Why is framing a picture so expensive?

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At Target, frames are often less than $20. But custom framing is a lot pricier.

The journey through adulthood is paved with expensive inconveniences one must perform to be considered a functional, responsible grown-up. These inconveniences include scheduling your own dentist appointments, dropping off your dry cleaning, and the less imperative (but just as annoying) obligation to frame all your art. There is something about displaying home decor with a wooden-and-glass box (as opposed to using thumbtacks or sticky putty) that makes it seem more legitimate and, therefore, more “adult.”

Historically, a frame has been an architectural feature, meant to preserve a work and integrate it into a room. During the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe, frames were mainly commissioned by churches or wealthy families. It wasn’t until the invention of the camera and photography in the 19th century when the demand for frames by the middle-class proliferated, as the nonwealthy now had something to frame. Fast forward to today: Framing is now a service that communicates, “I have my shit together,” and this is partly because it is a notoriously expensive service.

For those who aren’t art aficionados, the price of framing seems inexplicable. Why does an 8 x 10 frame at Target cost $13, but a custom 8 x 10 frame costs upwards of $90? The ascendance of online framing companies like Framebridge, Art.com, and Simply Framed, which offer fixed-priced framing make the already opaque process even more baffling. How can these companies offer the same price for a variety of different-sized pieces, but your local framer can’t?

However, the perception that custom framing is too pricey is also a symptom of a different reality: Millennial consumers — long past their poster-hanging days — have less money than previous generations. Young adults are decorating homes and apartments with more budget-friendly art. And while the price of prints may have dropped, the price of frames has not, leaving shoppers to wonder if they should invest in a frame that’s triple the cost of what it’s preserving.

To demystify the process of framing, I spoke with custom framers — both big box chains and mom-and-pop shops — and found that the seemingly astronomical prices have a bit to do with the price of labor and expertise a local framer can offer, but more than anything, it has to do with options.

Higher pricing is the consequence of frame stores keeping options on hand

According to a 2018 IBISWorld report, there are 9,000 local frame shops in the United States, and if you’ve ever been to one, you know it to be a pretty intimidating experience. You go in knowing you only need one black frame, but are then bombarded with a host of options: There’s matting (a piece of paper or cardboard that goes inside the frame and mounts the print or photo), molding (decorative embellishments on the outside of the frame), glass (referred to as glazing, which can be made of glass or acrylic, and, depending on what you choose, can offer UV protection), and the frames themselves.

According to Mark Klostermeyer, a member of the Professional Picture Frames Association, it’s the sheer amount of mattings, moldings, glazings, and frames a shop provides that drives up prices. The fewer options a business offers, the more able they are to order in bulk, therefore cutting down costs.

Klostermeyer has owned Design Frames, a local custom frame shop in Falls Church, Virginia, for 50 years. “I’m a second generation framer,” he tells me. Klostermeyer offers 2,000 different frames at his shop, along with hundreds of mats and specialty fabric matting options. He also gets custom moldings from eight different vendors.

A man putting up a frame.Maskot/Getty Images
Some framers offer thousands of different frames in store, all of which are kept on-site.

For a 9 x 12 piece with 2-inch matting, Klostermeyer says Design Frames would charge somewhere in the $150 range, depending on the frame. He says his materials may vary from Framebridge in that he would suggest an anti-acid and anti-lignin matboard, and give glazing options that they don’t offer (which is quite possible as Framebridge only offers one type of glazing).

Wendee Mai of 567 Framing in Brooklyn says her shop offers between 1,600 and 1,800 frames, hundreds of mats, and she uses molding from four or five different vendors. The shop also offers different kinds of glazing, both glass and acrylic, and the cost of those depends on how much UV protection a customer wants. “When customers come with a standard size artwork, like a 16 x 20 or 24 x 30, we still charge custom framing price,” she says. “We do not sell ready-made frames.”

Mai explains that even if a customer has a standard-sized print, 567 Framing has to special order the wood, which can cost as little as $8 per foot, or upwards of $80 per foot. This is where big box chains like Michael’s have been able to cut costs: They offer fewer, more standardized options.

Michael’s is the biggest framing retailer in the US and offers 450 frame options, 400 mats, and four glazings, both acrylic and glass through in-house framers Aaron Brothers. Although this is less than many local framers, it is still a vast, expensive-to-maintain selection, which is perhaps why they are losing out to online framing services like Art.com, Simply Framed, and Framebridge. Last year, they closed 94 Aaron Brothers standalone stores.

At Framebridge, a service that lets you mail in pieces to be framed for a fixed price, customers can choose from fewer than 60 frames and 20 different mat colors. Once you choose a color, one of their in-house framers will choose the hue that looks best with your piece. (“We have 12 shades of white,” Framebridge CEO Susan Tynan says.) They also only offer one type of glass, and that’s acrylic glazing. “We didn’t want customers to have to understand the ins and outs of acrylic and glass options,” Tynan says.

At Framebridge, all fixed pricing includes matting and shipping. If your piece is “extra small” (up to 5 x 7), it will cost $65 to frame. A small piece (up to 9 x 12) costs $85 and a medium piece (up to 18 x 20) costs $99.

Essentially, the fewer options a company offers, the lower they can make their prices. “It’s kind of mass-produced, or a variation of mass-produced, as opposed to one of a kind,” Klostermeyer says. In other words, if a company orders a product in high volume, it is often able to get said product at a discounted rate. Local framers don’t have this option, as all frames are made to order.

Klostermeyer adds that the cost of labor has gone up over the years, which has impacted operating costs at mom-and-pop framing shops, raising frame prices. Klostermeyer pays his framers $25,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on experience.

Why we don’t care for options

Custom framers, both local and chains, offer a wide variety of materials and in-person expertise which result in one-of-a-kind frames, so why are online framing services able to disrupt the market so significantly? Probably because the generation of consumers buying art right now doesn’t really care whether the frame is one-of-a-kind.

According to a recent study, millennials have lower earnings, fewer assets, and less wealth than baby boomers or Gen Xers had in their 20s and 30s. Millennials are also buying houses later than previous generations. A 2018 survey found that home ownership for millennials ages 25 to 34 is 8 percentage points lower than baby boomers and 8.4 percent lower than Gen Xers at that age. When boomers were 27, they were more likely to be decorating their first home, a place they planned to raise kids and live for the indefinite future, so investing in a quality home decor makes sense. Millennials simply aren’t there yet.

The proliferation of cheap prints may also contribute to the apprehension of buying a pricey frame. Historically, prints have been seen as a lower level of art, as they are reproductions. “They used to call it a gateway drug,” director of Bonhams auction house’s prints and multiples department Deborah Ripley told Bloomberg. “It was where beginners in the art world started collecting, and that would encourage them: They might have been buying works at a lower price point, but they could tell their friends, ‘Yes, I have a work by Warhol.’”

But today, you walk into a young adult’s apartment and all you see are prints, and not Warhol reproductions, but items like a $60 photo of a beach from 20×200, a company which started in 2007 with the motto “Art for Everyone!” And there are tons of companies like this, most of which started in the late aughts and have expansive collections. Pop Chart Lab, a poster company that sells witty, pop culture infographics started in 2010 and grew 50 percent year over year until 2014, according to Fast Company. Society6, which started in 2009, and Minted, which started in 2008, both offer a platform for artists to sell their works, often at a lower price point. All of these options make art more accessible.

Klostermeyer says that he doesn’t think all things need a one-of-a-kind frame, but it’s worth it to go into a frame shop and check. One day a mom came into his shop, he says, with her son’s Jimi Hendrix poster that had been signed by all the band members. It had been under her son’s bed for years, and she wanted to frame it for him as a surprise.

“She said, ‘I don’t want to spend a lot of money on this, give me the cheapest thing’,” Klostermeyer recalls. “I said, ‘No, you don’t want to be the mom that threw away the baseball cards.’”

She took his advice and bought a pricier frame that would preserve the poster for longer, and if she had gone to a big box chain or used an online service, Klostermeyer isn’t sure she would have gotten the same consultation. “That $20 poster you’re buying now, 20 years from now may be worth less than 20 bucks, or it may be worth thousands,” he says.

Perhaps he’s right. But with my $36 Society6 poster of butts, I’ll take my chances.

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Author: Aditi Shrikant

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