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Post faux: Painted finishes offer new ways to fool (and charm) the eye


At long last, the fad for faux has faded. That's good news to Valley Craftsmen, because it means there's lots more scope for all the other kinds of painted finishes the small Baltimore firm has perfected.

"I'm very pleased right now that people don't feel they must have something marbleized in their house in order to feel like they're with it. This is not a bad thing, to have that pass," says Sam Robinson, company president, with a laugh. But, quite seriously, he doesn't see any danger that his 14-year-old business will run out of work any time soon.

"The history of using paint to decorate is so long, and so varied, that to me the aberration in time is the few decades the early

part of this century where it didn't really disappear, but it certainly receded into the background.

"I don't want people to think of it as just sponging, or marbleizing," Mr. Robinson says. "It is not that, it is so much more."

A glance around the company's workshop, in the mill district west of Hampden, reveals just how much more. On the first floor, next to the neat shelves stacked with cans of paint, two people are working on a table, sanding it, then taping off an area in the center, then brushing the edges and legs with a series of glazes. Nearby, an artist is turning out sample finish boards for the firm's newest technique, textured surfaces with color washes; behind her on a ladder, a man rolls the base color on a big piece of canvas, readying it to be painted with a mural. Upstairs, an artist on scaffolding is adding details to a teahouse she has painted on one of two large painted panels.

Up a few more stairs, in the studio and office space, samples abound: stencils; stencils embellished with hand-painted detail; hand-painted borders; painted faux "molding" and real molding painted with faux finishes (lapis lazuli and marble, among them); curtain "rods," cut out of wood and painted with neoclassical designs. Even the sponge-painted walls display the firm's work.

Endless possibilities

"We try to encourage people to try to think of these types of services in terms of the effect you can produce, so it's really a treatment to the room," Mr. Robinson says. "That's not to say that you have to put special painted finishes on everything. Sometimes just a really simple combination of a nice wall color, plus an interesting finish on the trim is enough, sometimes just a stencil border. It's a good way of creating an entire look, rather than just thinking in terms of the wall finish as an alternative to wallpaper.

"The possibilities are obviously endless -- for instance, why not consider doing a stencil or a stripe detail on your floor, instead of a wall finish. Sometimes that might do a lot more for a room, . . . or taking your crown molding and adding a couple of lines of gold leaf with a nice patina on it.

"It's lots of fun when we get a project where people allow us to do lavish combinations, where virtually all the surfaces are treated together," he says, but even a small project can have a big impact.

People should think of the "other possibilities," he says. "Ceilings, for instance, are frequently ignored."

In fact, at the moment his partner, Tom Hickey, is sitting at a drawing table designing a ceiling of painted-on "molding."

"Sometimes even if it's nothing more than creating a stripe border and two or three tones of color, you can add a lot of interest to a room in a way that strikes people as being unusual. I would say the one that Tom is designing is sort of mid-complexity. It has a border stripe, it'll probably be two tones -- the inner field and the outer border will be different colors -- and then it also has painted trompe l'oeil corner ornaments and a large central medallion. That's getting moderately complex," Mr. Robinson says. But, he adds, "It's impressive what just a simple stripe detail and two tones can do."

It's a little unusual to have so much activity going on in the workshop, Mr. Robinson says; normally the design is worked out in the studio and executed on-site. But it's partly a measure of the firm's success in exploring new areas for their expertise.

Visitors to this year's Baltimore Symphony Decorators' Show House may remember the "Artist's Atelier," designed by Valley Craftsmen as the studio of an imaginary decorative painter. Every surface in the small room was painted -- the walls, the stenciled borders, the ceiling with painted "molding." Existing molding on closet doors was picked out in various colors, and one door frame was painted to resemble black marble. But there was also a lot of painted canvas in the room: a large "tapestry" hanging on one wall; a black and white "tile" painted floor cloth; a chair seat with a "damask" design.

Murals popular

Murals and painted panels are increasingly popular, Mr. Robinson says, especially with chinoiserie, or Oriental-style, designs. The two panels being painted by artist Shawn Hall are good examples. Eventually there will be three panels, destined for a dining room. The designs are taken from the fabric used in the room, "Grand Tableau Chinoiserie," by Clarence House.

Murals can be painted directly on wall surfaces, Mr. Robinson says, but painting them on canvas and installing them like wallpaper has a couple of advantages: It means the artist can work in the shop, and not spend days and days in the client's way; and it allows the owners to take it down later and take it along if they move.

Even when the work is done on site, however, Valley Craftsmen tries to be expedient. "There are many finishes that can be done in the space of a day or so," Mr. Robinson says. "We are obviously a decent-sized company, and we send an appropriate number of people to the job site, so we don't hang around in your house forever."

The typical Valley Craftsmen project begins with an inquiry from a designer or from an individual -- they're not strictly to the trade. "We hope people come to us with a fairly well-formed idea of what they want. We encourage people to have pictures of something they've seen that they like -- tear pictures out of magazines, or whatever."

The craftspeople then meet with the designer or client, either taking some samples of treatments similar to what's being sought, or bringing people into the office to look at samples and designs from past projects. They get samples of other design elements to be used in the space -- swatches of fabric, pieces of tile or carpet, and prepare samples or sketches and a price estimate. There are revisions, if necessary, then a final sketch. Usually the artists will specify a background color, to be applied by an ordinary wall painter.

"There's a lot of discussion back and forth, and samples made and revisions -- this is very custom; our whole purpose is to make something unique and try to adapt it to fit your particular situation."

His favorite project so far is a residence where the owners and the designer, Greg LeVanis of Greg LeVanis Interiors of Baltimore, allowed the artists lots of freedom to contribute substantially to the design. "These people give us the kinds of room where we are literally allowed to cover every surface." The designer selected furniture and fabrics and set out a tone for each room, and then it was up to the craftsmen to decide how to accomplish the design ideas. Among the treatments: a painted "rococo" ceiling in the living room, with sky and birds in the center and an elaborate trompe l'oeil border; an "Empire" billiard room with mahogany wood graining, stenciled "damask" on the wall, and a black inlay design in the walnut floor; a whimsical impressionist-style mural all around the kitchen walls; a master bath with cabinets in crackled off-white glaze with touches of "rubbed-through" gold leaf, beige and white clouds painted on the ceiling, and, on the floor, a beige wash with a diagonal grid with medallions stenciled in soft bronze on the (real) tiger maple.

Prices vary radically, depending on the size and complexity of a job. A simple one-process frottage (applying glaze or paint with a rag) costs $1.50 per square foot; a large mural like the chinoiserie ones of the current project usually cost $4,000 to $6,000. Woodgraining runs from $6 to $12 a square foot, stenciling from $4 to $20 a square foot.

Way to pay bills

Mr. Robinson, a fine arts graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art, started the business when he got out of school, "looking for a way to pay the bills." Now there are a dozen full-time employees, who are paid on a salary basis, plus a percentage of the company's earnings.

"We take the creative decision-making down to the level of the person who's going to do the work," Mr. Robinson says. After all, he points out, the interaction in a project is between the craftsperson and the designer or owner.

For the future, Mr. Robinson dreams of some day having a showroom where people can walk around and look at samples of all of the different things the company can do. "I'd love to have people be able to come in and see more things, . . . nice, big examples of wall coverings, with different types of borders with them."

Meanwhile, the craftspeople are finding plenty of new ways to use their skills. "The sort of troweled texture with color washes -- we only thought this up a year or so ago, and everybody loves it," Mr. Robinson says. It seems to be very much in step with current design philosophy, he says. "I think people want surfaces to be inherently interesting and almost poetic, but there may be a trend going away from the ornate, opulent sort of look." Fashion is always changing, he notes; success is just a matter of keeping up with it and making sure painted decorative finishes fit in.

"It's our responsibility as practitioners to continue to innovate and to create new looks that fit into what people want today," he says. "And I don't have any doubt that we can."

The language of finishes

Here's a glossary of some of the terms used in painting decorative finishes:

*Glazing -- application of transparent color over a solid-color base. Glazes may be textured to produce parchment (mottled, suede-like finish), strie (subtle stripes) and other effects.

*Sponging -- applying paint or glaze with a sponge to produce a dappled effect.

*Frottage -- applying paint or glaze with a crumpled rag; this technique is also known as rag rolling, or ragging.

*Faux -- from the French word for "false"; painting a surface to imitate a natural material. Effects include graining (wood), marbleizing (stone), malachite (stone), lapis lazuli (stone), granite stone) and leather.

*Metallics -- applying leaf metals, such as gold leaf, or powdered metals ground in a liquid medium to act like paint.

*Stenciling -- using a cut-out pattern to apply a repeating design on walls, floors or ceilings.

*Trompe l'oeil -- French for "fool the eye"; painting a picture, often an architectural element such as a niche or "open" %J doorway, or clouds and birds on a ceiling, on a flat surface to give the appearance of depth.

*Murals -- painting a scene, usually a landscape, on a wall or on canvas that is pasted to a wall like wallpaper.

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