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ART FOR ARCHITECTURE'S SAKE : Decorative Work by Craftsmen in Demand Again

August 18, 1986|GREG JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

Vince Quintana wanted to keep his three sons off the streets and out of trouble. So Quintana, a craftsman who fashioned plaster decorations that embellished buildings designed during the 1930s and 1940s, taught his craft to the boys. Soon they were going door to door, peddling handmade busts of Abraham Lincoln.

And by the 1950s, when he gave the lessons to his sons, modern designs had wiped out demand for his style of ornamentation. Quintana eventually abandoned decorative work as architects became enamored of sleeker-looking buildings.

He never imagined that decades later, architects would again demand ornamental pieces--or that his sons would use his plaster-casting lessons as the basis for a family business that creates ornamental pieces.

The rekindled interest in decorative design has been fueled by a "wave of historical restoration work that began about 10 years ago," according to John Busby, president of the American Institute of Architects, who sees a "rebirth of public demand" for those detailed designs.

Can Get Expensive

Consequently, U.S. architects are scurrying to locate suppliers who can create the intricate ceilings, medallions, friezes and facades needed to complete building designs.

However, traditional materials such as wood, plaster and cut stone can be expensive and difficult to work with when intricate designs are required. Architects consequently are turning to craftsmen who use modern materials, including fiberglass, lightweight concrete and extruded polyurethane, to fashion convincing imitations of yesterday's classic designs.

The growing trend to use modern materials to craft classical designs is evident at Crowe Co. in Escondido, where Alan Crowe produces French, Spanish, Colonial and traditional woodwork designs from oak, cherry and other woods.

Because wood is too expensive for some customers, the woodworking company also distributes what Crowe's wife, Debbie, described as a "really beautiful" polyurethane substitute that is manufactured by an Atlanta company.

As customers demand aesthetically pleasing and affordable decorative elements, architects are seeing "more and more ornamental design companies popping up . . . (many of which are) going more regional in their marketing," Busby said.

Not surprisingly, some architects debate the philosophical aspects of substituting fiberglass for cut stone, or polyurethane panels instead of more expensive oak. However, architects have always substituted available materials to create their "visual delights," Busby said. "It's a question of the times and what materials are available.

"Thomas Jefferson couldn't afford stone, so he put sand in his paint and painted the woodwork on (parts of) the exterior (of Monticello) to look like stone," said Busby, a vice president of Jova-Daniels-Busby in Atlanta. "And, we have (wood) buildings in New England that . . . have stone detailing."

U.S. architects are not the only designers who have played tricks with building materials.

"I just returned from New Zealand where there's a very historic Victorian building that, from 50 feet away, you'd swear was stone," Busby said. "But it's the largest wood structure in New Zealand."

Closer to home, a good example of the creative use of modern building materials is found on Hollywood sets, Busby said. There, set designers create persuasive substitutes for reality.

Due in part, perhaps, to Hollywood's influence, Southern California seems to be welcoming the return of buildings that incorporate classic designs.

"There is lots of money (in Southern California), and people want quality," said Aldo Scomozzon, an Italian-born craftsman who moved to Los Angeles from Sacramento in 1979. He founded A&M Victorian Decorations and crafts decorative architectural design pieces.

Old Methods, Modern Materials

When architect Dean Abbot's design for a Westwood medical office building called for ornamental decorations, he turned to Scomozzon, who blends Old Country techniques and modern building materials to create an array of authentic-looking balustrades, columns and moldings.

Abbott, who is with the West Los Angeles firm of Richard Magee & Associates, said Scomozzon "gives you quality work that has the old, traditional, carved stone appearance."

However, because such eye-catching details look expensive, cost-conscious customers "sometimes want to rip off all the embellishments," said Scott Aishton, the principal architect in charge of Jerde Partnership's San Diego office. "They want to pull the chicken's feathers off and leave the bare bones."

But, often, the bare bones are simply not enough.

"Early on, we made the decision that (ornamentation) was integral to our concept," said Aishton, who spent seven years shepherding the construction of Horton Plaza, a colorful downtown San Diego shopping center that one critic described as a whimsical blend of Post-Modern and Mediterranean design.

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