Ideas from the Front
You Gotta Have Art
When Paintings and Sculptures Adorn the Office, Clients Take Interest
Posted Nov 9, 2004 5:34 AM CST
By Margaret Graham Tebo
Ask many clients to describe a lawyer’s office and you’ll get answers about ankle-deep carpet, mahogany desks and stuffy, inscrutable art on the walls.
Debbi Cohen’s clients had a different experience. They saw avant-garde sculptures, color-fused paintings--and buffalo.
Cohen, until recently based in Washington, D.C., spends much of her free time pursuing her passion for painting and sculpting. One of her favorite art subjects is the American buffalo. Her buffalo depictions were displayed with other pieces in her D.C. law office.
“It’s a door-opener with clients, no question,” says Cohen, who is moving to NRG Energy Inc. in Princeton, N.J., to take a position as director of the legal department. “It provides a comfort level, shows that I am a real person and they can talk to me.” Cohen began making art around the same time she opened a solo practice 12 years ago. She always had wanted to take a pottery class--her father is an artist--so she found a local adult education class. She soon learned she was pretty good at making pottery, she says, and eventually switched to sculpture and painting.
Many clients enjoyed her work--and offered to buy it. “Some clients seem to think it’s cool to have something their lawyer made,” she says.
Clients who knew she was both an artist and a lawyer often asked which job description she preferred. “I told them I like them both; the two things balance me.”
Cohen says being an artist has helped her think more creatively about solving legal problems. It has enhanced her awareness that there are multiple ways to reach the same goal. She plans to display her art in her new office, where she expects to host meetings of department heads and outside counsel.
R. Rogge Dunn understands clients’ visceral reaction to art. An avid collector of vintage posters, Dunn displays about 50 to 60 of his pieces in his Dallas law office. Clients often comment on the posters, many of which are displayed with small explanatory plaques in the fashion of an art gallery. Dunn says the posters tell a historical story and are great conversation pieces with clients.
“Back before there was TV, posters displayed in public places were [among] the main means people used to communicate all sorts of messages,” he says.
He specializes in pre-1940s posters, especially those with a propaganda, military or political theme, though he also has many art posters. He has many original posters from the world wars, including ones with notable slogans like “Loose Lips Sink Ships.” He also has many posters from the Bolshevik revolution. He collects them more for the stunning images than for the words. “As a trial lawyer, I use images to persuade. I’m most interested in a powerful image. I’ve learned a lot about color and texture from this collection,” he says.
When he’s on trips, Dunn is always on the lookout for additions. Nearly every country in the world used such posters in the first half of the 20th century, Dunn says. “What I love most about my posters is that you go into most law firms and you get hunting scenes or the ‘Garanimals’ approach--where the paintings are chosen to match the furniture,” says Dunn, referring to the popular line of matching children’s clothes.
By contrast, Dunn says, his posters are living history. He believes they give clients a good impression of his office without being too ostentatious. Clients begin to chat about the images and talk about the history behind the posters.
“The more clients know about you and your interests, the more likely they are to open up and talk,” he says.
"You Gotta Have Art," November 2004, page 22, misidentified the new job title of Debbi Cohen, the director of labor relations at NRG Energy Inc. in Princeton, N.J. The article also mistakenly reported that Cohen expects to host meetings of the department heads and outside counsel in her new office. She does, however, display her artwork in her work area. The Journal regrets the error.