Arranging Family Photos

Photo: Eric Piasecki

Martha Stewart Living editorial director Gael Towey and her husband, Stephen Doyle, provide an inside look on how they arrange family photos in their home and provide tips on how you can get your walls to tell your family history.

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Finished Wall

Eric Piasecki

The wall of pictures in the home of Martha Stewart Living editorial director Gael Towey and her husband, Stephen Doyle, looks as if it has grown up alongside the family. There are photos from the couple's wedding 23 years ago; a painting of a moth that their daughter, Maud, 21, painted in high school; a picture of their son, August, 19, as a toddler; and dozens of snapshots of family vacations and holidays.

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The Process

Eric Piasecki

The couple took a divide-and-conquer approach to the project, Gael says. She edited the pictures, while Stephen planned an arrangement. He decided to align the photos vertically, creating columns that climb the walls. "It gives a sense of order," he says. "You don't get the jumble effect that can happen in a stairway arrangement." Then the couple adhered photocopies of their favorite images to pieces of white paper that approximated the size of the frames (to stand in for larger frames, they taped pieces of paper together) and stuck them to the wall using removable tape in the grid Stephen created. "This was a revelation in the process," Gael says. "It allowed us to live with the pictures before we committed." Finally, they printed the images, had them framed, and hired a professional to handle the hanging.

The first step: Photocopied images taped to frame-size pieces of paper, served as templates for where each piece would go.

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Eric Piasecki

It's great to include the entire family in selecting the photos, but it helps to have one decision maker. "There were a few pictures the kids didn't like of themselves," says Gael, who adds with a laugh, "But they didn't get to have veto power." As she went through prints and digital images, Gael kept her picks in a folder. Her selections, she says, were driven "purely by emotion."

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Eric Piasecki

Stephen, shown with the couple's children, August and Maud, printed everything on archival Epson paper using an Epson Stylus R2880, which he loves for its rich, detailed prints. The Kodak ESP Office 6150 is another good option.

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Arranging and Hanging

Eric Piasecki

Because of the project's size, the couple had an art installer, David Kassel, above, and the team from his company, Ilevel, do the hanging.

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The Organization: Finding Themes

Eric Piasecki

Throughout the display, Gael and Stephen grouped photographs together in playful and unexpected ways. Here she framed a snapshot of her siblings from the 1960s, top, with an image of Stephen and his brothers as children.

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The Organization: Telling Stories

Eric Piasecki

The family has a tradition of bringing sketch pads on vacation to capture the scenery. In one frame, Gael paired a photo of Stephen painting on a hillside in Budir, Iceland, with his finished watercolor of the landscape.

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The Organization: Incorporating Art

Eric Piasecki

A cardboard model of the Empire State Building made by August when he was a boy is the display's crowning touch. The couple used a steel shelf, custom-made and painted to match the wall, to suspend the building above the stairs.

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The Organization: Mixing It Up

Eric Piasecki

By not following a time line, the display feels surprising and lively. A black-and-white portrait of Gael's grandfather (the obstetrician who actually delivered Martha), for example, hangs below a shot of Maud at a stable as a young girl.

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The Frames: Matting

Eric Piasecki

"We didn't want the display to look too uniform," Stephen says. "The best decorating looks like it has happened over time." The couple achieved this effect by combining vintage frames they already owned with custom designs from Skyframe and Brentano's, semi-custom frames from Larson-Juhl, and ready-made options from West Elm. This provided a nice mix of styles and kept costs down (they used the pricier custom frames for larger pictures, and the affordable store-bought frames for smaller images). To provide some visual consistency, they mostly used black frames with white or off-white mats. The pictures themselves are arranged in a similarly loose fashion, with images occasionally grouped together based on a common theme. "It's good to keep your mind open to themes you might see when you're going through the photos," Gael says. For instance, she says, "After noticing I had all these pictures of us hugging on vacation -- that's what happens when you spend two weeks together -- I created a hugging collage."

Mats come in various thicknesses (Gael and Stephen used mostly eight-ply). The deeper the mat, the more an image will appear to be floating.

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Frame Profiles

Eric Piasecki

The couple mixed new frames from Larson-Juhl, Skyframe, Brentano's, and West Elm with vintage finds, but stuck to a dark palette.

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Removable Backs

Eric Piasecki

On some pieces, the framer installed turn buttons instead of paper backing, so images could be switched over time.

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Hanging Hardware

Eric Piasecki

Screwed into both sides of a frame and hung at two points, D rings ensure a more stable, level hang than a wire.

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