Lots of Little Pictures, Little Space

New York Times


When Rachel Hudgins decided to turn a longtime hobby of photographing friends’ children into a career, she left Los Angeles and her job in the film industry and moved East, to be closer to the photography world in New York City.

She knew that trading her 2,000-square-foot Hollywood home for an apartment would mean paring down her belongings, and she had no problem with that. Getting rid of furnishings and objects she no longer loved was easy: “What was me at one point was not me today,” said Ms. Hudgins, 44, who moved into an 800-square-foot rental in Jersey City, for which she pays $1,800 a month, in 2008.

But Ms. Hudgins, who helped produce several of Richard Gere’s films, had also spent countless hours helping him with his fine-art photography collection, and had assembled a collection of her own in the process. And she had no intention of parting with it — the question was how to make it work in her new space.

Her idea was to display it on the walls of her stairwell, which functions as an entry hall. But the prospect of sorting through a collection of some 60 photographs and a dozen paintings, and then figuring out how to arrange them, was daunting.

“It was just going to be huge,” she said. “It could go so wrong. I have such an eclectic mix of stuff — flea market pictures, fine art photographs and old mirrors. If I put it up in the wrong way or don’t group it well, it would be a mess.”

To get help figuring out “what stays, what goes and how to arrange it all,” Ms. Hudgins responded to a notice in The New York Times (that is no longer running) offering to assist people with small decorating budgets by matching them with professional designers. David Kassel, the owner of ILevel, an art installation and design consultancy in Manhattan whose clients include museums and photography dealers, volunteered his time (although Ms. Hudgins did pay for his staff members’ services).

Ms. Hudgins sent a reporter an e-mail listing several of her goals: creating “an entry way that makes me happy”; dealing “with all the coats/gloves/umbrellas/outerwear that are new to me having come from Southern California”; not having to put any of her art in storage, “since I am on such a budget”; and finding a way to “enjoy my collected life, without it making me crazy.”

She had $1,500 to spend, and at their first meeting last winter, Mr. Kassel estimated the cost of his company’s services would be $560.

“Unless you decide to buy a gold-plated coat rack, you’re going to come in way under,” he said.

In fact, a gold-plated rack might be worth considering, he joked. That’s “what I want that entranceway to be,” he said. “I want it to be killer.”

He asked whether Ms. Hudgins had a specific vision, and she produced magazine clippings showing a salon-style display of artwork and objects in the interior designer Thomas O’Brien’s apartment.

“Maybe this is a way to live with a bunch of junk and make it look good,” she said, adding that her taste was similar to Mr. O’Brien’s. “My vibe is pretty masculine.”

“Is that something you want to keep?” Mr. Kassel asked.

“I’m really open,” Ms. Hudgins said, turning toward the stairway. “At one point I was thinking of painting that wall pink.”

Mr. Kassel said he liked the existing color, a rich brown, but stated that if she was considering pink, she should go with the lightest shade she could find.

“I was thinking pink a while ago, but I don’t know I’m thinking pink now,” she replied.

Mr. Kassel asked about the idea of a yellow for the adjoining wall that is immediately visible from the front door.

“If we paint that wall yellow,” she countered defensively, the stairway wall “is not staying brown.”

“Why not?” Mr. Kassel asked. “And I haven’t even said what yellow.”

Ms. Hudgins had pulled everything she wanted to display from her storage unit, and together they examined each piece.

Mr. Kassel said he would like to see the light fixture in the entry replaced with something softer and proposed a few ideas for storing items like shoes and leashes for Jake, Ms. Hudgins’s Australian shepherd, adding that whatever type of coat rack she chose would look good.

“It’s really about how we’re going to hang and arrange the art,” he said. “That’s what all these empty walls are about. The coat stand is going to be full of coats. You’re not going to even see the coat stand so much.”

Rather than reassure her, this idea seemed to unsettle her, and her mood became increasingly dour. “I do need that stuff there,” she told him when he suggested removing some of the storage from the hallway. “That’s why it’s there.”

She was clearly unhappy, but would not explain why, even after Mr. Kassel asked several times. “We come into someone’s home and you see someone pick up your things, and move them around — you’re kind of in a vulnerable position,” he said. “If I’m suggesting something you feel is intrusive, please speak up and let me know.”

“Ultimately, there’s no right or wrong,” he continued, remaining upbeat. “And you have to live with it. And if you want to do something that I think looks terrible, we’ll absolutely do it. It’s your home.”

He would return with assistants several days later to hang everything, he told her. “Then, we can measure and say, ‘This is the size coat rack.’ ”

“Great,” Ms. Hudgins responded dryly.

The next day, Ms. Hudgins sent Mr. Kassel an e-mail, announcing that she wanted to postpone the art installation.

In “the spirit of not wasting anyone’s time,” she wrote, “I want to clearly define what I am hoping for in this process.” Instead, however, she offered another general description of her design sensibility, reiterating her affinity for Mr. O’Brien’s aesthetic.

She concluded: “I want it to be impactful when you open the door, so we need to know what is going there to solve the function problems. Then we can pick mirrors and pictures that make sense.”

Mr. Kassel responded politely that he thought the best way to proceed was to fit the functional elements around the art, which “was the main design element under consideration,” but agreed to work in whatever way suited Ms. Hudgins.

When pressed later by a reporter, Ms. Hudgins admitted that she was skeptical about Mr. Kassel’s design skills because several of his suggestions had seemed to show a lack of understanding of her taste. “An art installer is a great element to this makeover, because I have so much art,” she said. “But I really don’t think he was prepared to solve the real problems.”

She also mentioned that she had been upset that Mr. Kassel, who routinely handles some of the country’s finest art collections, hadn’t been more complimentary about her pieces.

“Call me a brat, but people usually come to my apartment, my house in Los Angeles, and they kind of get lost because they love looking at everything,” she said. “Instead of saying, ‘There’s so much possibility there,’ he said, ‘Can you put your coats in the closet, and how about you put your shoes in the bathroom?’ ”

For his part, when informed of his client’s desire for specific furnishing suggestions, Mr. Kassel said he wished she had asked him directly. “She’s coming from a place of mistrust,” he said. “It’s almost like she’s testing to see how far do I want to go down this road with this person before I reject them.”

“This should be fun for her,” he added. “If it’s not, what’s the point?”

WHEN Ms. Hudgins arrived at Mr. Kassel’s Manhattan office for their second meeting, the designer presented three concepts for the entry hall: a Shaker-style coat rack on the walls facing and alongside the door, on which she could hang not just coats but dog leashes and “other three-dimensional pieces”; a console table with several containers underneath to hold shoes, winter accessories and dog toys; and a textured wall covered in cork wallpaper and painted with horizontal stripes as a backdrop for either the coat rack or the console table. (The stripes would give the room “a landscape,” Mr. Kassel said, “and make it feel a little bit bigger.”) Along with each scheme, the designer presented images of furnishings he had found online.

Then he presented several paint swatches, and Ms. Hudgins decided on a purplish gray-brown called Dark Basalt. “It’s one of those colors that I’ve been thinking about,” she said. “My photography would look great on that.”

Once the color was chosen, everything else fell into place. For storage, they agreed on a Parsons-style table with baskets underneath. Ms. Hudgins said she wanted to install white hooks with a vintage look; Mr. Kassel persuaded her to mount the hooks on wood molding and paint the other walls a light gray.

“You know what’s interesting from my perspective?” he said at the end of the meeting. “You’re a visual person. You’ve had these ideas about color. You said you’re really into Parsons tables.” But “getting you involved in that process — to say that,” he added, “has itself been a process.”

Over the next few weeks, Mr. Kassel helped her select frames for two of her photographs, which she had been persuaded to include in the arrangement. He also found an inexpensive alternative to quartz for the top of the console and did not complain when, after he had presented her with more than 10 container options — ranging from industrial baskets and vintage trunks to a “French Bordeaux canvas bag” — she asked for more.

She is “not completely atypical of some design customers we have,” he said, adding that he had a strategy for dealing with them.

“We kill them with kindness,” he said. “Our approach is to yes them and go along, and at some point, they’ll either come to understand that we’re there to help them and they will listen to our suggestions, or we’ll end up with a synthesis of what they want and our advice.”

Once the installation was complete, Ms. Hudgins was ecstatic. “I’m so excited — thrilled, really,” she said. “I think it’s a great high-low mix.”

Visitors have had the same reaction. Shortly after the project was done, a fire alarm went off, and “all the firemen came up here,” she said. “They were like, ‘This place is amazing.’ ”

And working with a design professional, Ms. Hudgins said, has helped her learn more about herself.

“What this showed me is that I have a really specific point of view,” she said. “And I probably need to ease up a little bit.”

What it Cost

Ms. Hudgins’s budget was $1,500; here is how it was spent, with pretax prices rounded off. David Kassel, the owner of ILevel Art Placement + Installation, donated his services (normally, his company charges $280 a person for the first four hours of art hanging and arranging, and $70 a person for each additional hour).

Custom framing of two photographs in white, flat-front, 23 1/2-inch-square wood frames by Excel Art & Framing, $400

Rematting of two photographs by Gallerie Hudson, $100

Benjamin Moore Natura paint (two gallons in Dark Basalt, a gallon and a quart in Touch of Gray) from Janovic Paint, $165

Painting services by local painter, $300

Parsons Custom Table base (14 by 48 by 34 inches) with Indoor Natural Steel tubing (1 1/2 inches wide) from Room & Board (shipping included), $350

Pine planks (two 14-by-48-by- 3/4-inch pieces) for tabletop, from Lowe’s, $30

Valspar high-gloss white paint for tabletop (one quart) from Lowe’s, $8

Zinc hooks (32 in style 10603VB) from, $115

3M 220-grit sandpaper (one sheet) to prep hooks, from Home Depot, $5

Rust-Oleum Satin White Universal spray paint for hooks (one 12-ounce can) from Home Depot, $14

Poplar lumber for hook molding (three 4-by-8-foot pieces) from Home Depot, $30

Production and installation of coat rack and installation of art by ILevel staff, $560

Large rectangular Hyacinth woven basket with lid from Aero, $75

TOTAL: $2,152