“So bad,” reads one comment below a TikTok declaring 2010s gallery walls over. “I feel attacked!” reads another. “It’s us girls who used to make magazine collages for our binders that started this…and I’m still here for it!” reads yet one more. It seems the gallery wall—a cluster of art or decorative items strategically hung on a wall—has become almost as divisive as wood paneling and shag carpet. For fear of carrying on with an outdated trend we must ask AD’s interior design friends: Are gallery walls out of style?
“Never!” declares Mary Patton, owner and designer at Mary Patton Design in Houston, without hesitation. Though Clara Jung of Banner Day Interiors in the Bay Area gives a much more tempered response: “I don’t necessarily think so,” she says. “However, I think they should be executed thoughtfully and with intention.” Meanwhile, Molly Torres Portnof of Date Interiors in New York points out that gallery walls can’t go out of style as they’re timeless (yes, going back even further than 2010) and more than a passing fad. “They’ve survived hundreds of years of fluctuating design trends and for good reason: A wall full of art brings color, character, depth, and style to any space,” she says.
So how did we get here, to the 21st-century interpretation (or misinterpretation, depending on who you ask) of gallery walls? And how do we salvage them by curating collections with more intention, as Jung suggests? Let’s start from the beginning.
The history of gallery walls
“Gallery walls were first seen in France in the 1600s, when they were called salon walls,” Jung says. Salons, or cultural hubs, democratized art by ditching the old elite way of hanging a precious few pieces and instead filling entire floor-to-ceiling walls with works, primarily by up-and-coming artists. Salons soon opened to the public, making art more accessible to all social classes, and eventually spread to other countries, with art dealers and collectors adopting their frenzied arranging method.
Though public gallery walls afforded more access for ogling, it seems it was still only the elite who created the display at homes well into the 20th century, at least in the US. This was likely because only the wealthy had the cash to hire interior designers and hang up art in the first place. (Remember, Etsy prints weren’t a thing at this point.) But by the 1960s—the era of peace, love, and rocking a DIY salon wall—all that would change. A 1967 newspaper article titled “Gallery Wall Good Way to Display Pictures” was syndicated across the country, giving everyday homeowners (not just serious art collectors) tips on curating framed pieces.
In the ’80s and ’90s, gallery walls became all about family photos. Who hasn’t seen a home with a grouping of school portraits lining a staircase? Even more recently, 2013 was a hallmark year for the decorating scheme with another syndicated article, “Salon Walls Tell a Story,” hitting papers from coast to coast. This time homeowners were encouraged to hang “personal treasures” on their walls, including “exotic turtle shells, vintage medicine bottles, and colorful plates.” Since then it’s been a mixed bag, with design sites declaring one year “the year of the gallery wall” and another site asking in that very same year, “are gallery walls over?”
So where did our walls go wrong?
Were 2013’s turtle shells a touch too much? It’s clear that at some point a centuries-old tradition slid into the questionable collage territory that’s been called out on TikTok. In fact, the gallery walls that garner the most criticism are the ones that look like all the items were gathered in a single shopping trip, generic wood signs and all. As one TikTok commenter put it, “Ugh, it’s giving me craft store vibes.” And here lies the biggest gallery wall pitfall: rushing to make it happen. Fueled by the hype, some novice designers and DIY’ers may have been a bit too hasty to make it happen. To remedy slap-stick gallery walls that could cameo as decor in a dentist’s waiting area, approach your wall like a real collector.
Tips for creating a good gallery wall
1. Make it meaningful
“Biggest rule of thumb: Don’t ever hang anything on your wall that isn’t meaningful to you,” Torres Portnof says. “When salon walls were first popularized, the specific placement of each art piece was very purposeful and, in certain cases, pointed and political.” She suggests choosing pieces that are “grand, striking, or most significant” to anchor your gallery wall, then fill the surrounding space with other pieces.
2. Mix mediums
Keep in mind that significant doesn’t have to mean fine art (hello, turtle shells!). The designers AD spoke with encourage thinking outside the frame. “Do a mix of art, textiles, and baskets that you collect on your travels,” Patton adds. Or skip the art altogether and group like objects, as Brittany Farinas and her team at House of One Interior Design in Miami do. “Sometimes we’ll hang a group of vertical or square mirrors together on an accent wall by a window to make the space seem visually larger and to add interest to a space,” she says.
3. Go big
And if you’re worried a gallery wall will feel chaotic, steer clear of too many small pieces. “I would suggest playing with scale and going oversized,” Jung says. Four large paintings grouped together can cover an entire wall without overwhelming the gaze. Farinas echoes this by saying, “Grouping black and white oversized frames in an array can create visual interest and become an opportunity to play with scale in a space.” She also points out that tiny frames on a large wall look disproportionate.
Long live the gallery wall
A sigh of relief for salon supporters everywhere: According to the pros, the gallery wall will survive! Plus, if history has taught us anything, it won’t just survive but continue to evolve (are NFT gallery walls a thing?!). In the meantime, keep your art and photo displays going. “Keep in mind that gallery walls are meant to evolve and grow over time as you continue to collect and curate pieces,” Torres Portnof says. “Think of the walls in your home as your personal gallery, showcasing your cherished memories, favorite artists, family heirlooms, and travels.”