How to Create Your Best Gallery Wall
An eye-catching and sentimental wall of art can add personality and depth to a room. We turn to the experts for advice on how to create your own collection.
photos by chuck beard and bethany williard
For generations, the way folks decorated their walls stayed more or less the same. Hang one or two framed pieces of art, add a few family photos in frames to a table or fireplace mantel, and you’re done. Today, that minimalist approach still has its fans. But a much more playful style has become popular with interior designers and amateur decorators alike: the gallery wall.
It’s a carefully selected collection of your favorite things — anything from traditional framed photos and art to just about any kind of memento or item that can possibly hang on a wall. The goal is to express your style through conversation pieces that beautify your home while telling a bit of your personal story.
The look is eclectic and casual, but a good gallery wall isn’t thrown together in an afternoon, says Bethany Williard, lead designer and founder of the interior-design firm Studio 1049 in Bridgeville. You’ve got to take your time considering the pieces you select and how best to display them, she says.
We’ve asked Williard and Amanda Cianella, owner and design chief at the home-decorating and framing shop Framezilla in the Strip District, for their advice on creating gallery walls that can elevate the look of any room in your home.
In Bethany Williard’s bedroom, she mixes textures and metals to keep the palette soft and muted. She also says she likes the idea of keeping it functional by including a spot for her headphones or a favorite hat to hang.
GO BEYOND THE FRAME.
Planning for a gallery wall often begins with framed items, but it’s important to include elements with varying depths. Go beyond “just flat images,” Cianella says, to include a few items that literally stand out: An old rotary wall telephone, small toys in a shadow box, taxidermy (real or faux) or even a piece of sports equipment can look great mixed in with art and photography, she says.
Have fun with sizes. Try including one or two very large pieces and a few truly tiny ones.
Don’t forget to add a few pieces that are all, or mostly, text rather than images. Choose a favorite phrase or family quote, then print it in oversized text and frame it or have it printed on canvas. “Your eye needs somewhere to rest,” says Cianella, so a simple, white background with text is a great addition amid a collection of images. For the same reason, consider including at least one small, simple image set in a big mat within a simple frame as another “resting place.”
Be bold about mixing expensive art with whimsical items: Pittsburgh-based artists Leftover Potatoes will do a custom cartoon sketch of your family that will personalize your wall and look sweetly subversive amid landscape paintings or abstract art.
You also can include items that are flat but not framed, such as banners or Pittsburgh sports pennants, says Williard, so this wall can be “a kind of showcase and pay homage to your home town.”
This sunroom is Williard’s favorite spot in her home. She chose to hang cherished family pieces as well as items that inspire her desire to travel and seek adventure.
BE VARIED BUT CONNECTED.
You want an eclectic mix that’s still cohesive. One way to achieve that: Keep the frames similar but not identical. Consider using frames of the same color that vary in texture, thickness and material. Cianella says samples of frames that are similar but not exactly the same are sold to stores in small sets: Find a frame you like, then ask to see the rest of that sample set.
Keep in mind that matching frames may not look best for all of the items you want to include. You won’t like a wall with coordinated frames if some items clash with that particular style. Another option is to vary the frames but use images and items that include a few dominant colors.
In this office space, one of Williard’s friends used white frames to unify the wall with one pink frame in the center to draw attention.
Williard and Cianella both are fans of gallery walls that mix items in many materials, styles, colors and sizes. But they agree: If you love symmetry and clean lines, you can do a great gallery wall by hanging a group of photos in identical frames arranged in a perfect grid. If you mix color and black-and-white photos, and perhaps combine family photos with landscapes and city scenes, you can create a wall that’s dramatic and stylish, but still sleek and simple.
Each piece in this family room has a special story and serves as a great conversation starter when the couple is entertaining.
It’s great to get advice on your gallery wall, but it’s important that you really love all of the pieces you include. A design expert or creative friend can suggest eliminating pieces if you’ve overcrowded — or adding a few if necessary — but the choice of the actual pieces really has to start and end with you, Williard says.
“You’re curating your collection,” she notes, so first look for pieces you already own and love.
If you don’t have enough to include, “don’t just run out and get a couple of things,” she says. Take time to shop slowly and trust your own taste. You can always start with a small grouping and add items to the remaining space as you collect them.
Want to make this gallery of items truly personal? “If you’re brave and crafty, start to make pieces on your own,” says Williard, or reach out to artist friends or relatives with whom you could commission a new creation.
Williard says she was inspired to use a dark color in this small powder room, which people tend to shy away from, and hang items not typically found in a bathroom to showcase her sense of humor.
USE LAYERS AND LEDGES.
You’re not restricted to items attached to a wall. Try including shallow floating shelves or photo ledges, or place your gallery above a piece of furniture on which you can prop up framed items or include sculptures.
“If you have a gallery wall over a buffet in a dining room, definitely take advantage of that surface and go ahead and lean items there,” says Williard. Try layering standing framed items in various sizes, with some partially obscured. The look is playful and practical: “As your collection evolves, it allows you to switch pieces out without putting another hole in the wall.”
In the same powder room, Williard says she wanted to play up the drama factor by hanging frames and objects from floor to ceiling to keep the space fun and bright.
WHERE TO PUT ONE?
Gallery walls over a sofa or on large living room walls are popular, and they can help to camouflage a flat-screen TV hung on a main wall. An eclectic cluster of items hung around the frame helps the TV to blend into the room more seamlessly. A gallery along a staircase “helps transition from one space to the next,” Williard says, and it’s also great for adding personality to hallways leading toward bedrooms. Also, gallery walls bring a ton of style to small spaces such as powder rooms.
Cianella loves gallery walls in dining rooms, where they add style and fill a very social space with lots of conversation pieces.
Where not to put one? Gallery walls can be lovely in a bedroom, but that relatively private space is not a great location if you’ll want to share these treasures with visitors.
WHICH WALL COLOR?
There’s “not really any color I’d say you should steer away from,” Williard says. Light neutrals work well, but dark colors such as navy blue or charcoal grey may help items to stand out even more.
If you’re worried about a room being too dark, consider painting three walls in a light color and then doing one wall in a darker shade of the same color. Once you’ve painted that “accent wall,” it becomes the perfect showcase. “You have that wall called out already,” Williard says, so “it really makes things pop.”
Melissa Rayworth is a freelance writer whose clients include The Associated Press and the parenting website WhatToExpect.com. A graduate of Cornell University, Rayworth is a resident of Hampton Township but spends much of the year living in Bangkok, Thailand, with her husband and children.