Monday, June 18, 2012

No.1 Foster Reeve & Associates, Inc. - Architectural & Ornamental Plaster

Who: Foster Reeve
What: Foster Reeve & Associates, Inc.- Architectural and Ornamental Plaster
Where: New York City + Los Angeles,
services projects nation-wide (and soon to be internationally)
When: Since man began mixing mud to strengthen their buildings...
Oh, and this company has been around just shy of 20 years.

When you meet Foster Reeve, he's an easy going guy. Funny, understated. With a certain charisma for comfort, talking with him easily feels like catching up with an old friend. Then, when you start asking him questions like: 'So Foster, Why Plaster?'-- he is very serious, and very excited.
"You have to understand, I'm a trained painter and a math guy." 
He has a game of computer chess on his desktop screen behind him, the bookshelf above it holding a very worn Le Petit Trianon, Peter Pennoyer and Anne Walker’s recent tour de force Apartments, Townhouses, Country Houses, C. Howard Walker’s A Theory of Mouldings and a slew of natural history magazines. (Walking out of his office, he keeps an enlarged poster of the Classical Orders up on the wall of the adjacent supply room, so he sees them each time he passes by.) Foster reflects affectionately on his days at Parson’s where he received his training in Fine Art.

An FRA Artisan perfects a second layer of sculpture over a first mold.

“I was one of those guys you’d see posted up in any given corner of the MET just copying paintings. Copying, copying… That’s what so much of this work is, actualizing a designers vision through an articulate use of their precedent images and using this decorative moment to do something still proportional, but also thoughtful with the ornament.
“I grew up in the construction trades, always fixing things. Learning how to push a broom is a quintessential skill everyone should start from. And I love geometry. The moment I saw with plaster, was this potential of this inherently simple and beautiful material and all the things it could accomplish geometrically, artistically—has accomplished—and should continue to in design. I’m really an advocate for what it can do, what so many people either didn’t know or forgot it could do. Plaster’s capabilities are endless.”
Custom Plaster Ceiling Ornament, Palmettes + Shallow Dome
And he’s not kidding. Plaster doesn’t mean drywall or caulking glue for that crack in your ceiling. Not like this. Here plaster means: endless sculpture, crown moldings, flat work, ceiling ornamentation, Venetian Plaster (decorative wall finishes), Stuc Pierre (a French plaster alternate to natural cut stone), 
Scagliola Cast in custom crown mold

Stuc Pierre wall and ornamentation
Scagliola (an Italian plaster alternate to marble) and an array of integral colored wall finishes (custom crafted colors and textures made with plaster). I don’t know about you, but I hadn’t know most of those things existed prior to meeting Foster.

“Plaster is a gypsum-based product. You have to understand we ride the fine-line between the construction and interior decorating moment [in building].” Foster notes, “Yet another thing to love about it is that when installed properly, with gypsum to gypsum, plaster is then monolithic with the structure—the building can’t tell it’s separate.” Probably another reason plaster has been used in building for centuries…
An FRA Artisan sculpts a custom capital pre-molding
An FRA Artisan completes a custom overdoor sculpture before it goes under rubber

This company is neither your average artisan nor manufacturer. Yes, they do manufacture their own products in-house, and offer an array of pre-made products—but most everything else they offer is custom. No two pieces are alike—unless he’s used his modern geometric genius to panelize a repetitive mold or pattern and cut the cost of a custom mold in half! The process of creating say, the highly decorative ornament you see below is lengthy. It requires calculating the smallest fragments of an inch to determine an even smaller detail. 

Custom ornamental crown molding with medallions
The shop has engineers on staff that use AutoCAD to produce shop drawings for each molding profile in each room, and while they do that, depending on what the project calls for, the art department will be researching precedent images of what the architect or interior designer wants to see, to then replicate it via sketches or charcoal to submit for approval. (I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit worn-out just thinking about it). 
A newly sculpted rosette with its precedent image
Once a newly derivative conceptual image is approved, the artwork is then uploaded into AutoCAD, on top of the rather generic lines in the computer, and then, viola—it’s all printed out to the proper scale and proportion it should be in the [respective] room.

So, all this hard work, research and intensely creative artwork is done- now you get to start sculpting. That’s right, you’re not finished yet. The artists in Foster Reeve’s Atelier literally put down a piece of Plexiglas on top of a copy if the approved, fully scaled drawing, with another propped up to the side, put some clay down on top of that and begin to map and carve out the drawing- or they just do it by eye. (Mr. Reeve noted they’ve used a variety of clay’s, but right now are really enjoying water clay for this phase). This can take some finesse and series of approvals as well, but once it’s all clear with the designer and client, one of my favorite things happen: they cast a mold.
A rubber mold of a Greek Key detail

Maybe it seems not so exciting, but I think it’s fascinating: They literally make their own rubber, from scratch, layer and pour it over the clay sculpture, making their own mold (a dedicated science in its own right) and let it set until its dry. 

After the rather delicate procedure of taking the rubber off the clay, there is now a rubber mold you can pour any variation of plaster into, let it harden and dry, and again, quite deftly, remove from the rubber (well, not to mention layering in any number of things in the plaster as it’s setting to strengthen it, such as burlap).
An artisan cuts burlap for a cast
And there you have it: a plaster cast.

Often, what happens when a company is strictly a [plaster] manufacturer, is they will use one rubber mold (as described above) to make hundreds of thousands of plaster casts of that one same mold. There are 3 huge downsides to this which just don’t sit well with Foster:

“Well for one, the rubber doesn’t hold that well, so you make a couple hundred of these things and the cast looses all its crispness, its sharp, beautiful detail;” he nods over at an artisan touching up each little blemish on a cast before it’s taken to installation,
Touch up to plaster before installation.
“really, it dumbs-down the mold, makes the character look almost cartoon-ish. Also, nothing is custom in that moment, it’s one of three rosettes you’ve seen before over and over. And, if you’re just churning out molds of one thing and selling them to anyone to stick anywhere, they certainly won’t be proportionally correct!”
Well, you heard it: proportion, thoughtful use of ornament and attention to detail. These are some of the ingredients necessary for a plaster finish that will last for generations to come, and perhaps be restored one day—well, we know that's for sure if you're having Foster Reeve do it for you. If you're working on a one-of-a-kind home of your own that you want to last, I'd say give him a call. 
A custom sculpted crown and cove takes multiple layers of sculpture before a final mold is made.
Beautiful attention to detail that will go under rubber and be molded in plaster to last for generations.

Foster Reeve & Associates, Inc. has worked on projects featured in Robb Report (the 2012 Ultimate Home), Architectural Digest (most recently June 2012's issue) and many other design publications. Foster Reeve himself has now also been published in the recent Perspectives On Design New York, and has more to come in literature documenting keeping the traditional plaster craft alive in 2012. You can learn more about them at, or contact them at the Atelier: NYC: 718.609.0090 - LA: 310.390.5071.