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Faux art grows in popularity

Ashland couple makes a business of artistic fakery

When John and Teresa Safay of Ashland come to do your walls, you can forget about wallpaper and plain shades of paint.

Stand back, open up your imagination and watch them work magic with everyday items: feathers, sponges, crumpled paper, rags and transparent, eye-tricking glazes.

The Safays are part of the faux art movement, an ancient skill in which the painter imitates marble, wood, stone, leather, copper and tinted plaster with his paints. Sometimes the result is more than a pattern; the Safays can also produce a vista of vineyards, swimming fish, huge flowers, marble floors and stone walls -- all of them false, or as the French say, faux.

Faux is most familiar today as marbleized wood columns and sponge-dabbed walls, the latter to imitate paint-tinted plaster, John Safay said. The faux technique calls for a base coat to represent the lightest color, then darker glazes are layered on.

Early in adulthood, Safay, 33, established himself as an interior house painter, but became interested in a the new form while working beside faux artists in San Francisco's Pacific Heights.

He began his real work with faux 10 years ago as a furniture painter in Santa Fe, N.M. He and Teresa returned to her native Rogue Valley in 1993, the year his work appeared in Architectural Digest magazine.

To get started, they showed samples to local interior designers, then the phone started ringing, he said.

Commercial projects include the Rogue Valley Country Club ceiling, which they made appear as patinated copper; Primavera Restaurant in Ashland, which they marbleized; and the Christopher Briscoe Photo Studio in Ashland, which was entirely faux-painted right down to the computer.

They have brought a new look to scores of homes in Medford, Jacksonville, Central Point and Ashland and are often called away to locations in California and the Southwest.

Ballpark prices might be $400 for a large piece of furniture, $600 for a room and up to $2,000 for a mural, he said.

The couple's home reflects their talents. An apparent marble-topped table sits before their couch, but is actually painted wood. Another small wood table looks for all the world like an emerald slice of malachite, but it's a trick of the glaze.

Their dining-room table is something rescued from Goodwill, slathered with sheetrock plaster and painted a fashionable green to resemble stone.

The Safay before-and-after album shows many rescues from proper but colorless normalcy. A beige before treatment in an Ashland living room shows a fireplace framed in oak and white tile squares. The Safays plastered the whole thing over an inch thick and rubbed in colors to look like stone, carved in lines where the stone blocks would meet and varnished it all.

A cement bathroom floor blossoms into diamond-patterned marble. A boring living room wall adorned only with a door becomes an arch framing a flagstone patio, backed by vineyards and mountains.

An Applegate client asked that a tiny bathroom be painted with huge flowers. She got it.

We used the biggest, boldest colors we had and when you walk in there, you just get blown away, Safay said.

The Safays don't advertise, he said, and don't have to. Work is waiting.

Faux is in demand because it allows you to break away from the usual flat paint and wallpaper and expand into wide-open, endless possibilities. It's not just sponging a wall, it's anything you can think of. There's no limits.

John Safay works on his latest faux art project in a Lake Creek home. His wife and partner in faux artwork, Teresa, is pregnant and for now is sitting out of painting projects. - Photo by Bob Pennell