How to Design Around a New Painting

I fell in love online recently — with a piece of art. I was on an auction site, and up came an oil painting of an artichoke, and I was completely wowed. It seemed so unusual, and yet so classic at the same time. I knew I had to have it.

I did a bit of research on the artist, and that made me love it even more. (A great piece is a great piece, but I’m always on the hunt for a great piece with a great story.) The painting is by Henry Koehler, an American artist that’s one of the finest sporting artists in the world, famous mostly for his equestrian and sailing work. He’s been collected by the wealthy and royal, designed a stamp for the US Postal Service, and even been commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy. But he’s got an odd obsession with artichokes — his home is practically an artichoke museum — and he’s been painting that passion for more than 40 years.

There’s much more to like than the provenance. The colors are amazing. The green is such a vibrant shade, and the details are so precise. The white background is striking, and the light red artichoke is truly arresting. It turns out that it’s not an artist’s fancy; it’s a variety called “baby anzio,” which only grows to an inch across. (And, guess what, it’s from the Lazio region of Italy; I seem to find Italy even when I’m not looking.) Maybe I went a little crazy with my research, but I really wanted to understand this painting. It’s not every day you see a vegetable treated with such reverence.

The next task was to figure out how in the world I would design a modernist/realist portrait of an artichoke into an interior setting. As a designer, I’m lucky that I can buy all this great stuff and have the challenge of designing with them in my own house for a while before I sell it to some very lucky person. And, except for the selling part, that’s exactly what I’ve done. (Though if you’re as in love as I am, it will be for sale soon.)

Aside from the subject matter, the shape is unique — you just don’t see that many round paintings. But it’s actually an advantage over the typical rectangle, because you don’t have to be as concerned about edges lining up with the architecture of the room. Just know that any round piece of art — because of its shape alone — will draw the eye more than something with right angles. Maybe it’s from our ancestors staring up at the moon for eons.

Since the subject is edible, the kitchen seemed the place to start my design process. I took down the piece over my cooktop and hung the artichoke there. Maybe hanging a picture of food in the kitchen is a little easy, but this piece makes such a statement that it changed the look of the whole room. My kitchen walls are a shade of dusty blue, and there’s just enough blue in the stark white background of the painting to tie it all together. I’d also love to see it against a green wall or on an accent wall of red. (Through the magic of Photoshop, I’ve done just that in the picture at the top of your page.)

A is for Apple, but could be for Artichoke in a room of rich green.

It also seems to be perfect for a breakfast nook and is strong enough (on the right background wall color) that it could carry a dining room easily. I’m imagining a cool space with a very traditional table and chairs, with this divine thing hovering over them. I could even see it hanging over the bed in a guest room, with the whole room done in green fabrics. It’s delightfully unexpected, don’t you think?

But for now, I’m quite enjoying it in my kitchen. I can look at it while I’m searching auction sites for one of Koehler’s sporting dog paintings.


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