The Lewis Apartment
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There are very few times in ones life when everything one does seem to “click” in all the right ways and you can do no wrong. The Lewis apartment is one of these blessed occasions. Never have I had the experience of decorating a space that developed into more than just paint, plaster and cloth, to become something magical with a life and breathe of its own.
This page is primarily intended for people interested in interior design and decoration as a profession. It is big on pictures, packed with descriptive details, and long on narrative. You can either read the content, or simply look at the pictures. But if your aim is to learn from someone's experience, I urge you to do both.
I hope to answer two types of inquiries using the Lewis Apartment page as my forum. Firstly, I give a step-by-step account of how I “think” my way through a design project. In doing so, I talk about my interaction with clients, my working procedure, my sources of inspiration, and my design philosophy.
Secondly, I hope to satisfy the curiosity of those who want to know how I intertwine my career as a muralist and as an interior designer. Take into account that my life is my career; not the other way around. Life and career are not separated issues for me. This helps explain in part why I easily walk across the boundaries of several artistic professions, and why sometimes, I just walk away from it all . The chain of events that let me to the Lewis Apartment is a good example of this reality.
Miss Nancy Lewis, co-founder of the Panorama World Travel Agency (www.panoramaworldtravel.com) in Lakewood, Ohio, purchased her one-bedroom condo at the Gold Coast’s Carlyle Building before the real estate boom of the 1990’s. The New Jersey native had moved from San Diego to a Cleveland to work at a travel agency in Shaker Square before creating Panorama at the invitation of her business associate Vladan Blagojevic.
In the pre-September/11 era the international travel business was booming so she established herself permanently in the ‘city by the lake’. According to Nancy, the greatest perks of her job as a sales agent, office manager and travel consultant is travelling all over the world every time she can afford to get away from her busy schedule. When it comes to travelling, her suitcase is always ready.
I got to know Miss Lewis, like most of my clients, through a sequence of interrelated incidents. I do not advertise my services anywhere, I do not have a business number, I never do gallery shows, and I rarely frequent the 'artsy' scene. I have used the Muralmaster website to great effect as a personal portfolio promoting my skills, but this was after I'd been contacted by a potential client. How do people find out about me? They do so primarily by hearsay and word of mouth -by reputation. Sometimes, as in this story, things just happen by chance. Karma.
The CMHA mural
In the fall of 1998, Vladan drove by the site where I was working on my CMHA mural on Cleveland’s West 25th street. This Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority art piece had been designed by my good friend artist Hector Vega (a CMHA designer with their architectural office) and the agency hired me to do it on a massive thirty by seventy five foot exterior wall facing the agency’s parking lot.
After doing the necessary changes to the design to make it ‘mural worthy’, I proceeded to render the painting on the very uneven brick wall. My assistant for this job was the talented and very lovely Miss Andrea Karsic. We were atop the scaffolding taking a break while I taught Andrea how do dance a bolero (yes folks, I live in my own little world) when Vladan stopped to ask for a business card.
Not happy with the untimely interruption, I climbed down the scaffolding, exchanged a pleasantry and gave him one of my cards. I did not expect to hear from him again. Hey, I was almost finished with the present mural, I should be getting paid soon, and Andrea needed bolero lessons! Life was good. (Note: for more on the CMHA mural, read commentary on the 'murals' page by clicking the thumbnail.)
Over a month later I got a call from Vladan. I had no idea who he was nor did I remember then our previous encounter. Making things more confusing was Vladan’s accent -he is from Serbia. Now, I have an accent but he has AN ACCENT! I understood enough to jot down an address and make a visiting appointment to Panorama.
The Panorama Mural
The following week I visited Panorama, Vladan proudly showed me around the office and then explained his desire for a wall painting. Being a little early in the day for me (I sleep artist’s hours) I could barely lift my dark shades without the sun piercing my eyes into a coma, much less make sense of all that Vladan was saying which was a lot! But I got enough to understand that he wanted an office mural “relating to travel destinations”.
I gave him some ideas and a price quote, said my goodbyes and walked my laconic self out of the office. I did not expect to hear from him again. In the mural business, it is usually one out of ten who calls back. No one seems to understand the amount of time and effort required to paint murals, much less a professional one.
Well, after the passing of several more weeks, Vladan called again. He wanted his office mural and I was it. Actually, he had called several other artists for quotes but their artistic credentials where not to his standards. It must be said at this point that Vladan has excellent taste -he is European; he knows art. He is also a shrewd businessman who knows the value of a dollar. After some deliberation he concluded that with me he was getting both: artistic value and a great deal. Have I mentioned how smart he is?
And so, the Panorama World Travel Agency Mural saga began. It was nice to have a ‘warm’ interior mural commission during the winter. The side of the office which contained the wall I was to work on was virtually empty because of its recent remodelling so I had the place pretty much to myself. On the other side of the office, separated by a partition wall, the travel business flourished.
I painted mostly from late afternoons into the night. Almost every week Vladan had a few more picture references with “suggestions” about the mural. I listen patiently and then made a few charcoal markings on the wall to include his input. Once he was satisfied I proceeded to paint the nights scheduled task. By the next morning, it could be surmised, not all the suggestions ended up on the wall. Somehow, it all worked well.
Nancy always worked late into the evening -six days a week. Like almost everyone else, she was fascinated by my progress on the mural and we got to talk. She was also amused by the fact that I could nap on the carpet, sing “I feel like a natural woman” while painting, talk about Poke Môn with Vladan’s young son Stefan, and could also relate to her in detail how my then lover was spooking me with all those candles around her bathtub. What’s with women and candles!
As days became weeks, I began to feel weary. Painting the landscape backgrounds was easy as far as this type of painting goes, but the foreground elements were taking too long. I had chosen to paint the mural with acrylic paint because of their fast drying rate and its vibrant colour palette. In addition, acrylics are almost odourless and this is a desirable quality when painting in an active working area.
But the strongest argument for using acrylics was that they allowed me to work fast and then move on to other desirable projects. However, I was slowed down by the details. I could have selected images with less intricate minutiae, but my personal artistic standards dictate that I do what's good for the painting, not what's convenient for the painter.
When I finally completed the Panorama mural after almost four months of continued painting, Nancy asked me if I would be interested in taking a look at the tile work in her bathroom, a do-it-yourself project she was very proud of. I could also give her some pointers on further décor. We had become fast friends during my days in Panorama. She was always ready with a cup of coffee whenever I put my brush down -or when she heard me curse on the other side of the office! And so, after some time out to celebrate (and forget) my completion of the Panorama mural, I visited her suite in the Carlyle to take a look.
Nancy had done absolutely nothing to the place since she bought it. There was a shag brown carpet from the seventies and a large blue love seat that screamed “Please, burn me!” The walls were shades of a dull bone white and the cabinets in the efficiency kitchen were the colour of mud. When we got around to the business of décor, my first words were not very encouraging I simply can’t lie or kiss ass when it comes to taste. I told her what I thought and advised her to do a complete make-over.
I have to give her credit, she agreed with my assessment and confessed to feeling pretty much the way I felt she’s a classy lady who also has great taste. But, being a working girl, she did not have the budget to do the whole apartment. My advice was to save up until she was ready to do the entire place. In the meantime, I could think about it and come up with designs and a budget.
We agreed on this course of action with her only requirement being that she would be allowed to do most of the work herself, to which I said “great!” “I’ll show you what to do and then I’ll stop by to inspect.” This was a good deal for me. She would do all the grunt work, and I would take care of the details. This arrangement would also leave me free to pursue other work.
Two weeks had not passed when Nancy called me one evening to tell me that she was travelling to Europe, specifically France and Italy. She asked me to come along. I had plans to travel to Europe with an Italian-American girlfriend the following year, but hey, opportunity knocked and I wouldn’t have to pay for the ticket! My friend would understand, I felt sure -after she got over it.
Paris was great! I served as Nancy’s tour guide through all the art places, museums, and historical sites, and got to practice my French and later on my Italian. From the Gare Lyon train station in Paris we travel through Tuscany into Florence, Pisa, Genoa and then to Nice in France’s beautiful Cote d'Azur, where we stayed with friends. I cannot recommend more highly to anyone travelling to foreign places the need to bring along their travel agent! As travel agents go, Nancy is a magician. During this journey I satisfied one of my dreams -since watching Clark Gable in "It happened one night", I had always wanted to sleep in a train.
Being a Spanish speaker makes speaking Italian so much easier. In fact, I managed to pass as a native in several Italian restaurants until I asked for an English menu for my American friend and the cat was out of the bag. Naturally, not being able to resist such a golden opportunity for mischief, I played a lot of jokes on Nancy who has absolutely no ear for languages.
From Nice we visited Cannes and Monaco in the company of friends, one of whom was a computer analyst working for Monaco’s Prince Albert. Our Nice hosts, Mr. Carter Donohoe, a French-American Cleveland native, and his lovely wife Elizabeth “Babette” Roux, president of la Perfumerie Galimard (www.galimard.com) -France’s second oldest perfume company (f. 1747), were too generous for words.
On the way back to Paris for our return trip to the United States, we stopped at Avignon in Provence. Being a history devotee, I wanted to see the ruins and museum of the Papal Palace, a medieval relic of the Papal Schism within the Catholic Church in 1378.
The day of the visit happened to be November the seventh -my fortieth birthday. So at a small restaurant, Nancy and I had a celebratory dinner, our last one in France. While we waited for our order to be served, we talked about the things we enjoyed during our trip, such as the people, the history, the local colour, and the sites.
As we conversed, I drew a sketch of a Tuscan garden scene on a napkin. Nancy loved it and I suggested developing the sketch into a mural for her apartment. She liked this even more and throughout the meal I proceeded to elaborate about my ideas for the décor. By the time we had desert the design for the Lewis Apartment was completed.
Our visit to Tuscany and the Mediterranean coast had left a good impression on us. Nancy couldn't get enough of the old world look, the warm sun, the colours, the natural beauty, and the elegance of its many palazzos. So my design rested on recreating this “look” in her apartment. When you decide on a look the “decorative style” dictates the boundaries for colours, textures, materials, furnishings and adornments. It makes it easier for a designer to come up with a plan within that given range.
Back in Cleveland work began immediately. I had Nancy pull away the old rug and strip the walls of everything. We got rid of the couch and most of the furniture. The apartment is actually very small, just a one bedroom, a small kitchen, and a living room/dinning room combo. But the balcony view of the Lake Erie and the Cleveland skyline is worth every penny. And of course, the Carlyle has just about every modern convenience one can imagine.
Nancy made it clear from the start that she wanted to do as much of the manual work as her talents would allowed and that she was willing to learn new skills. I thought this was a splendid idea since my time was limited. A designer/decorator’s work does not start with painterly flourishes, it begins with rollers and heavy brushes after the carpenters, electricians and plasterers are done! I don’t think Miss Lewis had any idea what she was getting herself into -most people do not have a clue as to how labour intensive remodelling and decorating can be.
As is my custom on most of my decorative projects, I would be doing the necessary changes to the structure. While I try to keep changes to a minimum, my design scheme always dictated new arrangements in lighting, which would necessitate the addition of electrical lines, or the repositioning of outlets and switches. This was the case in Nancy’s apartment. Most of the other changes were purely illusionary and cosmetic. With the exception of outside installers for the carpet, I did the necessary work.
Seeing the light -a cool analytical assessment of the space
As the space was being stripped of all non-essentials, I formalised the decorative scheme. Since Nancy works during the day in a fast pace environment, we concluded that the apartment should be done for evening entertainment, a time when she was actually home ready to escape from the work stress of her daily routine. Therefore the décor should be soothing, peaceful and relaxed.
Nancy’s daytime activities were limited to Sundays and the occasional day off. Since she enjoys practicing gourmet cooking and loves having intimate dinners and brunches with a few friends, I determined that most of these daylight activities would centre on the dinner table. This dictated a slightly different approach for this area.
I have been to many places that were professionally done, but where the designers failed to determine the time of day when the space was going to be in use. In my opinion, the results were a complete waste of time and money. The mood, temperament, style and feel of a space as constructed by a studied combination of colour, light and texture, are determined by the purpose of the space and by its illumination whether natural or artificial. The lighting source makes all the difference in the world.
Let’s not forget that when you have light you also have ‘shadows’ a very important decorative element. I love shadows; they can add mystery and grandeur to any setting. In my decorative scheme for the Baerga residence, I combined lighting and foliage to “paint” abstract shadow patterns on the ceiling and under lit to add ‘fog’ to the floor. Compare the pictures below and see what a difference light makes.
I use light in a decoration scheme the same way a painter uses light to illuminate his subjects or the way a theatre director organizes props, points of view, backgrounds and actors in a mise-en-scene, through the careful selection and placement of these elements. Natural sunlight bathes everything in washes of blue; artificial light (for the most part) adds warm tones of amber. As light bounces from surface to surface it affects the tones and hues of the natural world perceived by the eye. Consequently, when it is artfully used, light becomes a powerful tool to control the ambiance of a space and the mood of those within. Once you understand how light works, you can really take to extremes -and get away with it! Check out the following example:
The balcony of the Lewis apartment faces the east with a view of the Cleveland skyline beyond the liquid expanse of the lake. Large windows and glass sliding doors allowed an uninterrupted view of the scene and Nancy wanted nothing to obstruct it. Direct sunlight washed into the apartment from dawn to about noon on a clear day. From afternoon till sunset reflected sunlight still provided ample illumination as the rays bounced off the lake waters.
The total main area of the apartment including the kitchen was about six hundred square feet, not a very large space. As a one-bedroom suite it was a comfortable but as place for cocktail entertainment it would feel crowded and small. I would need to create the illusion of a larger space without the use of mirrors.
Another concern was the change of seasons. During winter the Cleveland landscape is grey and bleak. The openness of the view facing the lake made this reality all too apparent. I felt this would translate into a frosty feeling that could depress anyone’s mood. Therefore, the apartment needed to appear warm and cosy in the winter.
The next to last consideration in my design assessment was reserved for the kitchen cabinets. These were the original cabinets installed when the place was constructed. They were old but also sturdy and in good shape. The only thing wrong with them was the colour mud. Dark mud. Replacing them was not in the budget but something needed to be done. I would have to give it some thought.
Finally, a design consideration of prime importance: the client’s taste and lifestyle. Let’s begin with the issue of taste with a lesson for newbie designers, and that is, never ask the clients what they like you will never get a straight answer. Ask instead what they DO NOT like. Everyone seems to have a ready answer for this one. Such as “I don’t like this colour”, or “I’m not into modern; I’m not into country styles...” This is a good starting point you should know early on before you cast your ideas into stone.
If you must, sometimes you can persuade a hesitant client to change their mind, but this is a long shot. If they are not certain about one of you design ideas but they trust your artistic judgement, then you might be able to implement your ideas. This was the case with the Lewis apartment. Nancy’s favourite colour is blue. Her car -a Mustang, is blue. Her eyes are blue… You get the gist. But blue is a cool colour and I wanted to warm up the place by going the complete opposite. In the end, trust won out and I did give her blue in other areas, as you will see later on.
On the issue of lifestyle, remember that a person is going to be “living” in the space. Your design should reflect this human touch. In Nancy’s case the obvious observation about her lifestyle is that she loves to travel. Therefore, I incorporated this lifestyle element into my plan to make the place her own. In essence, a good interior design must not only look great, I must also become an extension of the client’s personae.
The grunt work
After stripping the walls and floors, I had Nancy begin by painting the ceiling. The apartments in the Carlyle were constructed for efficiency using durable materials such as concrete on floors and ceilings. A coating of plaster had been applied over the concrete ceiling in a stucco fashion. Plaster dries to a white flat finish and therefore ceilings were not painted but left in this natural state what can be more efficient then that.
Thankfully, the stucco application over the ceiling resembled smooth frosting on a cake and not rough texture. Since lights played a big part in my design, I wanted the ceiling to act as a light and colour reflector. I told Nancy to give it two coats of primer followed by two coats of ultra white gloss latex paint three coats if necessary until the plaster became non-absorbent to retain its reflective sheen.
You would think that painting the ceiling with a roller would be an easy task. Well… think again. The ceiling surface was not flat but textured. It takes a lot of patience and hard work to cover every nook and cranny. Then you have to repeat the process with every additional coating. As much as you try to avoid it, paint will always fall on you. I personally can’t stand paint on my hands or any other part of me.
As requested, Nancy did the work thank God! Later in the evening I would stop to inspect the progress as she complained covered in paint about the pain in her back and the blisters in her hands. I pretended to listen with a concern look, accepted a cup of coffee, and then lay down flat on the floor to inspect her work. I would soon point at the ceiling here and there saying “Shivo, shivo… shivo (Spanish for Billy goat).” This is Puerto Rican slang for saying “The spot you missed is so obvious it’s screaming at me (like a goat!).” Nancy was not amused; it made my day.
After completing the ceilings, we concentrated on the kitchen. Since I could not replace the cabinets I decided to change their appearance. So I had Nancy remove all the doors and shelves off the cabinets and strip the original hardware. Then she had to wash them with ammonia and soap to remove time old grime and grease, sandpaper the surfaces to a dull rough finish, give them a coating of white primer, and then smooth the resulting finish with steel wool before applying another thinner coating of primer “mucho labour intensive!”
The Christmas holiday arrived and I thought it a splendid idea to take off with my kids to Puerto Rico to spend the season with my parents. This way Nancy had no one to complain to. After the holiday I came to inspect and, after coffee and the obligatory whining from my client (broken nails, yada, yada, yada…), I congratulated her for the absence of “shivos.” She was pleased. And, she was delighted with the loot of the world famous mountain-grown Puerto Rican coffee I brought her from the island.
During the weeks that followed, I did the necessary electrical work, such as installing outlets and new wiring for new ceiling lamps, repositioning phone lines, switches and the thermostat control box. When this kind of work was done on plaster walls, the job was routine, but when it came to the ceilings, I had to chisel groves through the concrete not an easy task. And since not one of the existing ceiling electrical boxes had been originally centred correctly, I had to change them all. Finally, with the completion of the electrical work, I declared the grunt work over. Now the real painting could begin.
The mural designs
Murals must never be an after thought -they will inevitably affect everything around them! They are an extension of the architecture and should be designed as if they belong within the space in order to 'alter' the structural plan to suit artistic aims. In the Lewis apartment I needed to make structural changes to the architecture. To accomplish these "changes," I designed two murals for the apartment: one for the living room area and another one for the dining room area.
My mural designs would address the dimensional problem discovered in my preliminary assessment -lack of space. For this reason, the primary purpose of the murals would be to make the apartment look larger than what it really was. With murals you can 'knock down' walls to create openings that let the "outdoor" in.
But how do you go about designing murals for a specific place? Let me tell you how my mind worked the problem. To achieve an elegant and serenely peaceful feel in the living room area I needed something very simple, something that was there but did not overwhelm. I pondered -"what if I knock down part of the wall so that we have a view of the Mediterranean? This would let in the ocean breeze and the relaxing sound of the waves. And, I could give it a true Mediterranean touch by using marble accents and a couple of nicely carved Greco-roman columns. Why not?"
"And for the dinning area, wouldn't it be nice to place the dinning setting next to a garden? And, beyond the garden, how about having a view of a beautiful Italian vista like the valley of Lombardy? This sounded wonderful. But wait a minute, what about bugs? I hate bugs! We'll going to have to place French doors between the dinning area and the garden to keep the bugs out."
This was a plan in the making which had its germinal origin on a table napkin in a small restaurant in Avignon. Now all I had to do was implement it, but first, we needed to tackle the walls with as much attention to detail as the murals. Since I knew in advance what the murals were going to look like, it was easy to proceed with the rest of the decoration. All I had to do now was to extend onto the walls the style and texture used in the murals. It was time to teach Nancy how to do faux painting.
Faux is a French word used to describe painting effects that transform the appearance of a surface and so deceive the eye into thinking that it is something else. The word means false, fake, imitation or artificial. Faux painting techniques can be used to create the effects of stone, marble, wood, rust, gold, and even leather. In the Lewis Apartment I used several faux effects on the kitchen's ceiling and cabinets and on all the walls in the apartment.
We started with the kitchen. This is the most active area in any home and it needed to be completed first. It would also help "break the ice" by getting me in the mood. Beside, Nancy needed to see the end result of all her hard work and maybe I could teach her how to wood grain.
Wood graining or 'woodgraining' is the technique used to imitate the beautiful, random patterns of natural wood grains. In the kitchen, I wood grained the cabinets and the ceiling to imitate rough wooden planks. This is a comparatively easy technique which I normally do using artist oil colours applied over an oil “slip” or glaze. However, for the kitchen cabinets I used instead fast-drying water-base tints. I was particularly interested in the colour of the wood, not the pattern of the wood grain. For a generic wood look, a fast and simple procedure was all I needed.
I had Nancy paint the primed surface with a coat cream colour latex paint. Next, I applied a wash of the desired wood tint over the surface with an inexpensive short-hair hog-bristle brush. And then, before the wash dried out, using the flat side of the brush pressed hard against the surface, I moved the brush in the direction of the wood grain leaving behind the desired wood grain pattern. Simple, fast and effective.
This method of wood graining was so easy to learn that I had Nancy do most of the work, including the kitchen ceiling. After she applied a coat of the cream colour paint to the ceiling, I drew the wood plank outlines with a brown colour permanent marker. Then Nancy wood grained each plank one at a time. The variations of the grain from plank to plank look so natural, that many visitors had to look twice! Nancy was so thrill with her new-found skill that she went on and wood grained a couple of chairs and her wooden trash bin so that they too match with the cabinets.
As a final protective step, a coat of satin finish varnish was applied over all the wood grained surfaces since the glazes do not form a hard finish. To complete the look of the "new” cabinets, all the hardware was replaced with glittering rounds and ivory covered handles. The old ceiling lamp was discarded in favour of warm fluorescents in a wood-finish box better suited to the new design.
A frieze is a broad horizontal band on the upper part of a wall that is decorated separately from the rest of the room with stencils, paintings, wallpaper or plasterwork. The Carlyle apartments were constructed with the sixties lack of sensitivity for human warmth -a prime example of functional modernist architecture. There was no frieze. Walls butted into the ceiling like folds in a cardboard box. Old world architectural styles used the frieze to great effect and since my decorative scheme was inspired by Mediterranean architecture I designed one for the Lewis apartment.
The design for the frieze consisted of an ornament of leafs twisting on a rod. Natural forms have been used for patterns in nearly every style of ornament. I designed the motif to look like either a simplified representation of the Laurel of the Ivy leaf. Both have symbolic meaning but I was only interested in their association with classical antiquity.
Painting the frieze by hand was a Nancy job. After her triumph on the kitchen’s wood graining I felt she was ready for a challenge. The frieze was painted on wood boards which also served as support for drapes, curtains and strip lights. Each board received several coats of latex primer on both sides followed by a couple coats of semi-gloss cream colour paint. Next, the leaf motif was drawn and painted using acrylic paints.
The motif's paper pattern was about twelve inches long. Nancy would trace a section of the pattern to the side of a board and then repeat the procedure until an entire board was done. Next she went over the outline with a brown colour permanent marker and finished by painting the green leafs and the red colour berries. At this point I took over.
Using artist oils I applied a “slip” of linseed oil over the surface of the painted design and then tint it with a glaze of yellow ochre, an earth colour that looks great next to terracotta. While the slip was still wet I added a green highlight to each leaf and then painted soft shadows to give the design some depth. After the boards had time to dry (for about a week) they were installed around the perimeter of the space thus creating a uniquely original frieze.
Nothing conjures up images of the Mediterranean like the colour of dusty terra cotta. Terracotta has a soft earth colour appearance that mix well with creams and whites. Its reddish tones create an atmosphere of warmth that blends in many subtle ways with the strong yellow sunlight associated with the Mediterranean. This in effect easily created with washes of diluted paint.
To create this effect on smooth plaster walls, I used a four step process applying latex paints in a flat finish. I began by painting the primed walls with a colourwash of yellow and allowed to dry for a least one day. Then I “added texture” by applying a layer of diluted burnt sienna (terracotta colour) with a natural sponge. I sponged square yard sections at a time moving rapidly across the entire wall to avoid strong colour. At random I adjust the pressure of the application from strong to soft to produce varied patterns that gave off the illusion of a wall “aged” by time and colour that had been bleached by the sun.
The third step consisted of applying a paler wash of a cream colour when the surface was completely dry. I gently brushed a small quantity over the surface so that it formed a thin, smooth veil of “dust”. The paint wash had to be thin enough so the previous applications remain visible. I used a gentle blending touch this time so there were no visible brush marks. Finally, I brushed in a wash of “sun” by applying a mix of yellow tinted clear medium to the surface. However, the amount of tinting varied from section to section and from wall to wall to create the illusion of “sun bleaching” which occurs naturally when over time the UV rays in natural light remove colour from surfaces. The section of the room directly hit by the sun was bleached the most.
Working a wall by applying a combination of semi-transparent layers of paint can add luminous effects of depth and texture to any room. It also creates a magical sense of mystery because the walls are always changing as the day changes. During the day the wall radiated an almost imperceptible sunny glow; during the night the walls gave out a warm amber afterglow, which was perfect for soft artificial lighting and candlelight.
Nancy later confessed having reservations when the terracotta "orange" was first applied. But she kept these fears to herself and patiently observed the transformation. When the process was completed she was amazed at how wonderful it looked and how right it felt. This was high praise indeed.
The display panels
I painted on several walls marble display panels. My idea was to contain within these spaces, in a well thought-out and elegant fashion, mementos collected by Nancy during her travels to other countries. I also used this feature because, like the frieze, it added visual rhythm to the space and provided interesting focal points for visitors.
I chose to paint marble panels because this material lend itself well to geometric shapes, the use of the material is seen as almost a status symbol, and because the gloss finish of the surface would bounce light around the room. There is also the factor that I could arbitrarily use any colour I wanted for the marble which I had the ability to paint even in my sleep.
The marbling, as this faux painting technique is known, was a simple process. After drawing the panels, I applied a coating of cream colour paint. When the latex paint dried, I brushed on an oil slip and, using artist's oils, painted the marble pattern. When the marbling dried, I applied a coat of varnish to give it a polished shine.
The Mediterranean mural
The living room area had the longest uninterrupted wall in the apartment. I had already decided to paint a wide vista of the Mediterranean Sea along this wall to open up the space. A very modest mural was all that was required to achieve the illusion merely tranquil waters and a clouded sky.
However, I made sure that the horizon line in the mural (the point where the waters meet the sky) match the horizon line on Lake Erie and the Cleveland Skyline. This important design detail between the real and the illusion helped establish a sense harmony and balance in the eye of the viewer.
The mural was basically a monochrome painting of white and blue Nancy got her blue colour! It was painted in one afternoon. After marking the horizon line, I free handed the entire thing with a two-inch bristle brush while listening to books on tape. The next day after the paint had dried, I “boxed” in the mural with the wall’s base coating of yellow paint. Next I completed the terracotta faux finish.
Notice that I painted the mural first and then I did the wall. The reason for this is simple and practical: I didn’t have to worry about getting blue paint on the finished walls. Had I done so, I would have been almost impossible to match the faux effect again.
The next step was to add a “Sienna marble” frame around the edge of the mural to complete the illusion of depth by giving the cutaway of the wall some thickness. In painting the frame, I kept the perspective at the centre of the horizon line and did the marbling using artist’s oils over a slip of linseed oil.
Now, since painted architecture “must” behave according to the laws of the real thing -like gravity, I added a couple of finely carved classical columns to help “support” the weight of the lintel (the top joist). Without this sturdy support the structural tension in such a wide opening may have caused the weight of the top beam to give way and thus come crashing down -possibly hurting my client! The horror! Safety first, that’s my motto.
Lighting and drapes
Now came time for the magic -by adding lights and filters. Behind the frieze board I fastened a strip of lights. "Strip lights" are tiny light bulbs that come wired and secured within plastic tubing. They give away very little heat and one can add more than one strip end to end to achieve a desired length.
To power, one simply plugs one end the strip to an electrical outlet. This I did with the additional provision of adding a switch that controlled power to the outlet. Strip lighting is very safe and the little light bulbs seem to last forever (in seven years I never had to replace one).
The same switch controlled power to the flood lamps that were positioned under the sofa. On the switch box, which I had positioned on the wall close to the entrance, I added a second switch to control the power to the corner night lamps.
One can control the intensity of a light by regulating the electrical current with a dimmer, but what exploits the characteristics of lights to create magic is diffusion and reflection. Acting as hard surface reflector were the white glossy ceiling and the shiny marble panels painted on the walls. But to diffuse the light and redirected it in an artistic way, I use fabric.
The fabric used was “scrim”, a type of netting used as a backing for the bottom side of furniture. This very inexpensive material has some very desirable qualities: it hangs beautifully, it is lightweight, it’s almost transparent, and the material is soft and “airy.” Its only drawback is that it is almost impossible to sew. However, we easily solved this problem by fixing with a hot iron a self-adhesive fabric edging which is sold in rolls.
The scrim drape panels were attached to the back of the frieze board and then gathered just below the painted marble sill with tasselled pieces of rope. When the lights were turned on, the folds of the drapes redirected the lights to give the illusion of a series of fluted champagne glasses. Now, what could be more appropriated than that for an evening of elegant entertainment?
Additional reflected illumination came from under the sofas. This combination of soft filtered and reflected lights -bouncing off the warm colour walls, have the added magical gift of making every face in the room look as beautiful as Hollywood stars. The total effect is serenely romantic!
When more illumination is need, the night lamps are turned on. Still, the effect persists. Add to this the nightlights of the Cleveland skyline and a soft, caressing breeze "from the Mediterranean" gently bellowing the drapes, then put on the fabulous voice of Andrea Bocelli in the background, and the night's possibilities seem endless. Ah... (Sigh) life is good!
"Buy only the pieces of furniture you really need and never buy more furniture than you can comfortably fit in a space.” this is my first piece of advice to clients. Check out my simple and very crude pencil sketch of the living room arrangement. I did it to show Nancy what I had in mind before we even began to paint the walls. Compare it to the picture of the finished area and notice how closely it follows the sketch. If you know what you want "before" you go shopping for furniture, you will buy only what you need -and only what's right!
From the start, I wanted a couple of elegant furniture pieces upholstered in a light colour fabric -an unbleached cotton-blend combination with a 'vanilla' tone. The light-colour fabric looked great against the warm terracotta walls and the soft ‘jade’ tone of the carpet. The cushions on the love-seat and sofa are reversible, with a nice flower print on one side which offered the possibility of several decorative combinations to the ensemble.
Night lamps and a corner lamp table, a mirror-surface cocktail table centred on an area rug, a dash of greens and few knickknacks completed the décor. This living room arrangement provided a nice area for relaxing and conversation that was both intimate and comfortable -and looked very elegant day or night!
To house an entertainment centre and the television-DVD combo, I designed and build two wooden cabinets. The design reproduced the simple lines and colour of the living room tables. I marbleised the cabinet tops in tones of sienna and had Nancy apply a covering of clear acrylic resin to make them impervious to surface damage. The tops are removable to provide easy service access to the units and the television cabinet is mounted on Teflon coated gliders. As with the living room area furniture, these entertainment components were purchased to fit a pre-conceived scheme and the tailor-made cabinets constructed afterward.
Trompe L'oeil door
The door to the apartment was plain and smooth -no character to it. Replacing it was out of the question but something had to be done to bring a sophisticated touch -a design that would delight and surprise the guests! The solution was to create the illusion of an expensive door, using a range of trompe l'oeil effects made with paint.
Used since Greco-Roman times, trompe l'oeil (meaning literally, "to trick the eye"), is a cheap and effective decorative device. Trompe-l'oeil reached great heights of sophistication in eighteenth-century Europe, and since the 1980's it has seen a revival of sorts. Decorators love to repeat the term "trompe-l'oeil" to impress their clients because it sounds so... sophisticated. But the real sophistication of the device is in the illusion it creates when properly and expertly applied -as these series of photographs show. To this day, I think this trompe-l'oeil door is my favourite piece in the whole apartment.
Good decorations can give a great deal of pleasure to our existence so I made sure that every wall and room in the Lewis apartment received careful consideration. The narrow hallway connecting the bedroom and bathroom to the rest of the apartment had a wall that provided an intimate area to display family pictures. Since one usually views such items from a close up position, the normally restrictive space proved to be an ideal setting.
I designed a display scheme using picture frames of mostly uniform size. Nancy purchase inexpensive ornate wooden frames to which we added gold painted accents and further treated to give them for an "antique" look. The pictures were an assorted collection of photographs spanning one hundred years of family recorded history. All were of different sizes, colours and finishes. So I scanned the photos and, using Photoshop in my computer, proceeded to resize and make adjustments to achieve an uniform look on all the pictures. Lastly, I printed them in a 'sepia' tone and set them in the frames.
On the ceiling, tract lighting was added to provide illumination. At the end wall I added another elegant touch by placing a mirror purchased during Nancy's latest European trip at one of the famed glass factories of Murano, in Venice. The mirror also had the practical advantage of increasing the illusion of space and further reflecting illumination around the space (and I also like to look at my reflection when walk in).
It takes only a few carefully chosen "accessories" to personalise a decorative scheme. So, below the mirror, on top of a nice antique table, we placed an excellent carving of the Hindu god Vishnu adquired during a trip to Bali, a favourite souvenir and nice reminder of a great vacation.
Nancy received a nice gift from one of her Egyptian friends, reproductions of ancient paintings done on authentic papyrus. While ancient Egypt was famous of its abundance of papyrus reeds, they have disappeared in modern times. But some reeds are still specially cultivated to manufacture the papyrus used in the tourist trade. In fact, items such as these come with an official certificate of authenticity. To properly display the art, I "sandwiched" the papyrus between two sheets of glass and then mounted them on the wall.
Another trip that provided decorative accessories for the apartment walls was a visit to Puerto Rico. The ancient and beautiful walled city of Old San Juan is one of our favourite spots in the island. Old San Juan is also one of the best preserved Spanish colonial cities in America and is visited yearly by millions of tourist from around the world. The city is alive; along with its magnificent monuments and fortifications from its distant past, Old San Juan has a thriving community of residents which rate among the most sophisticated and hospitable people in the world.
During our short visit, we stayed at 'El Convento', a four star hotel which used to be a fifteen century Carmelite Catholic convent. The hotel is perfectly situated across the San Juan Cathedral and a block from 'La Fortaleza' (the fortress), also known as 'La Casa Blanca' (the White House), were the governor of Puerto Rico resides. Here's a bit of trivia: La Fortaleza is the second oldest executive mansion in the Western Hemisphere still in use; the oldest one is in the Dominican Republic.
During an evening stroll through the city's narrow purple cobblestone streets, we noticed a small shop that made colourful plaster plaques representing examples of Old San Juan's unique colonial architecture. Nancy purchased several pieces from the shop's artist and proprietor, a jovial Frenchman who came to visit but stayed for love. Back in Cleveland I installed the plaques on the marble display panels where they continue to provide a wonderful reminder of another great travel experience. Here's another piece of interesting trivia: the cobblestone street with parked cars on the El Convento picture is the oldest paved street in the New World!
There are still several wall spaces awaiting to be filled with the perfect decorative pieces. But there is no rush when it comes to good decor. Whatever art work ends up filling these spots must be something of special significance -something with a story. And since Nancy still has a list of places she hasn't been to, the opportunity to acquire some interesting mementos during her travels is far from over.
The Tuscan mural
The dining area in the apartment is the showstopper of the entire design. Notice on my early pencil sketch how I noted all the elements that made this a great piece: a Tuscan scene mural, French doors, a stain-glass ceiling lamp, a ceramic tile floor, a dinning set with a glass top table. All these components had to be designed, created, found, and purchased.
While work proceeded in other areas of the apartment, Nancy and I would spend our evenings visiting area furniture stores. It took several trips until we spotted what we were looking for. We found a glass-top dinning table with an interesting plaster-cast sculptural base that would fit nicely into my design scheme. The chairs, which were purchased separately, were of a two-tone striped cream colour fabric and a champagne-colour enamelled wood -and, they were very study and comfortable.
After completing the surrounding walls and laying down the ceramic tile floor (more about this later on), I proceeded to paint the mural. Since Nancy would be using this area mostly during mornings and afternoons for breakfast and for entertainment, I used soft colours on the blue spectrum that would react favourably to daytime light. This made the landscape areas in the painting look bright and cheery.
Before applying my first coating of acrylic paint, I pencilled in the French doors and the glass pane partitions. Then I used masking tape to delineate and cover these areas. Once the landscape part of the mural was completed, I removed the tape to reveal the perfect outlines of the French doors. The final step was painting the doors. This I did using oil paints which allowed me to paint in a slower and more relaxed manner.
I completed the mural by adding two pieces of visual trickery. I glued wooden dowels on the wall and painted them to look like door hinges, and, I attached real handles to both doors. Many people have been fooled by this simple device, fore even when they know that the landscape is a painting, they invariably get fooled by the doors -particularly when viewed during the night.
While I was painting this mural I stopped to take notice of the yellow 'pon-pom' flowers I had just completed painting. Then I realised that the only other time I had ever painted this type of flowers was exactly thirty years before when I did my first mural. After careful consideration I reached the conclusion that they looked exactly the same; nothing had changed in thirty years -as far as pon-poms go.
The painting of the mural took a couple of weeks. I used an impressionistic style of painting (bold heavy brushstrokes) which I believe works best when doing landscapes. However, I kept the intensity of the colours restrained as to not overpower the visual impact of the scene. To add visual depth to the view, I made used of soft atmospheric effects. And finally, to make the landscape more interesting to the viewer, I added a few architectural elements to the composition, such as a stone bridge, a garden pond, a few ruins among the hay stacks, and a flower covered gazebo.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a wonderful article, written by Diane Dipiero, about the Lewis apartment with a picture of the finished dining room area on its spread. It made Nancy a 'celebrity resident' overnight. It still amazes me to hear people's reaction to this picture -everyone seems awed by its simple and yet lovely charm. Some months after the publication, several more hundred people got to see the apartment during a Carlyle open house. The reaction was enthusiastically unanimous. After listening to each admirer rave about it, I had to go back to take a look and try to see it as others saw it. While I was doing the job, it was just that -another painting job.
Nancy has a particular taste in pets -she likes bunnies. A short time after completing the apartment, there was a new arrival -Sir Peppy Lewis. This is the most curious and stubborn little creature I have ever encountered. In no time at all, he made the apartment his. I must admit, seeing a furry little bunny hop his way across the room while I'm sipping my coffee, seems like the most natural thing at the Lewis apartment -it fits! Maybe I'm just getting soft in my old age.
Nothing says "Mediterranean" like beautiful ceramic tiles. I knew from the start what I wanted tile in the kitchen and dining room area. Using decorative tiles are a natural thing in Puerto Rico -something out of our Spanish heritage. One can find beautiful tiles imported from Spain, Portugal or Italy. But finding the same type of tiles in Cleveland is another story. There are many tiles centres, but anything with European style and beauty is consider 'special order' -which means you have to pay through the nose to get them. Sometimes, even the selection found in special order tiles is far too limited.
Nancy and I visited every tile store in the Greater Cleveland area. We did not want to pay high prices. Period. Nor did we intend to put just anything that was available. Finally, we found a small store (which has since gone out of business) that had a nice terracotta-finish tile that was ideal for our needs. However, the secret of great tile work is not just using quality tiles, but in laying the tiles in an artistic pattern and also introducing additional decorative elements into the composition. I wanted to create something simple but memorable so we selected other tiles to add elegance to our design.
After selecting the tiles, I prepared a scale diagram for the dining area floor. The diagram told me exactly how many tiles I needed to buy and how to fit them in a pattern. It also told me that I had a problem. I had three different tiles to work with: terracotta tiles, green accent tiles, and a 'Tuscan' decorative tile. However, all the tiles were made by different manufacturers so there were discrepancies in the tile dimensions. This meant that I needed to plan carefully and make adjustments as I laid them down.
The Tuscan tiles served the purpose of outlining the dining area -like an area rug. These, of course, were the most expensive pieces -and a good choice by Nancy. But in the final scheme of things, they were worth every penny. Notice how the plant scroll design on these tiles compares to the similar motif of the ceiling frieze. Also notice in the bottom left picture how the green accent tiles in the floor match the colour of the end curtain panel. Repetition of colours and patterns adds visual rhythm and unity to the overall design.
The ceiling lamp over the dining room table was constructed by my friend (and former student) Joan Deveney from a life-size cardboard 3-D model that I had designed. It was put together from pieces of stained glass. I wanted a lamp that would provide a soft glow around the room but that would also shoot a beam of light directly below into the table's centrepiece. Joan did a great job constructing the piece and, to control the intensity of the light, I had Nancy installed a dimmer switch -after I turned off the electrical power! -Safety first.
The final touch for the dining area was applying soft pastel tones to the table's sculptural base. This simple touch made what might have looked like a tacky furniture piece into a piece of tasteful art. It should now become evident why I selected a glass-top table for my design. The idea of having a glass-top dining table had been with me from the beginning since the clear glass would not obstruct the view of the mural, the tile floor, or the sculptural base.
Sir Peppy approved of the overall dining area design. In fact, he appropriated a spot for his evening rest. After standing on his two hind legs to smell the flowers (probably imagining them as his own little private salad bar), he enjoys lying down on the cool tile lording over his domain. (Note: for more on Peppy, please see 'Beatnik Bunny' in the 'Current Works' page.)
It's not over yet...
Two rooms which were not including in the original design scheme were the bathroom and the bedroom. Then one day Nancy got restless and began painting the walls on her own -in mint green, using some of the faux paint techniques I had taught her to do. She asked me for ideas and I suggested doing something with her closet doors. My idea, it goes without saying, was not a simple paint job, but a full blown mural showing a scene of the gorgeous city of Luzern, Switzerland, seen through the "bedroom doors" to a balcony.
We had a wonderful time in Luzern during another European trip with my then teenage children Alex and Selina. In fact, on the far right panel one can see the balcony of the hotel we stayed in -Hotel Amsterdam. Luzern is a fairy tale city build around a small lake dotted with swans. One of its most prominent landmarks is a wooden medieval bridge crossing the lake. At the far distance, one can see the Swiss Alps. I included all these elements in the composition.
The doors were removed and painted at my place during the winter months. Once completed, I re-installed them and then painted the surrounding frame. The wood grained part of the mural's doors was done in flat tones, but the landscape areas seen through the "window panes" had a reflective gloss finish to simulate the qualities of glass.
The entire mural was done in acrylic paints. Notice the impressionistic brushstrokes I used to render the scene. The final touch on these doors was the addition of brass handles which I positioned exactly where the doors hinged and fold. I prefer to place handles in this fashion because it reduces the stress on the folding doors when one pulls them open -and the glide is very smooth.
Again, mementos from Nancy's travels were used to decorate the wall. For example, I matted and framed two small paintings she had purchased from street artists during a brief residency in San Diego and placed them near the window to make the rich colour of the art more luminous. There are still a few more decorative ideas to implement in the bedrooms decor, but these will be implemented as we find the time to do them. Decorating ones home is a lifetime passion which seems to be never completed -but that's part of the charm.
The decoration of the Lewis Apartment was done in stages over a one year period. One project that remains to be done is the apartment's balcony, but plans are in the works -they involve flower boxers, rose trellises, Chinese lanterns -and a bunny play pen. But that's another story for future updates. As you can appreciate from the above picture, Miss Nancy Lewis is one happy and delighted customer; she has an apartment worthy of the pages of Architectural Digest.
It has been a long road from the simple rural hamlet of Boquerón -Puerto Rico, to the trendy high-rise in Lakewood's Gold Coast. When I turned seventeen, I painted a mural for my grandmother on her living room wall. This was my third mural. It was a pastoral scene that included some of the things she enjoyed seeing. I would have done it for free (I adored my "abuela" who passed away in the late 1980's) but she insisted on at least paying me one hundred dollars -I huge sum for a teenager who had never done much painting in his life.
I was happy to make my grandma happy -both my grandparents adored the mural, and I was happy to be paid for something that "was not real work." But I did not relish the idea of painting for a living. I didn't like the way paint smelled, I disliked getting paint on my hands, and I was uncomfortable when people kept telling me how talented I was. I even fell badly for my brother when people started calling him "el hermano del pintor" -the painter's brother.
Now thirty years after the fact I'm still painting though some of my earlier hangout still persist. But I have since recognized that -like or not, I am good at what I do and what I do makes a lot of people happy. So for me the measure of my success is calculated in smiles. I like to please people and make them feel good about themselves. Art is my way of doing just that.
What makes me happy? That's another story. It is not painting; it never was. But art and painting are a part of me that has provided a wondrous world I like exploring and a lifestyle that many call unique. When I began working at the Lewis Apartment I never suspected that I would also become a resident of the Carlyle -and that Miss Lewis may one day become Nancy A. Lewis of Rivera-Resto.
But these are the twists and turns of fate, the mysteries of my life brought about when one day I found out that I could paint. I ponder about the future; I need new challenges... I want more so I continue to complicate my life. I worry and fret about my place in life. But at the end of the day I know that, if given the opportunity, I can do much to make others smile.
I have received many letters from readers of this page particularly from design students from the United States. One of the comments that invariably comes up is the question of travel -and language. This is a big issue. Not including ethnic minorities from other countries in the United States, “Americans” are a ‘monolingual’ society. There is even a common joke that says: -“What do you call a person that speaks two languages? Answer: Bilingual. What do you call a person that speaks one language? Answer: An American.”
To be fair, the French are also (proudly) monolingual. The fact is that unless someone has to travel outside their own country, most people have no need or motivation to learn a foreign language. Still I feel it is deplorable that in an age of affordable plane fares when all it takes is hours to visit any part of the globe, many individuals with the desire to travel shy away from the enrichment of the experience due to their fears of finding themselves “lost” away from home.
So for all my fellow English-speaking Americans who would like to travel to an exotic “European” locale right now without leaving their own country, I have a suggestion: visit the “foreign country” of Puerto Rico. Yes, you heard me right. The city of Old San Juan is one of the best preserved “colonial” cities in the New World, and it is part of the United States! The people are friendly, BILINGUAL, the place is exotic, cultured, cosmopolitan and flavoured with that “Old World” charm. It has something for everyone including the kids.
You do not need a passport, only a valid ID such as a driver’s license. It’s like travelling to another state. All you have to do is buy a ticket (I have travelled round trip from Cleveland, Ohio for less than $400), reserved a hotel for a few days, hop on a plane and go! Bring a friend or two. In a few hours by the time you eat your peanuts and watch a movie, you are there.
The place is hot, tropical, bright, loud, exciting, different, Spanish, historical, educational, beautiful, romantic, hospitable, safe, and always on the move. And, if you got the time, from San Juan you have an island full of places to visit. It is still the US -but not quite! That’s the exciting part. Visiting Puerto Rico will be an enjoyable education for you. This is one of the best deals around. The experience, I’m sure, will transform you in a positive way. It will cure your travelling fears and prepare you for your next step: the rest of the world!
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