Context is key to effective use of faux

April 25, 1993|By Rita St. Clair | Rita St. Clair,Contributing Writer Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Some of my colleagues wonder if it will ever end, this craze fo faux finish that has been sweeping the interior design scene for the past decade. While a trend can obviously go on too long, I personally hope this particular one continues for some time.

It's already gotten to the point where many designers now regard use of these special effects as a standard item in their repertoire. There's thus a clear danger of seeing too much of a good thing. At the same time, though, it should be remembered that faux, or fool-the-eye, finishes have been part of interior design for several centuries, going back at least to the Roman villas of Pompeii. A technique that ancient can easily withstand the abuses of overuse.

As a reflection of the popularity of faux treatments, a large number of how-to books have been published in recent years. Particularly interesting and attractive is "Period Finishes and Effects" by Judith and Martin Miller (Rizzoli). The authors examine the history of decorative surface treatments, explain how these finishes were used and give a step-by-step guide for creating specific effects.

Faux finishes generally work best when they don't try too hard to imitate the real thing. The finest faux finishers, I have found, usually have their tongues planted prominently in their cheeks.

Painted marbling, for example, is an especially popular treatment, due in part to the high cost of the actual stone. And a faux marble technique is most effective, I think, when executed in a deliberately naive manner that makes no attempt to duplicate the authentic material.

I don't mean to imply, however, that an effort at precise simulation is inherently inferior to a whimsical treatment. Finishes that closely resemble genuine textures and patterns -- that really do fool the eye, in other words -- can also be a very effective design tool.

Take a look at the photo, which comes from "Period Finishes and Effects." The wall certainly looks as if it's made of uniform stone blocks, some of which have cracked with age. In fact, however, it's a painted surface.

This illusion is all the more convincing because this home is located in the Canary Islands where old stonework is an everyday sight. Having become attuned to that design context, the eye can be more easily duped.

Indeed, context is a decisive factor in determining whether any type of faux finish will succeed or fail. No matter how clever or amusing, a tricky treatment is only one element in a room's total design. It's got to make sense in the overall scheme. A gratuitous gesture won't be very appealing, nor will one that's repeated in several parts of the same house. On the other hand, it's hard to match the impact of a properly executed faux finish.

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