How Van Gogh’s Bedroom Was Rebuilt as a Living Masterpiece

Ever wanted to live in a masterpiece? A Chicago apartment lets you live in Van Gogh's 'Bedroom'
March 5, 2016, 4:00pm
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Pardon the Art Institute of Chicago's obsession with bedrooms. The museum is currently showing an exclusive exhibition focusing on all three of Vincent van Gogh's bedroom paintings, renditions from his home in Arles, France, as well as a re-creation of the bedroom, i.e., the real one, as Van Gogh left it.

To round out this developer’s envy of bedroom building, there is also a fully liveable, rentable on Airbnb re-creation of The Bedroom. If you have ever wanted to live within a painting—replete with brushstrokes— now you can.


By laying your head not in the room which inspired The Bedroom, but in The Bedroom, per se, you can see and feel and think what Van Gogh saw and felt and thought, or at least gain some sort of corporeal simulation of such. It is a chance to inhabit the painter's mind and gain a tacit feel for the man without hours of scholarship and observation of his works.

When the Art Institute’s social media manager Robert Sexton christened the room on Instagram, he wrote that “the sensation is more akin to Van Gogh's own inner life.” Sexton noted that the bright colors, including cornflower walls and jasmine and scarlet bedding, feel optimistic, indicative of an up point in Van Gogh's madly parabolic life and a positivity they—along with, one suspects, both the novelty and reverence of living in a Van Gogh painting—will hopefully bestow on inhabitants.

Glenn Ragaishis and a team of artists-cum-fabricators at Ravenswood Studios built out The Bedroom. The challenges in creating a live-in painting came less from the painting than the living-in. Anything built would need to fit in the apartment chosen, and the scale was determined by the requisite presence of a full size bed. These edicts—and the fact that a human being had to be able to comfortably sleep in it—meant that it would be impossible to perfectly recreate, in three dimensions, Van Gogh's painting.

The Bedroom paintings are wonderfully askew; walls lean gently against one another like drunken crushes, hung frames dangle and point to distant, personal horizons, windows come together like church steeples, the furniture—legs jut in coquettish angles, table tops placed like mortarboards on an awkward grad—seem adrift on the floor, hovering in a manner both euphoric and disconcerting. A facsimile would be relatively easy to make, lines measured and angles taken, then taken to scale; because such a room would be unlivable, Ravenswood had to rely more on art than math.

Ragaishis and his team, carpenters Brian Kopola and Tom Daniel and painters Rosie Stewart and Ralph Scotese, created various tricks to force a liveable version of Van Gogh's untenable perspective, keying their interpretation off the one concrete structure in the room, the bed.

“It was more of a 'what looks best,'” Ragaishis says. “Definitely more of an artist's eye of 'what's going to work here?'”


Ravenswood's team began by setting up the “walls” around the bed, using paintable panels, typically for stage scenery, called theater flats. The flats and floors were finished with painted muslin, and the bed used to anchor the room. Cardboard prototypes of The Bedroom’s wall adornments and the tops of the furniture were mocked up, placed, examined, and adjusted accordingly, before the uneven final furnishings were completed. A prop buyer found objects as close to the ones depicted in the painting as possible. Some aspects of the painting—the size discrepancy between the foreground and background chairs, for example—could simply not be recreated; building two separate, to scale chairs would have been required. The end result, however, is extraordinarily faithful.

Achieving the room's peculiar lines was not the only way Ravenswood brought Van Gogh's painting to life; the very brushstrokes themselves were duplicated, providing the sense of texture and electric life which denotes the artist's work.

“We mixed up joint compound and a white glue, so it's kind of got a flex,” Rosie Stewart, one of the painters, says. “And just brushed this texture on and then [painter] Ralph would just drag his fingers through to make it look like a paintbrush. Or more chunky areas, where it looked like the paint was pretty flat and flaking, we would put it on and then scrape it, lightly scrape it, with a putty knife to make the flatter, dimensional areas.”


Stewart and company often use these techniques to create surfaces in their sets. By mimicking the colors and textures of Van Gogh's painting, Stewart and Ralph Scotese add an important element to the work, the detail that truly makes one feel they are living in a painting.

“All of the furniture pieces, we take a grinder to it, we knock off straight corners and put some organic-ness to it, so that it helps with that brushstroke appearance,” Ragaishis says. Stewart points out that sanding becomes especially important as well when people will actually be living in, and interacting with, this environment.

Despite routinely bringing imaginary things into reality, Ragaishis and his team found the Van Gogh project to be a special one, a chance for artists to pay homage too—and bring into new life, new form—the work of an artist they look up to.

“The artists love it,” Ragaishis says. The chance to bring to life one of the world's most famous paintings is not something that comes along very often, even at Ravenswood.

“They don't always get to do such interesting and exciting projects,” Ragaishis says. “They were very, very into it.”

And now others can be, too.

To book your night in Van Gogh's bedroom, click here.


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