An Industry Evolution

A Look Back at Four Decades of “Fox”...er, Faux Finishing

Editor’s Note: Some of this content is adapted from the “Faux Trends” presentation that co-editor Diane Franklin presented at the “Art Fusion” event, Nov. 4 in Santa Fe, N.M.

The faux and decorative painting industry has been characterized by its ability to reinvent itself again and again. Over the past four decades, we’ve seen the industry evolve in ways that were necessary for its survival and in ways that demonstrate the bottomless well of creativity that decorative artisans possess.

Here, we present a brief decade-by-decade synopsis of this industry, starting more than 30 years ago when the general public became aware of a unique four-letter word.

Sponging was all the rage in the 1980s.

The 1980s: What Is This Thing Called “Faux”?

A four-letter word started emerging in the home decorating scene—“faux.” The term was so unfamiliar to consumers at the time that many pronounced it as “fox finishing,” even though this form of decoration actually dates back hundreds and hundreds of years to the great European artists who created beautiful replications of marble, onyx and wood grains as well as elaborately beautiful trompe l’loeils and murals.

As consumers became acquainted with the term “faux,” they used the techniques they learned to give visual interest to their walls and ceilings. Sponging caught on as a real decorating phenomenon. From there, consumers also tried their hand at ragging, rag-rolling, combing, striping, striaeing and even such unique techniques as “whisking” (making a vertical pattern with a broom) and “smooshing” (pushing plastic into paint or glaze to create a unique pattern on the wall).

This was a DIY age, with a rise in products and tools that were easy enough for most consumers to use. But because of the varying skill levels among the consumers using these products and tools, sometimes the results were good—and sometimes the results were not so good.

The not-so-good results left an opening for professional faux and decorative painters. For consumers who wanted to decorate their homes with beautiful, innovative finishes that were expertly rendered, decorative painters were being more widely seen as the best option. Thus, what was initially dismissed as a fad—the use of painted decoration on walls and other surfaces—had staying power thanks to the talent of professional artists who were able to add beauty, drama and value to home interiors.

The 1990s: Welcome, HGTV!

It was the mid-1990s, and cable TV was emerging as a way for consumers to immerse themselves in their favorite type of programming—whether that programming was sports, news, politics, movies, music or home decorating.

HGTV (originally known in its long-form as Home & Garden Television) came on the scene in late 1994 with an emphasis on home improvement, remodeling, decorating and gardening. With its “how-to” format and focus on stunning visual results, HGTV was a natural fit for the faux-finishing industry. Soon, many programs were inviting decorative painters on the air so that they could show consumers how to accomplish various faux painting techniques.

Decorating and home improvement magazines also began featuring faux-finishing techniques in their content. The combination of coverage by various media outlets helped raise consumer awareness of faux finishing—to the point where many people finally learned its correct pronunciation.

Studios, classes and events became more plentiful in the 1990s and 2000s. (Shown here: A recent ArtFusion class.)

Coinciding with this growing interest came a whole range of new products being offered not only by established paint companies but from emerging specialty companies as well. Collectively, they were meeting a growing market demand for faux and decorative finishes. The innovative products coming from these companies performed well and tested the boundaries of water-based technology in a time when low-VOC options were not only preferred but often-times required by environmental regulations going into effect on the state, regional or federal levels.

The 2000s: A Major Boom, Followed by a Bust

By the 2000s, the decorative painting industry was thriving. The number of schools and studios grew as a resource for artists who wanted to learn classic techniques such as woodgraining, marbling and European textures. Decorative finishing as an art form had become more sophisticated. There was a trend toward Old World finishes and Tuscan looks. Product availability continued to expand, with a growing assortment of Venetian plasters, metallic paints, patinas and glazes going on the market.

The revolution to water-based finishes also continued, making exposure to these products healthier for decorative finishers while also facilitating clean-up. Another major development: The Stencil Artists League Inc. (SALI) changed its name to the International Decorative Artisans League (IDAL) in 2008 to reflect the growing diversity of its members who had expanded their services to include a full range of finishes and effects.

The industry is seeing a surge of glitz and glamour. (Shown here: a niche finished with a combination of red foils and mica. Artist Eric Spiegel created this effect, but gives credit to Diane Corso, a pioneer in the mica revolution, for her guidance and insight.)

After riding a positive wave of growth and prosperity, the industry (like the rest of the country) hit a proverbial brick wall when the economy nosedived in 2008. The severe housing crisis, coupled with the housing crisis, stopped consumer spending in its tracks. Suddenly consumers who had been budgeting or borrowing money to finance home improvements no longer felt comfortable with those expenditures. The recession proved to be a hardship to many in the decorative finishing profession, with their very livelihood on the line.

The 2010s: Weathering the Storm

Weathering the economic crisis tested the mettle of many in the decorative painting industry. Those who came through the crisis the best were those who were able to adapt and translate their talent to surfaces beyond walls and ceilings. That is why we’ve seen a major shift of attention to cabinet and furnishing finishes.

Additionally, artists realized that the economic downturn did not necessarily favor the heavier Old World finishes of yesteryear. So, they started finding and filling a demand for lighter textures, more contemporary finishes and sleeker, more understated looks, all of which proved to be easier on the consumer’s pocketbook.

As the economy improves, consumers seem ready to spend again, so we are starting to see the growing use of opulent finishes characterized by the use of mica, glass beads and glitter.

There always will be a market for faux finishes created by talented decorative artisans. (Shown here: A woodgrain effect created by Ivo Koytchev.)

Looking Ahead

What happens next in the industry is anybody’s guess. However, it’s certainly encouraging to see how well the talented artists in this industry can adapt.

Going back to the days of “fox finishing” in the 1980s, decorative painters have seized opportunities to add beauty to homes (as well as businesses). As long as professional artists continue to read and respond to the changing market well, we anticipate that the demand for their work will continue in the decades that lie ahead.