03 March 2016

Grotesque Obsession: The Art of Carolina d'Ayala Valva

linen table runner by Carolina d'Ayala Valva for Nina's Home Artists for Textiles
recent designs from Nina's Home Artists for Textiles

For more than 20 years, Carolina d’Ayala Valva and her partner Walter Cipriani have been decorating interiors from their atelier in the historical center of Rome.  Carolina has become known as a modern-day champion of Grottesca (also called grotesque),  a style of ornament first made popular by the Renaissance artist Raphael, and literally wrote the book on the techniques and use of this historic form. Walter excels at the important and age-old techniques of scagliola, and this talented couple are highly in-demand for decorating prestigious interiors from Rome to Paris to St. Petersburg.

I met them at the Salon, an international  gathering of decorative artists who meet in a different city each year. What impressed me most wasn't just the mastery of historic techniques, but the fresh and relevant way these techniques are being used in their work.

Recently, the famous French wallpaper manufacture Zuber commissioned new wallpaper designs from each of them, which has in turn led to the creation of a new line of fabrics and accessories for interiors, called Nina’s Home Artists for Textiles (named for their inspiring dog, Nina.)    Cushions, lampshades, and table linens are printed on natural fibres, entirely made in Italy.

Carolina in her studio
Grottesca candelabra panel

Carolina d’Ayala Valva is also a highly skilled and sought-after teacher of painted ornament, and I have invited her to my studio in San Francisco for a week-long workshop on the art of Grottesca later this year.

Here she is interviewed for The Ornamentalist. Get to know the work of this exceptional decorative artist!

Please tell me about your education and training. How did you learn to paint like this?

I did not start my professional career as a decorative painter, but as an architect.

  Architecture was not my first choice, but an alternative to my desire to attend the Academy of Fine Arts. However, it is thanks to the long university studies that I have design discipline, which is also very useful in my work as a decorator. So in the end, I'm a self-taught.

Was there any one person or place that inspired you to become a decorative artist?

Living in Rome, surrounded by a unique artistic context in the world, inspired me deeply.  It’s especially here that I could cultivate my passion for the “Grotesque” design.

  Our Atelier (L’Artelier-Roma) was two steps from the Vatican City and, in the past, I have often had the chance to see up close the Grotesque decorations in the halls of the Vatican Museums and the loggia of Raphael, which are the first and most famous in the world. I have been able to admire the beauty, the harmony of the colors and the fast but masterful brushstrokes of the artist.

  For all this I consider myself lucky.

Over time, though I was immersed in a wonderful classical context,  I tried to develop a very personal style, both in the use of the color and in the design’s style.  I also love to try more contemporary sources of inspiration that can be anywhere in the life of every day, inserting modern elements in the classic structures.
~ Carolina d'Ayala Valva 

set of doors ornamented with  figures in a grottesca style by Carolina d'Ayala Valva

work in progress on a Grottesca element

Which are your favorite materials/medium for painting?  favorite brushes or tools?

My favorite technique for painting, is the egg tempera.  I also use it for painting more contemporary subjects, in fact, is my personal opinion, that the egg tempera has no equal for beauty, brilliance and color depth. The egg yolk binder gives a softness and a flexibility to the brushstroke, truly unique. The binder allows the use of pure powdered pigments, these offer the possibility of having an infinite palette, rich in nuances that gives to the work so realized, the sumptuousness of the paintings of the ancient masters, performed with the same technique.

Of great importance in the use of this type of tempera is the choice of right brush, the right brush, leads to having an elegant pictorial gesture, soft and sinuous.  I use round synthetic brushes, very flexible and highly accurate.

custom ceiling featuring Grottesche painted by Carolina d'Ayala Valva

Some of Carolina's fabric designs made into tote bags!

What's new? favorite recent projects?

I worked for years painting Grotesque decoration work on ceilings, furniture and panels for important clients in several countries.
So much work and experience led me to publish a book: "Art et Techniques de la Grotesque" (Editions Vial, 2009) and this made my work widely known around the world, encouraging also my activity as a teacher in Italy, France, Belgium and the U.S.

In 2013, as a result of the popularity of the book,  Zuber,  the famous producer of papier peint, contacted me for a partnership in order to create a new collection of wallpapers inspired by my Grotesques.  And this was the impetus to start building my collection of printed digital fabrics with the brand:  Nina’s Home Artists for Textiles.

Please tell us a bit about the process of designing for textiles. 

Each design is first painted by hand as a work of art in a single original water-colored model. Then, the quality of the digital printing process allows us to reproduce the slightest nuances and brushstroke on the fabric, preserving the charm and originality of our hand-painted model.
As mentioned above, modernity and tradition, this is the right mix today to further our art.

painted ceiling with modern Grottesche by Carolina d'Ayala Valva

15 January 2016

Creating an Heirloom Display

Miniature portrait of Marie Antoinette, gouache on ivory, in an ormolu frame.
Some years ago I began a journey, cleaning and restoring a large collection of miniature portraits that had belonged to my great-grandmother.  A group of these had been set aside for my niece, Elizabeth, and long after I had finished cleaning them, I was still struggling with a way to arrange them in some kind of display, to both protect and present them in a relevant way.

Miniature collection, cleaned and restored, and arranged for framing!

Enter the wonderful Christine Lando.  Christine is an artist and archival framer,  with whom I share my studio in San Francisco.  She located a vintage oval frame with convex glass in which to set the collection.  The frame had been spray over with gold-brown radiator paint and its glass had been glued in place with gobs of silicone caulk.  While Christine studied the grouping of the miniatures and devised ways to attractively mount them in a reversible, museum-quality manner, I set about cleaning and re-gilding the frame itself.

Christine Lando, framer extraordinaire, made careful notes in preparation for mounting this display of miniature portraits.

Auntie Lynne, gilding the antique oval frame
gilding in progress

The frame was re-gilded using composition leaf, on a base of casein gesso made by Sinopia. This was then shellacked, antiqued, and waxed to make a nice vintage "French" looking finish.

The finished piece makes a very sweet display for this collection,  and a nice decorative addition to my newlywed niece's new home. 

Seven beauties presented in a vintage gilt frame with convex glass.

Soon after completing this display, I decided to make a similar heirloom as a gift for my sister.   To compliment the goth aesthetic of her home, I chose three portraits out of the collection that are just a tad creepy.  Christine created a shadowbox frame out of her personal stash of Italian mouldings, this one with a verdigris guilloche pattern.

A group of three miniature portraits of Marie Antionette, mounted in a shadowbox frame by Christine Lando

Included in this trio is my favorite big-eyed portrait of Marie Antionette,  beautifully painted and set  in an ormolu frame (see first image.)  This piece had a noticeable crack in it, damage that occurred after the frame had been back-stuffed with paper and cardboard (to keep it tight or something) which then got wet and swelled, pushing the fragile ivory substrate into the pillowed crystal front until it snapped. Someone then glued it to a piece of paper and stuffed it back into its frame.  After removing all the garbage from the back of the painting, I set it in a press for a few days to flatten it, and then cleaned it and restored just a few tiny areas. It is stable and won't get any worse, and in this setting, I think the remaining fracture adds a certain je ne sais quoi. 

See this previous post for up-close photos of these miniature portraits.
Have something special needing an inventive framing solution?
Christine Lando  artist, archival framer    415.821.6485

29 November 2015

Theatre of Dreams

Glittering Tree toppers at Wendy Addison's studio Theatre of Dreams

A cold, clear holiday weekend,  and what better way to enjoy the beauty of the San Francisco Bay Area than to escape the city and have a short adventure to Port Costa?   It's been far too long since I last visited Wendy Addison's studio, and today the Theatre of Dreams is open!

Theatre of Dreams holiday shop in Port Costa;  Bob's roasted nuts being sold outside

Port Costa is a charming little place on the Carquinez Straight, at the end of a windy canyon road,  and it's utterly beautiful in a frozen-in-time kind of way.  And today it was nearly freezing so the Maestro and I  began with a warming drink at the Warehouse Café, which in the summer is usually full of bikers, but was at that hour perfectly deserted. Then we went to visit the shop, which is housed in an old flat-front Victorian with a double wrap-around porch. 

inside the Theatre of Dreams

Inside the Theatre of Dreams is dark and twinkling with glitter ornaments, gift boxes, and mysterious shadows.  Wendy's creations are made from antique ribbon, old sheet music, German glass glitter, letter-pressed phrases, vintage ephemera.  Her work is as much about atmosphere and memory as it is about tactile beauty.  Visiting her studio is a wonderful and inspiring experience.

a small diorama by Wendy Addison

For a couple of weekends just after Thanksgiving, the Theatre of Dreams is open as a holiday shop.

Of course we ran into our old friend Kathleen Crowley there, another creative spirit and maker of beautiful things whose studio is in just downstream in Crockett.  Weren't we supposed to make tiaras and just start wearing them all the time?

We lingered admiring the glittering décor and another warming drink at the Warehouse, and then wandered across the street to the refashioned  Bull Valley Roadhouse for some excellent comfort food.

More nostalgia:  more photos of the Theatre of Dreams in this previous post (2011)  Cirque de Nöel.

A paper memento mori and Halloween gift boxes
gift boxes displayed under the watchful shadow of a large faerie.

The  Theatre of Dreams  annual holiday open house
Friday-Sunday  November 27-29  and  December 5-7
#11 Canyon Lake Drive, Port Costa, California
(510) 672-1900

a piano vignette inside the Bull Valley Roadhouse

all photos in this post by Lynne Rutter - click to view larger

25 November 2015

Exterior Color: Alameda Queen Anne

Morton St. Queen Anne with a new paint scheme by Lynne Rutter

Alameda, California is a lovely small town on its own island, and home to the best flea market on the West Coast.  I counted as a good sign that my clients called me from Forbidden Island, Alameda's famous tiki bar, asking for help choosing paint colors for the Victorian house they had just bought.
The house is a fabulous 1890 "Queen Anne" style, set back from the street with a front garden.  It had been painted with a bachelor-pad color scheme in the late 1980s, and it seemed to me the feminine aspects of the architecture got a bit lost in the process. 

Before: "bachelor pad" color scheme or brown and beige

Walter Crane "Swans" by Bradbury and Bradbury

With a major restoration and interior upgrade already in progress,  the exterior painting was a ways off, but it often feels like the light at the end of a long tunnel to have the colors worked out in advance, and to have that to look forward to, as well as to help us focus on what this house - what the experience of living in this house -  will be "about."
I was asked to give her back her dignity, as well as some of her sass, like a well-dressed lady who is also fabulously smart.

Meanwhile, awkwardly-added gutters and downspouts were reworked or replaced, and the balcony rebuilt; a large number of window sashes were replaced as were many of the cedar shingles.

Our new color scheme was inspired in part by an Aesthetic Movement poster, printed by Bradbury and Bradbury Art Wallpapers, on a swan design by Walter Crane. The gold ochre, the terra cotta... even that little bit of black.  So this is where I started.  Th gold, ochre, and bronze color all look so different at various times of day.  I meant to use two of them, because normally I approve of painting the shingles differently from the shiplap, but in this case the texture difference was enough.
The blue appears not only in the sky but on the ceiling of the porch and the underside of the eaves.  Gold leaf embellishes some features, including many that are visible from inside the house, through the upstairs windows.

Morton St Queen Anne with its new paint scheme by Lynne Rutter

I have been involved with the interior of this home as well, and may share that later. But for now I want to point to those amazing giant thistle lace sheers, custom-made using a fabric by Timorous Beasties. With such prominent windows the choice of window sheer had an immense effect on the exterior.

Lynne Rutter designs color for interiors and exteriors in the San Francisco Bay Area as well as by email for homes all over the world!  Contact her here.


16 November 2015


detail of an inlaid wooden ceiling in the Mudéjar style, la Alhambra, Grenada

I lingered under this Mudéjar ceiling in the Nasrid Palaces of La Alhambra for some while.  The Moorish star pattern is inlaid with  floral ornament, gilt and painted to resemble damasquinado or damascening.  It's this interaction of European and Arabic design that makes the Mudéjar style of ornament so fascinating to me.  

Mudéjar inlaid wooden ceiling, la Alhambra, Grenada

photos by Lynne Rutter, October 2015
click on images to view larger

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