Friday, December 4, 2009

Osmundo Echevarria

Osmundo Echevarria brings a wonderful artistic sensibility to decorative furniture finishes and practices what might be termed a craft with a genuinely imaginative eye and hand. He was trained as an artist and some of his most recent work includes the stunning Art-Deco inspired silver panels that grace the Van Cleef & Arpels space in Bergdorf’s. We interviewed him at light-filled his studio/workspace in Long Island City ... and he was very shy! He’s a talented, sincere, hardworking man, and recession notwithstanding, the first stop for any decorator or designer with a piece of furniture that needs his touch.

You laughed when you were showing us around and we said that a two cabinets you were working on were hideous. What do you do when something ugly comes in?

I never say … that to them! Never! I try to do my best to make it less hideous.

What do you bring that makes you a bit of a stand-out? Why do the decorators come to you?

I have a team of artists here – we studied art, so we incorporate that into this. The extra artistic look to a piece means we go that step further.

It’s really a crossover between craft and art. You have to have imagination.

Yes. And some of these designers … that’s what they look for. They want something no one else has … and detail. Standard antique white could be a million different things … you want it paler, greyer … we mix our own pigments.

How did you get into this?

I studied art at the School of Visual Arts … and I started working with a friend of mine who had this decorative painting company. I learned a lot

Did you think you were going to be a famous artist?

[Laughs] Ah … yes. Well, I don’t know about famous but that’s all I wanted to do.
The sample wall of Osmundo’s office displays a wide variety of finishes.
Osmundo’s desk top. Osmundo’s bookcase in the studio entryway is filled with books on design and painted finishes.
Views of the Manhattan and Queens skyline can be seen from all windows of the light-filled workroom.
A view into the work studio with a French chair for David Easton front and center. A gilt finish is being applied to poles, rings and finials for client, Le Regence.
Alla and Dennis work on a reproduction of an 18th century French secretary for interior decorator, Scott Salvator.
So you must see this as a compromise … how do you see this in your life?

I do [see it as a compromise]. I enjoy this but it’s not what I set out to do. I’m still around art. To me I look at my work, and to me the [pieces] are art.

Well, you have to make a living. Do you paint still?

I still do. I do more drawing than painting. I like a mixture between landscape and abstract art. I don’t do it very often. It takes so long. But now I let that creative drawing come out in these decorative panels I do.

Do decorators scream at you ever?

I have a very good relationship with most of them … once I lost a sample and this particular decorator was upset …
A photograph of the original secretary.
Alla hard at work on the secretary.
The drawer of the original secretary is used for reference.
Clockwise from above: A detail of the hand painted secretary; One of Osmundo’s current projects: a sample board of faux Macassar Ebony with ivory and silver gilt designs.
Oh, you have to tell us the “screen story”…

Oh … okay. I’m a visual person and I get an email with an image of this screen and I’m asked for an estimate to paint this three-paneled screen. What I did was that I overlooked that it said: the image that you’re painting [over] is not the image in the photograph. [The image to be painted over] is the back of the screen. I didn’t bother reading that and the piece came … it had fabric on one side and this photographic art on the other side … and that was the side I saw in the picture – so I painted that side. And it was piece of art. Yeah. I almost died. I painted over everything. I ruined it.

Whose art was it? Was it anybody famous?

I looked him up and he’s an established artist. I painted [his image] purple.

But what did the image look like. How did you make the mistake?

It looked like a computer did all these lines. It was signed … I still haven’t heard the end of this one.
French chairs for Fine Upholstery By Pizzillo is being refinished in cerused oak.
Clockwise from above: An altar for Dennis’ tennis shoes; The legs of a chair for David Easton are refinished in antique white; An homage to The Simpsons.
The base of a couch frame for David Easton.
Clockwise from above: Alla and Dennis at work; A beat-up chair looks on with envy; A bag full of curtain finials ready for transformation.
Senior designer Alla paints the inside of the secretary door.
The secretary hardware is removed during the restoration process. The legs of an ottoman for DeAngelis Custom Furniture receive 22kt. gilt legs.
A homier corner of the workspace.
Mixing tints.
How is business in this recession?

Really hard. I was always busy up until this recession.

And you’re originally from Cuba … did you grow up in Cuba?

I was born in Cuba. I left when I was about seven.

Have you been back?

I was back in’79. I hadn’t seen my father in 15 years. He did some jail time because he was against Castro. My mother left first … she was one of those that left in a little boat. When I was seven, she sent for me. My father put me on a plane and said: “Just follow everyone.”
Gaspar completes an antique gilt finish for an 18th century Italian chair.
A set of dining chairs is being refinished for interior decorator, Seborn Ragsdale. A table for Peter Marino is receiving a clear varnish, which will be buffed to a high shine.
A pair of Italian wall-mounted tables for interior decorator, Scott Salvator, receive a faux fantasy marble top with Venetian pink paint and gilt base.
A hand painted chinoiserie design was painted on a secretary for design firm, Cullman & Kravis. The Swedish chairs for DeAngelis have received a painted white finish.
A view of the workroom. A dining room table for Seborn Ragsdale is being restored to its original Mahogany finish.
A blue chair with a gilt trim is waiting for pick up.
A pair of slipper chairs for Fine Upholstery By Pizzillo receives a gilt silver antique finish.
In a corner of the workroom, a pair of mica stone covered chests are being antiqued for Peter Marino.
Stains by the window.
Were you scared?

I didn’t think about it.

When you went back, what was it like?

I was only given a week to visit family. That was when [Castro] opened the doors in ’79 and I was one of the first to go.

What are your thoughts about Cuba now?

I am not a political person but I think it’s not going to change anytime soon. There’s a lot of talent there, the art, the music. When you go from here, you’re allowed to go anywhere—they’re not.

Are you happy living here?

Oh yeah – this is where I’m from.
• Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch