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Originally published January 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 4, 2013 at 12:17 PM

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Blank wall can become work of art, without angst

Design experts offer advice on how to decorate a wall the easy way.

New York Times News Service

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When I met my future wife, I lived in an apartment where the entire wall décor consisted of a patch of Spackle shaped like Mr. Peanut — and which, once named, clearly could not be painted.

My minimalist approach was the result of poverty, laziness and deep ignorance of all things design-related. And although marriage changed none of these conditions, it did result in our walls being magically filled with pleasant-looking stuff.

So when my younger daughter recently asked to swap her bedroom for my office, I saw it as a chance to answer a nagging question: How can a lazy person with design ignorance and a tight budget fill blank walls tastefully? (Note to daughter: I’m referring to myself.)

To find the answer, I asked three people who know how to fill walls on an artist’s budget: Fritz Horstman, an interdisciplinary artist based in Bethany, Conn.; Karin Tehve, a professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and owner of the design firm KT3D; and Stephen Horner, who owns MediumBase Design, a lighting-design firm, also in Brooklyn.

For others looking to fill a wall quickly and cheaply, my panelists suggested a few simple but creative touches. It also helps, they said, not to try to copy something out of a design magazine.

“Your house is an intimate expression of who you are,” Tehve said. “So you want to make it into something that looks wonderful without applying an artificial idea of décor.”

If you have only an hour before relatives arrive for a party, Tehve suggested gathering mismatched and unframed family photos. From there, she said: “You need an ordering device so they fit together in some way. It could be as dumb as a piece of colored gaffer’s tape that aligns the tops or bottoms of the photos.”

To find the right place, she said, pick a spot on the wall to center the photos two inches below the center of your vision. (Keep in mind that gaffer’s tape might permanently stick after a week.) In design-school terms, this establishes a datum, or a linear element that controls other objects. The datum can be visible or not, and it applies to anything you might attach to a wall.

The tape approach is especially good if you lack the money, time or expertise to frame something. If you are leery of marring the photos, as I was, put a layer of magnetic tape on top of the gaffer’s tape and affix small magnets to the backs.

Another option is a vinyl frame, like those produced by Butch & Harold. They cling to walls without harming surfaces, and are sold in packages of varied, mostly whimsical designs. They’re a nice choice for family photos that might not deserve a $100 frame, among other things.

Of course, this is a challenge for people like me, whose family photos are stuck in an iPhone. But Tehve said that even smartphone photos can be printed in larger formats for less money than you might expect.

The main consideration is whether a photo on a phone is dense enough to print in a large format. I tested three printing services and achieved good results, fairly quickly, for around $30 per image.

Staples offers trial prints at the store and while-you-wait service (20-by-30-inch prints cost $29). Online services can be cheaper if you have the time. I tried Adoramapix.com and received sharper prints for $25 each.

Finally, I ordered two images from Aluminyze.com, which prints digital photos on scratch-resistant aluminum. This was by far the most expensive option, but the quality was excellent. (A 20-by-30 photo costs $189 with shipping.)

For a less-expensive nonphoto option, chalkboard paint (Benjamin Moore, $22 per quart) offers family members and visitors a way to personalize a wall section.

Meanwhile, if you have a much bigger space to fill, think fabric, and attach it to a piece of wood trim to create a clean line across the top.

Horstman also suggested building a rectangle frame from two-by-fours, but we opted for the simpler approach and attached an oversize batik to a stained piece of trim with Velcro tape. If we had calculated cost-per-square-foot-covered, this approach would have been the most efficient and easily the most striking.

That is, if it were properly placed on a wall.

When it comes to laying out artwork, Horstman said focus on two elements: rhythm and lighting. For spatial rhythm, he suggested the photographer’s “rule of thirds,” whereby you align two subjects where the frame would divide into thirds.

If you have multiple photos, you might place a cluster at one of those two points, and a smaller cluster at the other. “That way, from a distance it does something,” he said, “but up close you can see these things are together for some reason.”

I had found cool designs online, where multiple photos were clipped to hanging cables you might find in a museum, and I figured such a system would be costly and hard to install. I was wrong.

Two basic wall-hanging systems, from STAS and Gallery System, were fairly inexpensive and required less than a half-hour to install. Of the two, the one from STAS was less expensive (about $100 to cover a roughly 13-foot span with track, cables and clips, versus about $175 for the GalleryOne).

The advantage of these systems is you can change the space without tearing up the wall, but the “cables,” which come in metal or clear plastic, may not appeal to everyone.

The Gallery System can be ordered with track lighting, and it’s serious museum-quality, but considerably more expensive ($580 to cover the same 13-foot span of wall). More important, you need several hours to install it and electrical skills or an electrician to help.

It was a good choice for me, though, because my room lacked a ceiling-based electrical box for conventional track lighting, which Horstman strongly recommended for its versatility.

Horner, meanwhile, advocated dimmers and an approach that includes different types of light on the walls for a “layered” effect. You want people’s eyes drawn to your décor, he said, not to a glaring light source.

If new fixtures are not feasible, Horner said “puck”-style lights (Ramsta light, $4, from Ikea) — which are battery-powered LED lamps — are useful, especially if they’re hidden.

I built a shelf in an hour with two narrow planks of wood and fixed lights beneath it with adhesive backing. The process was cheap, and the effect was interesting.

When the tracks and lights were in place and my photos were spray-glued to foam-core board, I sketched out some lines on a piece of paper and put everything up in a half-hour.

Beholding the clutter, I was immediately grateful for the clip-on system, and for Horstman’s final bit of advice.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing, you might end up doing too much, so practice restraint,” he said. “Trust your instincts, but be minimal in it.”


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