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Home is where the art is
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Buying pictures can be daunting but more people want to include art along with soft furnishings when creating a particular style in their homes, writes Sally Staples. The popularity of Art 97 - the London Contemporary Art Fair, sponsored by `The Independent', showed that you can be an enthusiast without being an expert. There are plenty of serious collectors about but today novice buyers are increasing their share of the market. Whether pictures are bought from galleries or by mail order, what is hanging on your walls really matters.

Step into the Armani Emporium in Knightsbridge looking unkempt and casual in an inexpensive sort of way and your faltering steps to the clothes' rails will be frozen by a designer grande dame asking icily if she can help you.

What of course she really means is: "Haven't you walked into the wrong shop?" No matter that you may have an American Express Gold Card nestling in your Gucci purse. If you don't look the part, the unwritten rule for the staff is to intimidate you.

Most of us have experienced this where clothes are concerned. But does the same thing happen in art galleries? In the snobbish world of culture is the novice picture buyer simply too nervous to make enquiries for fear of being thought a fool?

Lindsay Butler, who runs the Coram Gallery in London, which exhibits contemporary work, believes some heavyweight galleries can seem very daunting. "If you look through the window and see a rather stern-faced girl sitting at an empty desk with just one picture on the wall and nothing else in the room at all it can be rather difficult to make an approach," she says.

"We try to be friendly, explain where things are and then leave people alone. When customers buy a painting they do like to take away the artist's CV and they enjoy talking about their `discovery'. It is good dinner party chat and people do seem to want that anecdotal quality about pictures they buy. Many customers have no knowledge of art but I hope they don't feel intimidated when they come to browse."

A number of Lindsay's clients are barristers from surrounding legal chambers and they often come in search of something that will complement their homes. "People do think very hard about where they will hang a picture before buying it. We had a chap in the other week who didn't decide to buy until he had gone home to measure the space above the sofa."

So how about the unthreatening world of mail order art? Joanna Prosser, a buyer for Art Room, a mail order outfit, believes that many people who want to buy pictures are profoundly intimidated by experts who will slyly ridicule their ignorance or rip them off. She is in the business of bringing art to people who don't necessarily know a Degas from a Dali but who want to furnish their houses with pretty prints of famous works.

But pictures are not the only feature. You may be after a framed print of Monet's Sunlight Under the Poplars or then again you might prefer a shower curtain depicting Botticelli's Venus complete with scallop shell curtain rings or even a pair of Mona Lisa boxer shorts. The Art Room catalogue aims to please everyone from the purist to the joker. A tall order perhaps, but so far Ms Prosser claims it is doing very well. And indeed there are plans to expand into Europe.

Art Room has been running for three years and produces four catalogues annually. It is owned by Historical Collections, the company behind Past Times, the highly successful chain store where people browse through enchanting Victorian knick knacks in cosy surroundings to the sound of mediaeval plainsong.

Joanna, who works as a buyer for Art Room, says that Past Times originally perceived a niche in the market for framed pictures of quality. "There was a gap between people who wanted a limited edition print from a gallery and those who bought pictures of lurid floral scenes in department stores.

"There is a huge market for furnishing homes and people are very nervous about pictures. A lot of what is available is a rip-off and you see photographic prints selling at pounds 40 when they are not worth more than pounds 5.

"The Art Room catalogue is there for people who are looking for the drawings of Michelangelo and it is there for someone who wants a picture to match the pink curtains. And what is wrong with that?"

This is borne out by the variety of products. The catalogue offers a framed reproduction of Michelangelo's central panel of the Sistine Chapel for pounds 115. Unframed it is pounds 29.95 which is the same price as a pair of Leonardo cuff-links depicting the artist's "Study for the Proportions of the Human Body".

You can order a Mona Lisa cushion that chuckles when you squeeze it (pounds 19.95) or, if you prefer surrealism, how about a cushion that shows Munch's The Scream? And yes, it does scream when you sit on it.

There is even a magnetic version of Michelangelo's David which stands just eight inches high and comes complete with varying sets of stick-on clothes. There is sporty David, casual David and even drag queen David. Well if it gets kids into art galleries, perhaps it is forgivable.

Joanna says there are very few complaints about the Art Room products. Those who are sniffy about some of their lines are divided into two categories, she says. Firstly there are the purists who object to the way some paintings are framed and protest, for example, that oil paintings should not have mounts. Then there are those who feel some of the marketing is disrespectful and find it upsetting to see the Sistine Chapel emblazoned on the inside of an umbrella. But carping is minimal.

The catalogues slip out of such august magazines as Harpers & Queen, World of Interiors and Vogue. Art Room's research has indicated that people who buy pictures from galleries do not necessarily regard mail-order art as down-market.

Although 95 per cent of the business is mail order the Art Room does have a shop in Guildford, Surrey, which sells a wider range of goods, from postcards of Old Masters and Alma Tadema posters to jigsaws of Vermeer's Lacemaker, Lloyd Wright scarves, Joan Mir sponges and even a pop-up book of Botticelli characters, which ostensibly can aid the GCSE history of art student. Though quite where one would put a 26 inch reproduction of the Venus de Milo (price: pounds 175) is not immediately obvious.

If you buy a print from the Art Room catalogue it will arrive with a short history of the painter, his work and where you can go to see it printed on the back. This, says Joanna, may well embolden the novice art collector to venture into a gallery and increase his knowledge.

"Our aim is to demystify art," she explains. It is, in a way, rather like Sainsbury's attempts to demystify wine by telling customers which wines are dry and which full bodied and which goes well with fish or spaghetti. And many a grateful drinker might echo the Art Room philosophy: "What is wrong with that?"

The Art Room catalogue can be obtained by telephoning 01993-770444.