She's so twentieth century

Contemporary art has never been cooler, but can your interior take it? Be bold, says Katherine Sorrell

Katherine Sorrell
Saturday 09 August 1997 23:02

These days, accommodating art in your home can be tricky. A nice Monet or Turner print, now that's one thing - the pastel tones will go with the wallpaper and there is nothing too challenging to contend with. But what happens when your taste leans towards a more current look - a sculpture that's as big as a house, for example, or a pickled cow? Art is highly individual and there are no easy answers. A few general guidelines, however, may assist those who are interested in pursuing modern rather than old masters.

Take Samantha Denny's loft space in Shoreditch, which doubles as her home and a gallery for contemporary artists. Although the place is filled with huge, brightly coloured canvasses and sculptures (there's no exhibition on at the moment, so most of the work on display is by Sam and her partner, James Dean) it is also a comfortable living area, providing an illuminating example of how to display eye-catching modern art in a real-life sitting room.

What's more, creating "Sam's Salon" did not take a great deal of money; there is nothing pretentious or expensive about the interior of this former shoe factory. Much of the furniture, including doors, kitchen shelving and even a towel rail and ironing board, was scavenged from skips. A junk shop provided an elegant 1956 sideboard, and the ancient sofas and chairs are covered in artists' canvas and dustsheets. The only evidence of any sort of designer influence can be seen in the bench and side table by hip furniture trio, Jam, who happen to be friends of Sam's and whose pieces, in any case, are constructed using recycled materials.

"It's all very laid-back," says Sam. "When people come to look round I give them a cup of tea and try to carry on as normal. It's a very relaxing way of buying art. My main principle is having white walls and really plain furniture, so you haven't got things battling against each other. Then, I think, you can do pretty much what you want when it comes to hanging and positioning. Look at the scale of the wall and the scale of the piece and see what works. Just because you've got a large canvas doesn't mean it has to hang all by itself on a huge wall. I often put large pieces quite close together, which makes an impact."

Sam hangs her canvases using mirror plates either side, which screws them flat to the wall and means they will remain straight. They are then also easy to illuminate, with halogen uplighters which she simply unplugs and moves around. She keeps frames as simple as possible, partly because they could detract from bolder work, and partly due to their expense. She advises either no frame at all or a plain wooden one painted in a strong colour that complements the picture. Anything delicate, however, should be under glass.

But what about less conventional modern art? Would it be possible to show a Damien Hirst or a Rachel Whiteread in your suburban semi? Art dealer Richard Salmon's answer is an emphatic yes, with one obvious proviso. "There is a practical question of size. You can't accommodate a Hirst double glass box sculpture with dead cows in it in a room that's 10ft by 12ft. But modern artists do make work that is perfectly domestic in size, and if you can get it through the front door you shouldn't worry about finding somewhere for it to live."

Salmon is well qualified to comment on displaying cutting-edge art. As a gallery owner he specialises in 20th-century masters and young contemporaries, and he has been involved, through a previous gallery, with the careers of the now infamous Hirst and Whiteread. Salmon firmly believes that if you are passionate about a work then you will love living with it, wherever and however it is displayed. Frame it unobtrusively, light it in the way you want to see it and hang it (or prop it) anywhere that's practical; the rest is down to the quality of the work itself, he says.

"Modern art is no different to any other type of art in terms of how you show it and how you experience it," he says. "You should worry about your relationship with the art, not where you'll put it. If it's a fantastic thing that you have bought because you want it in your life then it will work out. If you've got a huge white space, a large abstract painting might look very striking, but if you've got a tiny room you could fill a whole wall with works of art and that painting would still look amazing." Exactly the same feelings motivate Sam, who is looking forward to providing a home for a concrete suit, created by James Dean and fashion designer Charlie Allen as part of a recent show, for which Sam was the curator, at Oxo Tower Wharf in London. "At the end of the day its your object and you can do what you like with it," she says. "There are no rules. What's most important is that you really like it, or else there's no point. Be true to yourself, be bold and brave, and it will work."


l Sam's Salon, 0171 739 5594. Large, bright "Lifestyle" paintings, pounds 600 each; concrete Subbuteo figures by James Dean, pounds 120 each.

l The Richard Salmon Gallery, Edwardes Square Studio, 59 South Edwardes Square, London W8, 0171 602 9494. Open Tues-Sat, 10am-6pm. Until 27 August, showing "Bad August", work by five young artists, priced from pounds 10 to pounds 10,000.

l Axis is a visual arts information service with more than 2,000 contemporary artists on its database. Call 0113 283 3125, or website at

l The Whitechapel Art Gallery, Whitechapel High Street, London E1, 0171 522 7888. Holds a bi-annual show, the Whitechapel Open, featuring a number of young artists. The next is from 27 March to 31 May 1998. l Art Review magazine is a monthly guide to art with regular Shop Window and Art for Under pounds 1,000 pages. Prices from around pounds 50. For details, call 0171 236 4880.

l Galleries magazine lists hundreds of art galleries and exhibitions, including degree shows and occasional open days at artists' studios, where prices can often be very reasonable. It is available free from most contemporary art galleries. For more information, call 0181 740 7020 or website at

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