In his studio in the Flatiron District of Manhattan*, Pierre Finkelstein’s pots of paint, plaster, wax, lacquer, and varnish are piled to the ceiling. “Brushes are my main work tools,” he says. Hung on the walls, kept on shelves, and stored in cases, more than 500 different brushes are waiting to be taken to the next projects from Dallas to Miami. “This one with the long bristles and the thick head is used to paint brecciated marble, and that thinner, pointier one over there is used for veined marble.”
In a nod to the renowned movie by Jean Renoir, the French artisan christened his company Grand Illusion. His main clients are regular members of the public, but also include titans of industry, bankers, and corporate lawyers. In New York, Pierre Finkelstein has embossed the columns with fake bronze in an office in the 53W53 glass tower next to MoMA currently being finished by architect Jean Nouvel. In Los Angeles, he created a series of earthquake-resistant pedestals in fake Italian marble to showcase collection pieces for the Getty Museum. And in Miami Beach, Florida, he whitewashed and patinated the walls in a house formerly owned by Calvin Klein.
Trompe L’Oeil at Versailles
What would convince a client to choose a trompe l’oeil instead of the original? Price is one main driver, as illusion is far less costly that the real material. Expect to pay 50 dollars per square foot of fake marble or wood, and up to three to ten times that amount for Pyrenees marble or exotic wood such as rosewood or Honduran mahogany.
Imitation materials are also far easier to install. Few people are aware that 70% of the marble and wood at the Château de Versailles were actually created using trompe l’oeil techniques. The fireplaces are in real stone, but the baseboards are imitation marble made with painted wood. “The illusion is perfect along the first few meters on either side of the fireplace,” says Pierre Finkelstein. “But the further away you move from the decorative centerpiece, the more the work becomes simple and theatrical.” These variations are due to financial reasons. “Painters are paid by the hour, and less important items are often given to apprentices.”
A School of False Arts in Belgium
Before specializing in the art of trompe l’oeil, Pierre Finkelstein started out as a commercial graphic designer. In an effort to perfect his technique, he attended the Van Der Kelen-Logelain Institute in Brussels in the early 1980s. There he learned the art of sign-writing and trompe l’oeil, as well as how to imitate some 30 varieties of marble and just as many types of wood. He then graduated at a time when the United States had developed a taste for the neoclassical style. Marbles and woods were back in fashion, but printed wallpaper marked the end of decorative painting. “You could count the number of painters on one hand back then,” says the Frenchman. “Almost all the old techniques had disappeared. We had to reinvent everything.”
As he honed his skills, the artisan didn’t think twice about getting on the floor to observe the faux marble baseboards at the Louvre close up. He studied old decoration manuals at the New York Public Library, and taught himself the ropes of architecture and art history. He ordered brushes from Saint-Brieuc in Brittany, and developed his own range of tools using synthetic and animal fibers such as bristles and whiskers from pigs, badgers, geese, squirrel, and Tibetan goats.
He was soon called upon for various tasks, such as concealing a fire door, harmonizing a wall with a Louis Philippe table in flecked wood, and blending in a marble fireplace with its surroundings. “I have painted imitation wood onto real wood, and fake marble onto real marble,” says Pierre Finkelstein, who is no longer surprised by the various whims of his clients.
A Recipe for Each Material
Each material corresponds to a specific set of procedures, from blending pigments to applying colors. The transparent effect of marble is created by dabbing a sponge soaked in watercolor on a coat of oil paint. The shimmers and shines of imitation walnut wood are painted using a mixture of dark beer – “an excellent binder.” More meticulous details such as the grain of different woods are achieved by pulling a metal comb across several coats of paint, or by marking them with a Martre Zéro, one of the finest brushes in the painter’s arsenal.
Pierre Finkelstein keeps his precious trompe l’oeil “recipes” in a filing cabinet in between a drawing by his son and his Meilleur Ouvrier de France certificate. “I write everything down,” he says with pride. “I keep a sample of every pattern and every color I have created since 1985.” When he isn’t climbing “up a ladder,” armed with a paintbrush, the Frenchman works as a color consultant. As part of the restoration of the Ritz and its 142 rooms in Paris, he designed a palette of 78 colors reflecting the iconic shades of the Parisian palace hotel, as well as a selection of imitation marbles and woods.
The painter reaches into a drawer and removes a stack of painted cardboard samples specially treated to keep their color and texture over time. “Here, this one is from 2012, from a trompe l’oeil décor for the refectory in a new building at Yale University. And that one is from the living room of a house in New Orleans.” The illusion is perfect. The marble is smooth, almost cold to the touch, while the wood is dotted with knots and lumps.
In his quest to satisfy the demands of his most prestigious clients – Bill Gates, Michael Douglas, George Soros, Jon Bon Jovi, and others – the painter has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge. With a single glance, he can distinguish between Vietnamese and Sri Lankan tortoiseshell. “I like to be precise. I also add credibility to my work by including details only the most skilled marble and wood artisans would notice.” The illusion is complete. And to prove it, “even some professionals can’t tell the difference!”
* Pierre Finkelstein has since moved his studio to the Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Article published in the February 2018 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.