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Framing outside the lines: welcome to the world of "extreme framing," where custom framers create extraordinary frames for their most daring customers.

At Wall Street Gallery in Madison, Conn., and Katayama Framing in Portland, Ore., there are two distinct types of framing. There are the traditional frames that use conventional moulding profiles and straightforward techniques. And then there are those frames that Wall Street Gallery's staff call "extreme" They are the eye-catching, almost startling, frames that are perfect for customers who aren't afraid to make a statement. And while some extreme designs aren't for the creatively timid, they offer framers the opportunity to stretch their imaginations, take a few risks and sharpen their skills.

More important, catering to customers with unconventional requirements can afford a frame shop a special edge in a competitive market. By going to extremes, framers can forge reputations for the unusual that customers simply won't--and often can't--forget.

An Unusual Niche

Of course, customers seeking the perfect guillotine-themed or plumbing-accessorized frames don't walk into the frame shop every day. That is, they don't unless the frame shop deliberately cultivates an "anything-goes" reputation. In that case, attracting this niche market can be a self-fulfilling proposition. Once customers see what kinds of designs are possible, wild ideas tend to come into the shop more frequently, said Dennis Katayama.

"Some customers want some strange and wonderful things," said Katayama, who has owned Katayama Framing with partner Marilyn Murdoch since 1971. "Others may first come to us for a relatively simple, clean design. Then, they might choose a simple design with a twist. Then, they want a little bit more and a little bit more. Pretty soon, they're willing to try something totally unique."

Katayama Framing makes many of its mouldings and frames by hand, carving them from raw woods and finishing them by hand. While Katayama estimates that unconventional frame designs comprise between five to 10 percent of his business, those are the frames that often catch the attention of Portland collectors.

"Portland is a relatively small market, with only about one million people in the metropolitan area," said Katayama. "To support our business, we promote ourselves as one of the only frame shops that will actually make a one-off frame for a customer."

The owners of Wall Street Gallery--Jack Caldwell, Jim Reinhart and Bob Kreutler--have a similar reputation in the Madison community. They take on unusual flaming projects simply for the fun of it.

"After 25 years of flaming, we didn't want to do the same thing anymore," said Caldwell. "We come up with a lot of crazy designs--some of the best will hit you in the middle of the night. Now it's those fun jobs that we're really promoting at this point. Those are the jobs we really look forward to."

A Chance to Experiment

One advantage of extreme frame designs is that they often appear more difficult--and more expensive--to customers than they actually are. "Many people look at our frames and think they were very difficult to make. But for us, they were fairly simple," Caldwell said.

"We often pretty much wing it," he added. "With this type of framing, you can correct yourself many times. If it doesn't come out right the first time, we can just sand it down and start over."

One of Caldwell's favorite frames was one he created for a poster image of a gentleman standing on a stack of hooks, gazing over a city. Inspiration for the design hit him immediately, he said, and the final treatment--a "book" frame--was particularly fitting for the image.

"We had been experimenting with crackle finishes at the time, and I had created a finish that looked like cracked leather," Caldwell explained. "So, I made a regular square frame and put a binding on the left edge of it and applied the cracked finish. I used a router to recess the edges of the frame to make it look as if there were pages inside."

In fact, the ability to experiment and discover new techniques is one of the best things about tackling unconventional flaming projects, Caldwell pointed out.

"We've now done it long enough that we can often tell where we want to go with a project," he noted. But much of that experience, he added, has come from just jumping into an idea and seeing what happened.

Collaborative Design

For some projects, customers simply trust these framers to surprise them with an impressive design. More complex projects, however, require several conversations with the customer to arrive at the perfect design.

In fact, customers often make several visits to the shop for planning sessions and to see the works in progress. After all, extreme projects represent a higher risk to a framer, so it's important to make sure the customer is satisfied with the work at all stages of design, advised Katayama.

For example, Katayama recently completed one of his more memorable projects, a frame for a 1950s themed painting by artist Todd Shore. The painting depicts a chorus of characters, including 1950s car designer and comic book artist, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, in the guise of the Bob's Big Boy restaurant mascot. Around him are several of his comic monster creations, including his most famous, Rat Fink.

The painting's owner wanted a frame just as distinctive as the image itself, so the design process was quite involved and detailed, said Katayama.

"The frame didn't come about after just one conversation with the customer" he explained. "We had several meetings to discuss content and what he actually wanted the presentation to be at the end. I did several preliminary drawings. After several sketches, we decided that we wanted the look of a Louis XIV frame."

Louis XIV frames are often intricately decorated with Christian iconography, such as leaves and grape vines. Katayama's frame, however, was adorned to suit the painting's 1950s content. He and his staff cast pieces such as miniature fuzzy dice, fish and even caricatures of Rat Fink and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth themselves.

Katayama then arranged the castings on the frame, experimenting with the perfect combination and placement. After the castings were attached, the entire frame was gilded in antique gold.

"When you stand away from the frame, it still looks like an intricate Louis XIV frame," said Katayama. "It's not until you're four or five feet away that you see the actual carvings." The frame cost his customer $10,000, but the outcome was greater than the time and effort he and his staff put into it, Katayama added.

"It could have sold for $18,000 or $20,000," he said. "It's even possible that we'll make this frame again, once other collectors of Todd Shore see it."

Going Beyond Creative

Not surprisingly, extreme framing requires the proper tools. Both Wall Street Gallery and Katayama Framing house full wood shops, which include equipment such as a table saw, band saw, heavy-duty router, routing table and drill press. Beyond that, extreme framers may also have joiners and thickness planers, which smooth the surface of raw wood and plane it to a desired thickness.

Both Katayama and Caldwell came to framing from woodworking backgrounds. That experience gives them a good sense of what will work and what won't. However, they emphasized that extreme framing is perfect for any picture framer who loves to experiment with design.

Even more important are the customer relationships such projects inspire, since customers often work closely with framers during the design and construction process.

"It gives customers something they can't get anywhere else, but it also allows us to have a closer relationship to the customer," Katayama said. "What we do often requires four or five visits. Our conversations are not only about the visual aspects of the frame, but also about its intellectual significance--these conversations don't often come up with other projects."

In addition, creative frames simply take a picture framer's love of artwork one step further. Rather than distract attention, they actually attract more attention to the art, said Katayama. As an example, he recalled a visit to Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum, where he realized the importance of a truly eye-catching frame.

"There was a small 12- by 16-inch painting hanging in one of the museum's galleries. It had a gilded 12-inch-wide frame on it--it was the most beautiful frame I'd ever seen" recalled Katayama.

"The painting itself was a dark portrait--if there had been a small frame on it, you wouldn't even have seen it. But this beautiful frame drew your attention from a long distance. You saw the frame first, but as you approached, you saw the artwork," he continued. "A frame isn't just an adornment to the picture. It functions to give the artist as much respect as possible."

And when it comes to extreme flaming, there's always the excitement of wondering what kind of wild project might come through the door next. While Caldwell believes that Wall Street Gallery staff can pull off just about any plan, there's still one that remains elusive.

"I've been trying to get water into a frame for years now, for a frame with a boat theme," he said. "You know those acrylic boxes with liquid in them that look like ocean waves? They're actually filled with turpentine. I decided to try to make a frame based on that idea. I welded it together and it worked for a while. Three days later I noticed that the turpentine was eating into the glazing."

Although that attempt didn't pan out, Caldwell vows to keep trying. "Unfortunately, I haven't gotten there yet. But at some point, I'll get it."


Dawson Gallery & Master Framing, (904) 731-9211

Katayama Framing, (503) 224-3334

Wall Street Gallery, (203) 245-2912

Avoid Extreme Pricing Pitfalls

Because extreme framing projects comprise so many unknowns and creative risks, they also can present a pricing challenge. How can a framer price a job accurately if the time and cost required for design and construction are uncertain?

Dawson Gallery & Master Framing in Jacksonville, Fla., has been designing unique frames from raw moulding for years. Out-of-the-box frame design has two-fold advantages, said owner Steve Kocsis: It gives framers both an extra creative outlet and an edge over big-box competition.

But that edge can quickly be negated by poor pricing habits, he warned. Framers must look before they leap and inform customers that their unique designs may take more time and effort than originally anticipated.

"You don't want to lose money or break even on these projects," said Kocsis, who noted that one bad pricing experience can put a framer off extreme designs altogether. To keep the fun, challenge and profit in these jobs, Kocsis offered the following pricing pointers:

* Give customers a range of possibilities. Framers often underestimate the time it will take to complete an unusual design or don't allow for the possibility of unanticipated problems. Therefore, it's better to be upfront with your customers about the nature of the job, Kocsis emphasized. Let them know how much you charge per hour; then, give them an estimated range that reflects best--and worst--case scenarios.

"Tell them it's going to take between five and 10 hours and that you charge X dollars per hour," said Kocsis. If it ends up taking less than the lowest estimated time, a framer might sell the job for less. But if it takes longer than the highest estimated time, it may be necessary to absorb that cost to keep the customer. That makes it even more important to make the range as realistic as possible.

* Keep meticulous records. When it comes to pricing unusual jobs, framers learn with experience. For each outrageous job, keep track of design time and materials, each task required and, of course, any disasters that occurred and the reasons behind them.

"After the job, you can look at what you thought it was going take and then compare it to what you actually had to do," advised Kocsis. "Those records will be very helpful when similar jobs come in."

* Account for extra breakage and waste. While this advice is true for conventional framing jobs, it's even more so for extreme framing. The more unconventional the design, the more likely framers will have a few missteps along the way. "Set a high enough price to compensate yourself for the creative risks involved with the design," said Kocsis.

* Do quick mock-ups, Test-driving design ideas doesn't require full-scale construction. Instead, first do a small-scale model, which allows you to move around components easily and experiment with different methods. It doesn't have to be neat, said Kocsis. But it still will show you where the problems are before you waste time or expensive materials.

"I find these mock-ups to be very helpful, because it's best to find out any problems before doing a 4- by 5-foot frame," he said. "I also save the best ones as references for future projects."
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Author:Bisoux, Tricia
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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