Thursday, October 21, 2010

Living Design: A Journey through the Decorative History of Polished Plasters

In a world where muscular gladiators fought to the death for fame and freedom, where thespians performed in elaborate masks and where all roads led to one place, an emperor by the name of Caesar Augustus entreated one of his senior military engineers, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, to write a series of books that would forever hold the knowledge of the science of building. Vitruvius wrote ten books on the subject. In book number two of this extraordinary collection of wisdom Vitruvius elaborated on the technique of finishing a wall. This technique had originally been developed 7000 years before Christ, honed by the Greeks during the bronze age, and perfected in Vitruvius’s time; the first Roman Empire. Vitruvius’ words over 2000 years ago:
“Owing to the solid foundation given by thorough working with polishing instruments, and the smoothness of it, due to the hard and dazzling white marble, will bring out the brilliant splendor of the colors which are laid on at the same time with polishing.”
The Romans referred to this finish as Marmoratum Opus.
In 1414 Marmoratum Opus would termed “Pietra d’Istria” by Renaissance architect “Palladio” who reintroduced polished plaster into architecture. The name Pietra d’Istria refers to the resemblance of polished plasters to natural stone formations. Much of Palladio’s work that appears to be stone upon first inspection is actually skillful application of lime based plaster with marble dust.
In the 1950’s a Venetian architect named Carlo Scarpa revived the art of polished plaster and innovated to achieve new looks that enhanced his modern designs. It is this excitement and innovation that inspire today’s artisans to create bold new plaster finishes that complement the composition of contemporary spaces.
For today’s designer there is a wealth of choice in wall finishes: paints, fabric, carpet, wallpaper, and plasters all with extensive varieties of color, texture and pattern. While this variety offers a wonderful array of decorative possibility it can become a little overwhelming. Perhaps most confusing is the American made term “Venetian Plaster” which can refer to a variety of decorative finishes including paint, resin, and other faux techniques.
Perhaps you or a client have tried “Venetian Plaster” in the past and have been disappointed with the results. Sometimes the DIY client or amateur applicators may not even be aware that they might be using a product which claims to be plaster when it is really just paint. Other misconceptions may lead people to think that there is a lot of messy sanding or unpleasant fumes involved which should not happen with true Italian polished plasters. It is also worthy to note that while “old-world” or traditional looks can certainly be achieved beautifully with decorative plaster some of the most stunning uses are in contemporary design.
The most important thing to remember is that true decorative plaster or “Piatra d’Istria” is based in natural and abundantly occurring minerals of lime and marble, and is naturally “Green.” Lime based decorative plasters are naturally mold resistant because of their higher alkalinity level. Lime based plasters also attract and lock in carbon dioxide in a process called “carbonation.” These features can be especially attractive for the ecologically minded, those with allergies, or anyone wanting a “healthy home” environment.
It is generally agreed upon that the finest plasters come from Italy; however, there are some American based companies that produce nearly comparable products. The exact formulas of modern decorative plasters are closely guarded by generations of craftsman.
It is no exaggeration to speak in terms of thousands of years when talking about lime-based plasters. Lime-based plasters have witnessed and survived the rise and fall of empires including the Ancient Greek, Egyptian and Roman empires.
It is safe to say that these plasters have stood the test of time. It is also safe to say that decorative plasters are a hot decorating trend right now. Frequently featured on decorating shows like “Extreme Home Makeover” and displayed prominently in luxury hotels, casinos, resorts, and fine homes. Despite the incredible beauty and high-end profile of decorative plaster it can be surprisingly affordable making it a great choice for clients at all income levels.
Choosing an applicator is probably the most important component in making sure that you get the best possible look for your client. Certainly you want to work with someone who is professional, courteous, prompt, and that you trust. Also you want the person that you talked to initially doing the actual work, not sourcing it out to someone that you have never met or heard of. As always, price is important when finding an applicator and a good reputation is a must.
Without question the biggest factor when choosing your applicator for decorative lime-based plaster is artistry. Just like two sculptors will achieve different results with the same block of marble, true decorative plaster applicators will have a distinctive style or “hand.” You can contact ASID to find an Industry Partner applicator that specializes in fine decorative plasters. The best time to find your plaster artisan is before your new client asks for “Venetian Plaster.” Most applicators have a portfolio and several samples that give you an overview of their capabilities within minutes. Also keep your files current by asking for a one page description of the companies you like so that you have the information at your fingertips.
Once you have experienced the incredible beauty of Lime-based plaster you may find yourself wanting to use it in every home, project, and room you design. A wonderful aspect of this fantastic medium is that you can. Like life, decorative plaster isn’t always smooth. With the use of stencils, carving, sculpting, overlays, glazes and lime washes it can reflect the rich tapestry of life.

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