The History of the Decorative Painter – Part 3

pierre finkelstein work

The History of the Decorative Painter – Part 3    The 20th century to today
The interest in and growth of decorative painting continued into the early 20th century; most notably, the Art Deco style of the 1920’s and 30’s employed stenciling, gilding and wood graining extensively.

art deco style
The first wallpaper goes back to the early Egyptian times (they called it papyrus).  But, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that it became easily mass-produced.  Wallpaper pasting machines, silkscreen machines, and cellulose paste powder were all invented in the first half of the century.  The 1920’s was considered the “Golden Age of Wallpaper”.  (learn more about wallpaper history)
The paint roller, another critical innovation, was invented in 1940.  Norman Breakley of Toronto, Canada was the inventor, but never was able to produce it.   It was Richard Croxton Adams who held the first US Patent on the paint roller while working for Sherwin-Williams.

Mid 1940’s
As post-war reconstruction began in Europe, there was very little preservation of buildings and interiors.

post war reconstruction

The classical style that was coveted for centuries was rejected and a new, Modern Era design and architecture began to thrive.  Interiors tended to be cleaner, simpler and without any of the elaborate architecture that was made popular in the 1920’s with the Art Deco Movement.

modern design

Houses and public spaces were built with speed and a clean design.

modern residential

New materials such as formica, plastic, and sheetrock were desired and affordable.  (sheetrock was actually invented in 1916 as “Sackett Board” but didn’t really catch on until the late 40’s).

magic of formica
Latex house paint was first placed on the market in 1948 by Glidden.  This was a well-received product where traditional oil-based house paints of those times were a struggle to apply.  The wallpaper industry was revolutionized with the appearance of plastic resins which supplied the world with washable and durable materials.

production painting
Therefore, the decorative artisan has been replaced by the house painter and clean architecture.  They are used only for restoration of classical architecture.
After World War II the fine-artists’ classical style also declined to its lowest point, a result of the rejection of academic standards of aesthetics and traditional painting techniques in favor of innovative styles and techniques practiced by such influential artists as Picasso and Matisse.  Innovation in products such as artist acrylic paint (1946-49 formulated by Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden as Magna Paint).  Fine artists had wonderful fast-drying mediums to work with which led to a boom for the fine artist in the 1960’s.  The US saw record sales for pop and abstract art with the use of new mediums and a forming artist culture.

pop art

In the 1980’s, decorative painting experienced a slight rebirth and embraced a range of styles, including a return to classical decor – post-modernist architecture.  In the United States, the large outdoor mural was developed, then scaled down and adapted for homes, restaurants, and corporate lobbies.  (the next 2 murals are by John Pugh)

john pugh mural john pugh mural
With the wide availability of digital vinyl lettering, the hand-painted sign business sharply declined, but the art of lettering has still managed to stay strong in the niche market of restoration.
The popularity of hyper-realist painting by artists such as Chuck Close opened a door for the decorative painter.

hyper realistic

Creating a realistic painted renderings offered work for the decorative artisan who could use trompe l’oeil techniques to offer visual trickery.
Decorative painting schools were very scarce in the US, but there were still a handful in Europe who offered a degree.  In 1985, I attended the Van der Kellen Institute in Brussels, Belgium for a 6-month curriculum.

2000’s to 2007
Where decorative painting schools were scarce in the 1980’s and 90’s, many began popping up, offering a wide range of products including textures, stencils, and varnishes.  Books were being written for the professional decorative artisan along with the emerging DIY market.  Two from yours truly, Recipes for Surfaces and The Art of Faux.

taking classes
In the US, classes were offered (3 days to 2 weeks at a time) that taught finishes that were created by using certain product.  These schools became extremely popular and product was flying off the shelves.  Students left the short classes with extensive portfolios of multi-colored textures, hand troweled plasters, and wall glazes thus defining the “faux finish” market.  In most cities and towns,  middle-class America was flooded with faux finishers who were trained to create looks “out of a bucket”.   This became a popular career choice for those who considered themselves artistic, good at “do it yourself”, and wanting a change from a previous career.  The market quickly became flooded and caused prices to drop in order for artisans to compete with those with the same portfolio.

2007 to Today:
In 2007, the real-estate market crashed and the middle-class was severely effected.  Since the middle-class and newly rich was the bread and butter of the faux finishing market, many of the newly established artisans went out of business – along with many of the product-based schools who saw such success in the previous decade.
For the past 7 years, it has been only the decorative artisan who has the more developed skill-set that has survived the brutal slump in consumer spending.  Through his arsenal of skills,  he has been able to find work with the upper-class and classic renovations to make ends meet.

teaching the classics

Although schools are still scarce in the US and Europe, there is a heightened interest in the classic techniques that have survived the centuries of decorative artisans.  Those classic techniques are:  Marbleizing, wood graining, glazing & patina, striping, gilding, sign painting, organic texture, plaster texture, fresco, trompe l’oeil, stenciling, and murals.

My business, Grand Illusion is seeing a consistent success which I attribute to a stronger economy and our strong reputation and repeat business.

the future looks bright

Click here for the History of the Decorative Painter:  Part IPart II


  1. This is a very good synopsis of what has happened over the last 25 years. I am grateful for the investment that I made in my education as an artisan. Thank you, Pierre. for all of the info that you have shared over the years. It has allowed me to excel and be one of the “survivors”.

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