The Art of Assemblage

Ashley Putman’s Eye for Detail Makes a Historic Georgian Masterpiece Pop.

Jonathan Lerner. Interior photography Jack Thompson. Portraits Jenny Antill.
October 02, 2013

Styled by Michelle Aviña. Hair Bryan Nguyen for Ceron Salon. Makeup Sergio Escalona for Ceron Salon.

A graphic designer’s work is all about accumulation, juxtaposition and process. And the process isn’t entirely rational — or even explicable. One is always in preparation mode, saving things that catch one’s eye and just might someday prove to be useful. When the time comes, those images and objects are pinned, shuffled, looked at again. Try this font, then that one, move the type around, consider color, play with contrast. It’s much like what an artist does in making a collage or an assemblage sculpture.

Graphic designer Ashley Putman brought that sensibility to the historic Southampton house where she lives with her husband, Steve, and their two young sons. “That’s just how my brain works,” she says. Built for cotton trader and philanthropist M.D. Anderson in 1938 (the year before he died), the center-hall Georgian had excellent bones. When the Putmans purchased it five years ago, it needed little beyond fresh white paint.

However, they chose to stain the wood floors black. Inspiration? “The Menil has super-dark floors, and it’s amazingly beautiful,” Putman says. And what works in the museum works at home, especially when the home
itself functions as a kind of gallery. She has a penchant for hanging art salon-style — stacked to the ceiling and arranged collage-like so that the forms and colors of multiple pieces work not just singly but together as
a larger rhythmic composition.

There’s instinct at work here, as well as a sense of fluidity, even improvisation. Consider the master bedroom. Its walls are papered in a refined and formal pattern. The bed linens are classic, monogrammed and ribbon-trimmed. In addition to a dozen differently sized and framed artworks hanging above the bed, there are also two unrelated bedside lamps. “I’ll probably change out those lamps every six months,” she says. “Everything doesn’t have to be symmetrical or perfect. That room has come together over time. We’ve added and taken away. Everything changes.”

Everything doesn’t have to be predictable, either. In the living room, there is a large antique Oriental carpet purchased at a Christie’s auction, its predominantly rose and ivory palette much softened with age. Overlaying its center is a smaller IKEA rug with a black-and-white abstract pattern. “This is what’s hilarious about the house,” Putman says. “It looked very serious when you didn’t have that on top.”

Another unconventional tactic is the decor in the bedrooms of sons Scott, 5, and John, 8. There are playful touches and splashes of color, such as the brilliantly fanciful pendant lanterns found in a street market in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. And there are arrangements of art in which animals and vehicles feature prominently — definitely boy material. Still, these are rather mature rooms for little boys. “I don’t feel you have to have all these kiddie motifs in your children’s rooms,” Putman says. “They have to grow up with a good design eye.”

On the job, a graphic designer endlessly seizes on and stockpiles images and ideas. Off the job, this particular designer voraciously collects art and objects. She purchases some of the works at galleries, some directly from artists and many from flea markets and street vendors. Hers is an unpretentious and thoroughly personal collection. She values the unidentifiable and inexpensive as respectfully as the costlier works from known artists. There’s so much, from so many places, that she sometimes can’t pinpoint where she found a particular piece. But she can remember where she has gone looking. Those venues include the Chelsea Flea Market, when she lived in New York before marrying; Paris flea markets; shops in London and on Harbour Island in the Bahamas; outdoor markets in Playa de Carmen; and Italian galleries and shops in Positano, Portofino, Porto Ercole and Lake Como. Here at home, she is especially a devotee of the Guild Shop, which “always seems to deliver wonderful things. I never leave empty-handed. I love the hunt for great old things.”

Putman has recently joined the board of the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston — her first board affiliation. She decided to do so after seeing the museum’s retrospective exhibition of Tony Feher’s sculpture earlier this year. Feher uses unremarkable, familiar and often disposable objects, in combination and repetition, to explore pattern and form. That’s a language graphic designers can readily understand. “I was deeply moved,” she says. “It was something I wanted everyone to see. I discovered the power of art at a young age and am passionate about what it can do when it comes to opening minds and seeing the world in different ways.” Perhaps more modestly, but no less valuably, Putman has discovered how art can create an environment that’s both comforting and intriguing: The secret is in the arrangements.