Friday, October 23, 2015

Genie Livanos Fuhrmann – The Isabel O’Neil Studio

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch


The Isabel O’Neil Studio was founded in 1955 as a small art school dedicated to teaching the traditional techniques used to create painted finishes. Its eponymous founder was both scary and gifted. O’Neil’s meticulous obsession with this particular art form, the techniques of which find their origins in the Renaissance, still informs the teaching process today and Genie Fuhrmann, who we interviewed at her Upper East Side apartment, is one of the most experienced instructors at the studio. She’s gifted but she’s not scary, even though she says she is. “When I teach I’m very strict. You have to do the very strict basics …” But apparently once the students are through that bit, they’re let loose. “Sometimes I have a student who does exactly what I say, and it’s boring!” (For school classes see www.isabeloneil.org, for the Holiday Sale see www.isabeloneil.org/news)

This studio has become such an established name—how has the Isabel O’Neil distinguished itself?

I think the most important distinguishing feature of the whole place is that Isabel had been encouraged to go and research how the traditional painted finishes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were created in Europe. She went to Europe to do sort of more of a chemical analysis, actually. She came back with actual formulas. 

Was that typical of her to do something in that way?

Totally. I would say that she was not going to be a painter without understanding what her product was. She wanted to know what the essence was.
The elevator landing is designed with a panel executed by Genie in faux marble and penwork. Next to the front entrance a French gilt-wood mirror hangs above a small faux malachite hall table painted by Genie.
Prints by Rembrandt, Gustave Doré and Millet hang on the lacquer walls of the front entrance hall.
Genie lacquered the wall of the front entrance hall in an oxblood red. A sculpture by Yannis Amoryanos stands atop a pedestal that Genie painted in Breche marble. A mirror in both 22 and 23 karat gold hangs above a small bracket that displays a Biedermeir box that once belonged to Genie's mother.
With the help of the designer William Turner, Genie chose chocolate brown high-gloss paint to surround the Art Deco style fireplace mantel. A glass art deco mirror from William Turner hangs above a collection of "real" mineral specimens collected over the years. The sconces are wooden painted to simulate porcelain.
For the fireplace screen, Genie chose a micro-mosaic pattern that was inspired by Roman floors in Sicily.
Family photos are arranged in front of a painted European lacquer box and a negoro-nuri Asian stand.
Looking across the spacious Upper East Side living room, filled with exquisite objects and furniture painted by Genie over the years.
A view across the 17th century refectory table towards the front windows.
The front window sill is lined with boxes done in various faux finishes including a tortoiseshell tea caddy, a shagreen box, several faux bois boxes and wooden fruit executed in yellow and brown poppy jasper.
Genie Fuhrmann with decorative painter and Isabel O'Neil Studio mentor Edward Schaefer.
How rapidly did her classes become popular?

It was a slow build. She started with the ladies who lunch. There are some hilarious pictures of these women perfectly coiffed with painted nails [working in the studio].

What was she like?

Terribly, terribly tough. She showed her likes and dislikes very obviously. If she yelled at you consistently, it meant you were good and that she cared about you. If she yelled at you once and ignored you forever, it meant you weren’t so good and she hoped that you kind of disappeared. She was volatile.
A group of hand painted fans hangs next to small shelves filled with Limoges fruit shaped boxes and a wooden plate painted to simulate porcelain.
A stunning black lacquer and chinoiserie design tabletop has a painted bamboo base. The small standing screen next to the striped club chair is in a French stylized design.
A plate of painted marble fruits stands atop small chest painted in a faux bois inlaid fantasy finish.
Hand blown Murano glass candies are placed atop an antique coal scuttle painted with a country tole design
A collection of "real" mineral specimens lines the living room fireplace mantel.
You said decorative painting [in the studio] started with ladies who lunch but in past centuries and in Europe, this was a job for men—a real job.

Actually a lot of the workers in the 19th century were women, especially in the factories. There’s a wonderful quote – I can look it up -- where a Lady Blah blah blah who in her will left her most precious possession, which was a chest that she had painted, to her son. So there were women of stature who did take this seriously.

So when you say the word ‘decorative’, it has this frilly, girlie connation, at least these days. How do you get beyond that interpretation?

Well I think that some of our most well-known decorative painters, the commercial ones are men—James Alan Smith is huge, and Pierre Finkelstein ...
Two paintings by Ghika hang above a Lucite console on the west wall of the living room.
Needlepoint pillows by Genie add a bit of color to the neutral sofa.
Nineteenth century Chinese export porcelain lamps stand upon a table that divides the two seating areas of the living room.
A group of painted plates, each in a different chinoiserie pattern adds life to a vertical beam. To the right of the plates is a French demi-lune table painted in a Breche marble and gilded finish.
Mineral specimens and painted objects are arranged atop a living room étagère.
More favorite objects including mineral specimens and tortoise shell boxes are displayed atop a glass and Lucite console.
Peeking into the dining room from a corner of the living room. Fresh cherries in a blue ceramic bowl stand atop an English 18th century silver tray.
What does it take to get good at this?

It’s a discipline. It’s very technical. And what gives you the confidence is that you first work through step one, step two, step three … that gives you the fundamentals and allows you to become free. When I teach, I’m very strict. You have to do the very strict basics but then all of a sudden you’re looking at stuff that comes out of students that … well, I’ll tell you what the secret is—it’s the person who has looked at the world with their eyes, the furthest. It’s the person who has traveled, a person who has seen color. All of a sudden the five or six things that you have taught them exponentially turn into something much more creative. It’s not talent so much as experience. It’s the person who has seen more of life. Sometimes I have a student who does exactly what I say … and it’s boring!

What attracted you to it? How did you get into it?

[Rolls her eyes] That’s a whole story. Well, my mother went to Isabel O’Neil and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was this. But unfortunately—or fortunately—I come from a Greek family where you kind of obey your parents—and my mother said you have got to do this one thing for me. “Isabel is writing a new book … she’s looking for somebody who has zero interest in art and absolutely couldn’t care less and has no talent whatsoever.”
Small wall shelves displaying more favorite objects. The ginger jar is painted in a Byzantine cloisonné finish. Family photos of Genie's daughters and grandchildren hang throughout the apartment.
More family photos. Victorian fans painted by Genie's mother, Kakia Livanos, decorate the second door to the dining room.
A Japanese print and two 19th century French watercolors hang on the Venetian plaster walls of the recently renovated guest bath.
And your mother thought you fit the bill?

Yes, she said I was the perfect person!

But why did Isabel O’Neil want someone like that to help with the book?

Because she wanted to see if they could follow directions from a book. So I come in a complete novice … a virgin! And she hands me the manuscript—first of all she’s terrifying—and I was in this room in her house and I’m reading this thing thinking I can’t believe my mother did this to me. I was trying to see if I could translate [the written word] into drawings. After a while she said, “That’s enough for now. In order to get the hang of this you have to take the basic course.” I said, “I don’t want to take the basic course.”

And here you are.

I took the basic course and the rest is history.
Genie's studio.
Everything has its place.
Brushes for different finishes are neatly stored in cans.
Grandchildren's art projects and other artworks hang above covered jars containing hand-mixed paint colors.
Projects in-the-works including a golden tigerite tray, a pair of placemats executed in American Ring cut with a gold powder design and a large mirror covered in an inlaid eggshell design are being set aside for the holiday sale of The Isabel O'Neil Studio Workshop. (See www.isabeloneil.org/news)
More finished objects including a stunning faux shagreen and macassar ebony garden stool are laid out for the holiday sale. Some of the painted finishes on the objects include faux tortoise, Porphyry, golden grain lacquer, 22K gold with penwork, Vernis Martin, Asian lacquer. and negoro-nuri.
More art by the grandkids hangs on the studio walls.
Wooden fruit that has already received silver, white gold and paladium leaf underlay is still waiting to be antiqued and sealed.
I saw a phrase on your website, “faux fantasy finishes” – is this fantasy we’re talking about?

I don’t think that’s incorrect. I call it “the art of the painted finish” rather than faux fantasy this that and the other. It is an art.

How has the studio evolved and changed?

I would say there was a very big traumatic change when Isabel died [in 1981] but there was group of quite wealthy and artistic people who really believed in what she did. They decided that come hell or high water, they were going to support a studio that was going to survive. The studio was much bigger then than it is now. But at that time, there was a great love of decorative finishes. We had people lining up around the block wanting to learn the art of the painted finish.
Religious icons from Greece hang in the bedroom hallway.
Genie's daughter, Tia's former bedroom, is now a home office. More projects are temporarily being housed on a folding table. Greek worry beads fill a wall between the bedroom closets. Teaching notebooks for Genie's classes at The Isabel O'Neil Studio Workshop stored on shelves above the desk.
Tia's diplomas hang above a daybed in the office/guest room.
Genie's bedroom.
Paintings by Greek artist, Anthony Kalogirou hang above Genie's bed.
More painted works by Genie and family photos hang above the bedside tables.
A late 18th century chinoiserie wardrobe dominates a wall of Genie's bedroom.
More photos, a transistor radio and a granddaughter's art project are arranged atop a pair of Donghia tables painted as Genie's master's project. They are rendered in many finishes including faux bois, lacquer, eggshell, tortoise, yellow poppy jasper, penwork, shagreen, onyx and gilding.
I know there was this flowering of decorative finishes in the 80s – is it coming back … um but now I’ve asked that, I don’t have any real belief that it is coming back!

What I see is a tremendous simplifying. Not that there is decorative stuff but everything now is clean. It’s steel or greys or whites. All the furniture is exquisitely sleek. This [decorative finishes] style doesn’t quite fit in, as you can tell from my apartment. And by the way, I don’t mind the sleek contemporary style. There’s value in both.

I think I found something that Isabel O’Neil said, and it was along the lines of saying “I made this” is the same as saying “I am”. I felt that was an important insight.

Totally. I really do identify with my furniture and I teach that way too.
Shirred silk fabric covers the wall of the dining room. Old Master drawings hang on the walls including those of Giovanni Bernini, Antonio Zucchi, Giovanni Maria Morandi, Prospero Fontana, Jean-Baptiste Mallet, Francesco Allegrini, and Gaspare Diziani.
An oil portrait of Genie at the age of eight hangs above a table topped a Greek late 5th century B.C. kylix and a pair of Chinese porcelain birds from the Firestone collection purchased at Sotheby's.
A view across the dining room into the kitchen hall. Genie made the Bargello quilted covers on all the seats of the dining room chairs.
On the far wall a painted framed mirror was originally for a project for floral designer Ronaldo Maia. The blue and yellow carpet is from Stark.
What’s the atmosphere like in the studio? Are people absorbed and quiet or do they all chat?

Chatting ... and there are some people who take it very seriously. I will say that there are people who come in, especially the night people, who say, “I feel so relaxed. The whole pressure of life is killing me at this moment [but] I walk into this studio and it just goes away.”