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January 23, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Sun Staff

For most people, getting the basics of a room is not so difficult: You can find a couch or bed or dining suite you like, and there's plenty of free decorating help for the details. But when it comes to stuff to hang on the wall, some people simply panic. And for good reason -- there are rules, fairly mysterious rules, covering the best way to frame and hang pictures, photos or prints. You can buy things ready-framed, or take them to a custom framer, but the former doesn't give as much range for your taste, and the latter can be expensive. But when you find an old postcard, old family photo, museum poster or print you adore, how do you go about framing and hanging it?

Here are some tips from Deck the Walls, the Houston-based custom-framing company with stores around the country. For the store nearest you, call 800-887-DECK.

* It's best if art complements your decor, but it is usually more interesting when it stands out a bit. Framed art needn't match all the wood tones, colors or styles in a room, and it needn't match the period of the furniture. The main principle is that the art must be the focal point, not the frame.

* If the work is to be matted, that is, have a piece of colored paper or posterboard around it, start by identifying the focal point in a picture. To make the mat and the picture harmonize, use a similar color for the mat. If you want to emphasize the focal point, make the mat color closer to the background colors.

* Large artworks generally don't need large mats, but smaller pieces are sometimes greatly enhanced by broad matting.

Frames these days come in a wide range of shapes, styles and materials. Here are a few of them:

Tomlinson Crafts, 711 E. 40th St., in the Rotunda, offers unusual glass and metal art frames, including fused glass in bright color combinations such as royal blue and emerald green, or black and metallic gold. Sizes range from 4 by 4 inches to 8 by 10 inches, and prices range from $55 to $85. There are also pewter frames, polished to resemble silver, in sizes from 1 1/2 by 2 inches to 8 by 10 inches, and prices from $19 to $112. For more information, call 410-338-1572.

The Web site www.art.com offers more than 100,000 pieces of artwork, most famous, others limited-edition originals, including poster prints and photographs. You can browse at will, or select a general topic, such as sports or birds, or a particular subject, such as Michael Jordan or owls, and view all the examples art.com offers. Once you've chosen a picture, move it with a click of the mouse to framing, where you can experiment with various styles until you have one you like. Then you click on purchase, and the work is made up and shipped to you in one to two weeks. The average person spends $25 to $100 for the picture; framing can cost from $5 for a simple plastic version to a couple of hundred dollars or more for a fancier wooden or gilt frame. When you sign up for the shopping list, art.com keeps track of all your purchases.

Framed objects needn't be flat: You can also frame treasured knickknacks or family heirlooms. With conservation framing techniques (like those used by museums) you can preserve the piece for future generations. Like most custom framers, Deck the Walls offers conservation framing, which, because of the care and materials used, is more expensive than, say, framing a poster print. Typically, the object belongs to the customer; framing can range into the hundreds of dollars. Prints and other artwork can be framed more inexpensively, from as little as $25 to as much as $100, depending on size and materials.

Maximal Art of Philadelphia, known for its handmade watches, jewelry and home accessories, offers a new line of frames in its "modern Victoriana" style. Some frames celebrate occasions, some are all-purpose. The frames come in multiple shapes and sizes, and prices range from $30 to $125. Maximal products are available at Hometown Girl, 1000 36th St. in Hampden (410-662-4438); Sailor of St. Michaels, 214 Talbot St. in St. Michaels (410-745-2580); Courtyard Gardens, 8600 Foundry St., in Savage (410-880-1316); and Renaissance Fine Arts, 1809 Reisterstown Rd. in Pikesville (410-484-8900).

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