The Great Wall Mural

Designers are adding zing to clients’ décor with unique wall paintings commissioned from local artists.

A couple of years ago, artist Linda Sarkissian and her team painted a scene from a glamorous black-tie celebration on the wall of a contemporary home in Pasadena’s exclusive Linda Vista neighborhood. Done in tones of gray, black and silver, tuxedoed gentlemen mingle with ladies in elegant gowns as they toast champagne, a permanent party the length of a formal dining room wall.

“You can see part of the mural as you enter the house,” says Sarkissian, an American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Pasadena board member and founder of Glendale-based LS Decorative Art, which has specialized in murals, decorative fine art and frescos since the mid-1980s. She notes that it’s such a surprising and dramatic image, the common reaction to it is to gasp — in a good way, of course.

Murals that evoke visceral reactions are just one of the reasons homeowners choose to use the walls (or ceilings or floors) of their homes as canvases for creativity. “The beauty of murals and custom finishing is that they showcase the personality and individuality of the homeowner,” Sarkissian adds, noting that her client is a very social guy who enjoys throwing parties. “They’re also conversation pieces.”

Home murals are a centuries-old design element that can cost from $3,000 to $50,000, depending on size, detail and scope of the project. Along with faux finishes and decorative fine art, murals continue to be popular among homeowners and interior designers who want to make a statement or strive for distinction — sometimes in surprising ways.

After art for children’s rooms, landscapes — popular on domestic walls in late-17th-century Europe — are the most requested type of commission, designers say. Such natural scenery is often depicted in an abstract style. “A couple of years ago, I did a project at the Showcase House of Design where the interior designer wanted a contemporary but organic scene on the wall,” Sarkissian recalls. “We painted the walls white and created a pomegranate tree using only tones of brown,” the designer’s palette of choice.

Most commonly found in dining rooms, bathrooms, hallways and master bedrooms, murals can also be uniquely personal. “We recently did a mural for a homeowner who wanted to have a scene of her children at the beach, taking her back to a time when they were small,” says Sierra Madre interior designer Debbie Talianko, who often works with Sarkissian. “It looked like a [vintage] watercolor and made you feel as if you had traveled back in time. It was really dramatic.”

Marlene Oliphant, a Montrose-based interior designer, recalls a scene she commissioned, a large trompe l’oeil of a window overlooking a faraway place, inspired by a client couple’s anniversary trip. “I designed a condo kitchen that had no window over the sink,” she says, “and I had [L.A.] artist Lucy Jensen copy a photo of a Tuscan retreat; she painted it on paper and applied it to the wall like wallpaper and framed it in travertine tile molding.”

When it comes to what can be painted on one’s walls, “you’re only limited by your imagination,” Sarkissian says. In contemporary homes, like the one adorned with a party scene, metallic finishes in silver, pewter and gold are an ongoing trend. “The look you can get with it is quite interesting and one metallic on top of another makes a really interesting wall,” says Pasadena artist Virginia Fair, who, along with her business partner, Jay Richards, has created murals, faux finishes and other decorative embellishments in homes around the world.

Along with murals, interior designers commonly employ decorative fine art, including antique washes, faux stone and other faux finishes to bring distinction to a room, color match other design elements or hide imperfections. “They’re great for camouflaging bad walls and for matching something that’s already there but cannot be replaced,” Oliphant says. “If you have outlet covers running straight across the center of a kitchen backsplash, for example, you can faux finish them to blend into the tile.

“I had a client who had a big mural on two kitchen walls and they were cracked,” she continues. “I asked Jay [Richards] if he could camouflage them and he patched and painted and made everything blend. You’d never know they were there.”

“It’s a really good solution for challenging areas,” adds Talianko. If a client has a wood mantle that they want to look like stone, for example, “there are different plaster finishes that can be applied” to achieve that look.

While Venetian plaster is hardly a new idea, Fair has devised methods of applying it to create unique looks (“It’s like heavy embossing on the walls,” she says). She and Richards recently embellished an entire dining room in this manner, covering its walls in leaves and vines that were individually hand-painted.

Similarly, Sarkissian uses stencils with plaster, “creating very interesting textured designs,” she says. “We make it raised and paint them in silvers, grays, whites and pearlescent colors. It’s an extreme compliment when people go to the wall and touch it just to see if it’s wallpaper or a painting.”

Custom-made wallpaper murals, a traditional and evergreen addition in upscale homes, are another option for homeowners seeking to add zing to a room. Deciding whether to paint a mural or have it created in wallpaper form —  an extremely expensive option that takes months to prepare, Sarkissian says — often comes down to the designer’s preference.

Oliphant, for one, isn’t a fan. “You have a whole other set of problems with wallpaper,” she says. “A lot of walls are just not perfect — they would have to be skim coated to make them flat in order to mount wallpaper. When you do a faux finish, you don’t have to worry about that. You can just create whatever you want. It’s totally customized and you don’t have to worry about matching everything; the faux finisher has his kit and he just creates the matching tone. It’s like waving a magic wand and it’s done.”

Sometimes, muralists are asked, rather than create something new, just to fix a faded or damaged mural already in place. Fair recalls a recent three-week project she and Richards were called in on, restoring an 80-year-old mural painted on the ceiling of a Glendale home, one-third of which had extensive water damage. They had to study the original artist’s hand and technique and make sure they stayed true to that in restoring the image, reminiscent of a scene one might find in an old hunting lodge, complete with pheasants and trees.

“They didn’t have photos of the entire mural, so we took photos of the other undamaged side, worked out the color and design and completely duplicated it,” Fair says. “Our challenge was to make it look like the original — and we did it! The owners were blown away. They couldn’t believe that anybody could actually put it back together like that again.”