restaurant owner early in the design process. “As they start picking fabrics or tiles, then we are asked to design a finish that works with all the elements. That way it really brings the room together. Each client then gets something unique that they won’t find anywhere else,” said Ms. Lizarraga.

For Mr. Saft, the agent who stages homes through his company in New York, custom art done specifically for a home or home buyer offers the most intimate connection to the work.

“When selecting art for a design project, I consider the location of the home, the home’s age and history, and who the audience is buying the home,” Mr. Saft said. “The interesting thing about creating site-specific pieces is the inspiration that home gives you.”