Decorating with personal photos


By Melissa Rayworth

When we decorate our homes, we express ourselves through the furniture we buy and the colors we select. But perhaps no element of decorating says more about us than the personal photographs we display.

But which belong on display? And how can we use them to make a room more beautiful and more personal?

Here, three interior designers share tips and tricks — and also vent their pet peeves — for using personal photos in home decorating.

Candid shots, rather than posed portraits, will help visitors to your home understand who you are, said Genevieve Gorder, host and chief designer for the HGTV television personality.

Brian Patrick Flynn, editor of, agrees: “When I fall in love with a photograph, it’s 100 percent of the time because there’s a personal link to it.” His favorite is “a family photo that looks like a moment in time was captured.”

Think like a photo editor, Flynn said, paring down your library of images to tell your story. Photos don’t have to be flawless, but they have to say something about you.

If you’re having professional photos taken, consider hiring a photographer who will capture family members doing activities they love, rather than posing at a studio.

And Flynn’s not a fan of everyone dressing alike: “In real life, you don’t all wear the same button-down shirt and jeans. So don’t do it in a photo.”

“The main thing about personal photos is to remember that they’re personal,” said Los Angeles-based interior designer Betsy Burnham. “They’re not art. They don’t take the place of art.”

Consider which photos are best in more private spaces of the house, such as bedrooms or an upstairs hallway, and which belong in rooms where you greet guests, she said.

Burnham said to choose photos that are interesting. “Let friends look at something that’s going to pique their curiosity or make them comment,” she said.

“Oftentimes we’re not the best of photographers,” Gorder said.

“But with all the tools we have, it’s really easy to make (poor photos) into something great,” she said. “Scan them, tweak them, crop them in a way that’s non-symmetrical.”

You can also crop to emphasize key elements. In many personal photos, “only 30 percent shows people; the rest is background and sky,” said Flynn, so faces can’t be seen unless you’re viewing them up close.

Technology also allows you to create new items out of your favorite photos, including customized coffee-table books from sites like Flynn sometimes makes photo murals for clients — a single image blown up to nearly wall-size “and printed on the sort of vinyl used to make billboards,” he said.

Look through your collection of photos “and find that one image — it could even be a still life of your grandmother’s purse sitting on a counter in a childhood home — that tells a story,” Flynn said.

“Once you find the photo, contact your local digital printer and get an estimate on how much it would cost to have a gigantic vinyl print done, and get estimates of what it would cost to install,” he said. “It can completely kick-start the design of a house and its mood.”

A collection of photos can be the perfect way to decorate hallways and staircases.

“Make a statement by choosing one big wall for an enormous gallery grouping and mixing up, say, 20 different framed photos from throughout the years, some in really thick, traditional baroque gold frames, some ultra modern stainless steel, others lacquered bamboo,” Flynn said. “Those varying textures and shapes and finishes will tell a story that accentuates those beautiful images.”

Keep things close enough together on the wall that it’s clearly a set, he said. “People sometimes stagger them with huge gaps in betweenß and you don’t know if it’s a collection or not.”

Collections of framed photos also can look great on a side table or piano. On a flat surface, be sure to vary heights, maybe mixing in a vase or other tall objects. If you prefer only minimal contrast in frames, you can combine ones in similar colors or textures, said Burnham. Silver frames in different sizes, some simple and others ornate, can work well together, she said. Or try a mix of wood, horn and tortoise shell frames.

Frames can also be used to comment on photos: A bold modern frame offsets the drama of a serious portrait, for instance. Just don’t make all the frames identical.

All three designers urge choosing photos that celebrate what matters to you, and displaying them where you’ll enjoy them most: “It’s what moves you,” Burnham said. “If you love something, it’s gonna work.” — AP