Picture framers are like surgeons: People blindly trust them with very delicate work. But if you've got a one-of-a-kind piece, be it a Degas or a diploma, you shouldn't gamble.
A bad framing job can destroy the piece, not only aesthetically but literally. It doesn't even take an egregious mistake, like mounting a print on cardboard salvaged from a Cheerios box (it's been known to happen); a cheap adhesive or mat board can also do the trick. "With a painting, almost any artist can nail together a frame that's acceptable," says moma conservation framer Peter Perez. "But with works on paper -- a photograph, a print, a drawing -- you need conservation framing using archival materials, and not every frame shop can provide those services. Lots that claim they can do it really cannot." Not to mention that not everyone is equipped to suggest the precise charcoal frame that will accentuate the white shaft of light in your black-and-white photograph. Nor would your neighborhood frame shop be likely to appreciate the quiet panache of your Japanese print and suggest a frame worthy of it. What you need, really, is an artist, since framing is an art in itself -- which is why it's no surprise that the majority of top framers listed below are, or once were, artists themselves.
85 Grand Street; 431-9080
There are 181 framers listed in the Manhattan Yellow Pages, but this is not one of them; Jed Bark and his partners, who run the most renowned shop in the city, don't need to advertise. "We design several new frames a week, which as a business model is not very smart," says Bark, a Jason Robards look-alike. They're known for their classic, contemporary hardwood frames, but they can also whip up a new rendition of, say, a molding from the Porta Maggiore. Bark was also on the forefront of archival framing, so you can be assured that their work is reversible, and that they'll protect the art (for instance, they "hinge" a piece to its frame with delicate Japanese paper and water-soluble wheat-starch paste). Bark's custom treatment mostly appeals to corporations and museums (like the Met), as well as to artists, including Brice Marden and Jasper Johns. But the large staff also takes on smaller collections -- like your maps and etchings. Keep in mind: They're "serious guys who are kind of expensive," so don't expect to spend less than $200 per piece.
GOLDFEDER\KAHAN FRAMING GROUP
37 West 20th Street; 242-5310
Want the very latest in picture-framing? Check with Elizabeth Goldfeder and Eric Kahan; that's their thing. G\K's most-buzzed-about innovation is their climate-controlled "clean room" (complete with taffeta smocks for the framers). Suffice it to say that these people take dust and "humidification levels" very seriously. They also have a wide range of frames, from 23-karat gold-leaf to a full range of "chop" (prefab) frames. Their client list has grown to include the ICP, Christie's, and Sotheby's, but they'll gladly do your diploma. Isn't your $100,000 education worth a $250 showcase?
J. POCKER & SON
135 East 63rd Street; 800-782-8562
Drop by this friendly Upper East Side shop with those botanical prints you bought in Italy; the staffers here can suggest the perfect French decorative mat and frame (maybe $150 for a 16-by-20-inch) to fit your foyer. They can also surround your antique American oil painting with gold leaf, or your slice of Americana in country maple. Pocker has been around since 1926, so your mother or grandmother might have shopped here; that's no reason to be intimidated. "We never want people to feel we're out of their range," says Robyn Pocker, a third-generation owner.
ELI WILNER AND CO.
1525 York Avenue; 744-6521
JULIUS LOWY FRAME & RESTORING CO.
223 East 80th Street; 861-8585
GUTTMANN PICTURE FRAME ASSOCIATES
180 E. 73rd Street; 744-8600
Want to drop $100,000 on a frame for your new Whistler? Consult Eli Wilner, who's pretty much cornered the market in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century antique American frames. In other words, a basic, gilded wood frame might now cost you upwards (sometimes way upwards) of $6,500, thanks, in part, to Wilner, who started collecting and selling what people were throwing away as recently as the early eighties. Wilner also makes replicas based on originals he owns; he just put replicas on 27 paintings in the White House, including a Childe Hassam in the Oval Office. But since even replicas cost thousands, Wilner says, "my clients are mostly CEOs."
If, on the other hand, your painting cries out for a 500-year-old European frame (or a mere reproduction of one), check with the shops owned by Jakob Guttmann Sr. and Lowy's Larry Shar. Both will also carve and guild a wooden frame for you, a lost art that will result in an instant heirloom for your kids. The cost? "Put it this way: To come in here with family photos, you'd have to really love your family," stresses Shar.
MINAGAWA ART LINES
210 Eleventh Avenue, near 25th Street; 242-8088
An awful lot of artists are absolutely loyal to Yasuo Minagawa. It was Elizabeth Murray who encouraged him to start his intimate studio fifteen years ago, and he now works with the Paula Cooper Gallery as well as artists like William Wegman (Minagawa adopted Laredo, one of Fay Wray's puppies), Sarah Charlesworth, and Jennifer Bartlett. "I don't overwhelm the art. My philosophy is to stay three steps behind the masters," says Minagawa. He uses a mere ten types of maple, but the magic is the custom-mixed finishes he applies to the wood. A new, lower-priced line, starting at $115, offers standard-size frames and fewer layers of finish (three, versus ten).
THE MAD MATTER
20 West 22nd Street, Studio 1501; 243-2593
People come to Mad Matter for the immaculate mats alone, although you can also get a solid framing job here. "Most serious frame shops won't be bothered with mere mats, because there's no money in it," says proprietor Ron Yourkowski, "butthey're very important in keeping the artwork away from the glass, and creating a space where your eye can rest." Struggling photographers stop here, then procure cheap frames elsewhere; young collectors swear by the archival framing jobs. A 16-inch-by-20-inch mat might cost $20, or $200 if it's gold-beveled and covered in fabric.
W. H. BAILEY
By appointment only; 724-5953
Wouldn't you like to have a friend with exquisite taste who could accompany you to a framing shop and help you make decisions? Meet your new friend W. H. Bailey, a framing consultant with the best eye in the business -- and 30 years of experience helping clients that range from artists (Jim Dine and Lee Krasner) to top museums (including moma and the Met). "Most people," he says, "don't know how they want to see a work of art, so they're easily convinced by untrained eyes." Bailey will get to know you and your piece, then meet you at a showroom to present you with two or three solutions that will work for you (for a fee that averages $100 an hour). It's a slow process: It took "years," he says, to design and create a frame for Van Gogh's Starry Night at the moma, in conjunction with Jed Bark. In fact, Bailey has been slowly reframing works in moma's collections for ten years. (Obviously, it should take far less time to help you frame your masterpieces.)
YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD FRAME SHOP
So you want to lowball it. If the work is ephemeral, like your daughter's Backstreet Boys poster or a snapshot of Sparky, go right ahead and take it to your local frame shop. One stand-out (if you happen to live in or near Chelsea): Chelsea Frames (207 Eighth Avenue, between 20th and 21st Streets; 807-8957), one of the few neighborhood framers that carries its own custom hardwood line. (Other options if you can work with presized frames: Pottery Barn, Bed Bath and Beyond, or art-supply stores such as New York Central, the Art Store, or Pearl Paint.) You'll want to find a place that has frames which appeal to you, of course, and for that, it may not matter where you go: Most small shops will stock identical moldings, or styles. The only problem with that is that their wood frames are usually prefinished, and when pieces of pre-stained wood are put together, the corners are often imperfect. Nonetheless, if you must skimp, do it on the frame itself, since a bad frame is far preferable to a bad mounting job. And cheaper may actually be better, since, as moma's Perez reminds us, less is more: "People tend to overdecorate their works of art. For me, it's the simpler, the better."