Wall Power

If you have to spend your days looking at those same four walls, they might as well be worth your attention. Nancy Barnett can help.

by Julia Lynam

Photos: Jeff Clarke; Office photo: Fresco Studio

Things are seldom what they seem, and the work of Fresco Studio Inc., housed in an oddly shaped corner of the old Union Station in Burlington, is a case in point. This small Vermont company, with three full-time employees, is building an international clientele for its hand-painted wall finishes and decorative trompe l’oeil.

That Venetian marble wall in the bank is nothing of the sort, and the same goes for the natural grain of the woodwork in an apartment overlooking the lake: They’re both painted “faux” finishes.

Nancy Barnett

Nancy Barnett combines artistry with business acumen at Fresco Studio. The Burlington business paints murals for residential and commercial clients.”

Viewing Fresco’s work, one is constantly tempted to reach out and touch it: Is that a real hat hanging on the wall, or is it just painted on? Is that door really made in the Gothic style with heavy wooden panels, studs and hinges? No, it’s all painted on a flat surface.

In one Charlotte home the grass cloth “wallpaper” on the living room wall is something else altogether. “We used to have real grass cloth,” says the owner, “but it was difficult to match the panels, and then it faded. This painted finish is wonderful, and it has great depth.” In the same home the master bedroom walls are covered with a flurry of pale roses and leaves: “My parents had to go and touch all the roses because they couldn’t believe they were painted!” says the owner.

Fresco’s work is at home in commercial as well as residential settings. The company’s owner and chief creatrix, Nancy Barnett, recently returned from Italy where Fresco completed painting the interior walls of a clothing store on Lake Cano, north of Milan. The design for the mother-of- pearl wall finish and mosaic border featuring precious stones — all painted of course — took approximately a month to develop. “We did most of the actual painting here in Burlington on canvas,” Barnett explains, “and installed it like wallpaper.

“We’re pretty serious about research and authenticity,” she continues, “and we spend a lot of time studying the subject. We’re labor-intensive, but we take the time to get it right, and all three of us work very fast.” Besides Barnett, the staff consists of artists Gary Causer and Catharine Balco. “The three of us are a very good fit. We’re all very opinionated — that’s a good thing — and we trust one another,” Barnett says. “We all have different strengths but we try to do everything — or at least know how to do it. As each job comes in we decide who’s the best fit for it, but we all try to be involved.”

Phyllis Severance can attest to their thoroughness. When Fresco painted the dining room of her 1840s Williston house she was fascinated by the amount of time they spent figuring out what to put on the walls. “They kept bringing over sample boards,” she says, “looking at them in daylight, at night, by artificial light. They really agonized over it.”

Barnett, originally from New Jersey, moved to the Green Mountains in 1977 to work with Bernie Sanders, long before Sanders became the state’s congressional representative, making historical film strips for elementary schools. The film strips gradually became more controversial and the project expanded to include a video about Eugene Debs and the socialist movement in the United States.

Then Sanders decided to run for mayor of Burlington. “He sold the business,” Barnett says, “so I went back to painting school, the New York Studio School in New York City, to get completely immersed in it.”

She returned to Burlington in the late ’80s and with three partners opened Pearl’s, a restaurant and bar on Pearl Street that quickly became a favorite venue for local politicians. Building up the business was a labor of love: “We bought an old, dilapidated, foreclosed building,” she recalls. “We gutted and renovated it and it became the focus of my life.”

Even if its daily operations did soak up time that Barnett would have preferred to spend painting, Pearl’s at least offered a wonderful opportunity for her to experiment with the more extreme fringes of interior design. The restaurant became her canvas: “Suddenly I wasn’t limited to an 8- by-10 piece of paper,” she recalls. “I subjected a lot of people to a lot of stuff! I would redecorate frequently and we threw huge theme parties every month that took me three weeks to put together.

“I got to tune my art and when I realized that was what I really wanted to do I got out from behind the bar to do it.”

Fresco Studio

Fresco Studio employs liberal doses of faux finishes in its office studio — including simulated corrugated metal and mosaic tile.

Barnett took a back seat in Pearl’s in 1991 to set up Fresco Studio, starting off with a few local customers. “I just put it out there” she says. One job led to another with local clients, including restaurants such as The Daily Planet, Reuben James and Gerrard’s at the Radisson Hotel. Barnett sold Pearl’s in 1995.

“From those early commercial jobs we started getting to the residential market; we were aiming for a mix,” she says, adding that in its first three years of operation, Fresco rapidly grew its gross income from $30,000 to $130,000, where it’s hovered ever since.

“It was just synchronicity,” she says. “Being out there led us to a couple of big jobs in New York City. We started to develop a client base out of Manhattan and we still do a lot of work there.”

Designing the interior of Japanese company Zona’s home furnishing store in New York led to a contract to work on a Zona store in Tokyo. Residential and commercial work continued to come in steadily as Barnett’s dedication and professionalism brought her loyal clients.

“Nancy’s done a lot of decorative and special painting work on this project,” says Melinda Moulton of Main Street Landing Co., developer of the Union Station and Wing Building complex on Battery Street, Burlington. “Fresco is very professional and they can always be relied on to give accurate estimates and stand by their promises.

“We looked at a lot of different people but we chose Fresco because Nancy is so gifted. She really stood out beyond the crowd. Later, we were pleased to discover that she uses special milk paints, which are environmentally friendly. Nancy’s since become a tenant of the project, and a personal friend.”

For the first seven years of its life Fresco operated from the attic of the home Barnett shares with Carol Caroscio on Pitkin Street in Burlington’s Old North End. The house is still a showcase of Fresco’s art, with, among other things, painted wall and floor finishes, a trompe l’oeil window and mirror in the leopard-skin-walled bathroom, and a fridge painted to match the paneled kitchen cabinets.

Bursting at the seams on Pitkin Street, Fresco moved in June 1998 to its Main Street location. Barnett took plenty of time to design the space to fit her needs. “We actually measured the height of the paint pots so that the shelves could be the right size,” she says, “and we counted how many paint rollers we really had so we could be sure to have enough space to store them.”

The move was designed to increase Fresco’s visibility and is an important part of Barnett’s efforts to expand business. That drive includes the business’s first active marketing campaign. “We’ve spent a lot of time and money developing a printed look,” she says. Cleverly packaged postcards display some of Fresco’s projects, declaring them to be “The greatest faux on earth,” “Never ordinary, always extraordinary,” and “The most dazzling walls ever finished.”

Nancy Barnett

Artists Gary Causer (background) and Catharine Balco (right) round out the team. “It’s really important that everyone paints the same way,” says Nancy Barnett. “Fresco Studio has a look that we need to maintain.”

How to communicate the effect of their wall finishes in miniature has been a challenge that they’ve met by producing sets of portable samples of their repertoire of wall finishes on small sheets of plywood. They send them to carefully targeted architects throughout the country, the professionals who form a key link in the client/decorator relationship chain.

Last year was a big one for Fresco, as Barnett took on the challenge of refocusing and redirecting the company toward major growth. “With only two other painters and the volume of work we have it meant I was painting and doing the other company stuff in the evening, too. My options were to stop and do consulting, or to grow.”

Expansion will also mean finding more artists. Rather than adding to the permanent staff, Barnett envisions building up a list of artists who can work on individual projects, “but it’s really important that everyone paints the same way,” she points out. “Fresco Studio has a look that we need to maintain.”

Combining a strong business sense with her artistic talent, Barnett takes care of Fresco’s financial affairs herself but recognizes expansion might mean letting go of some of her personal involvement with every aspect of the business. “We have a pretty open management style,” she says. “It’s the only way more people can step in.”

She’s hoping to grow the company to a point where it can sustain more staff and spread the load a bit, but at present she’s working harder than ever before. “I’m not ready to relax yet,” Barnett offers, “but there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Painted on, of course.

Julia Lynam is a free-lance writer living in Burlington. Her work has appeared in business publications in the United States and England since 1982.