Marbleizing: new uses for a traditional craft

'One of the most ingenious painted fantasies is that inspired by marble.' From 'The Art of the Painted Finish,' by Isabel O'Neil.

Marbleized effects are four centuries old. Yet suddenly, in today's interpretations, they look fresh and delightfully new.

Traditionally, says Sandra Holzman, marbling was only done on papers that could easily absorb the ink. But this Manhattan artist is now producing striking hand-printed fabrics, wallpapers, and leathers that are available to interior designers through the Ron Seff showroom in New York and through Seff's distributors around the country.

Why has interest in marbleizing increased over the past few years?

''Partially, it is reaction to 20 years of heavy, bold graphics in textile design,'' Ms. Holzman replies. ''People were ready for a change, and they like all these softer stone effects that are now appearing in home furnishings. And part of the interest has to do with the general resurgence of interest in crafts generally.''

Ms. Holzman learned to marble in a bookbinding course at the Philadelphia College of Art, and she has been elaborating on the traditional process ever since, taking it from small bookend-type patterns (such as the Victorians introduced) to large configurations in colors ranging from delicate hues of gray and beige to brazen blues, oranges, pinks, and reds.

In the six years she has spent perfecting her marbling technique, she has developed durable, fadeproof, cleanable finishes. She anticipates a future that will also include marbleizing effects on ceramics, wood, and many other surfaces.

Ms. Holzman's technique is based on the principle that oil and water do not mix. She drops the oil-based inks onto the surface of a large tray of water, and as the colors expand she swirls them with a stick to form the patterns. She then lays a three-yard piece of fabric or leather gently onto the tray of colors, and it immediately absorbs the pattern of the inks. With each three-yard piece, the carefully controlled process is repeated. All the designs she produces to upholster furniture, or for draperies, lampshades, wall-coverings, or pillows, are hand-produced in the same manner - and are unique.

The decorative fabric firm of Lee Jofa in New York has devised means of reproducing the hand-produced work of Ellen Smith Ashley, another artist who specializes in marbling (a word she insists on, rather than marbleizing). In a recently introduced collection called ''Marbles,'' Lee Jofa has reproduced the intricate shadings, subtleties, and even the spontaneity of four of Ms. Ashley's basic marbled designs. Colorations are taken from birds, flowers, and other aspects of nature, and many of the complex effects are almost three-dimensional in feeling.

Ms. Ashley, a fine arts graduate of Yale's School of Art and Architecture, became interested in marbling after attending a seminar on bookbinding. She began to experiment with marbled silks shortly after moving to London in l970. To master the technique she had a special trough built, located a rare seaweed gel, used hand-mixed inks floated on the gel, and developed a special ''comb'' to move through the inks to form her patterns.

This artist, who now lives and works in Bethel, Conn., experimented for several years, designing and making special tools and researching various raw materials. Once she had launched her firm, Marbles Ltd., in London, her designs were scooped up, she says, by such haute-couture designers as Bill Gibb, Givenchy, and Yves St. Laurent, and by top interior designers and custom clients in many countries.

Under a special licensing arrangement, Lee Jofa has now adapted Ms. Ashley's hand-painted, one-of-a-kind originals for screen printing on Swiss cottons. It took skilled craftsmen employed by the company two years to learn to reproduce the intricate marbled original designs.

A third textile company, MIRA-X, is also including faux marbre among its l8 new printed fabrics, using trompe l'oeil techniques. Its fabrics are printed to resemble marble, wood burls, three-dimensional fluting, and other architectural details.

Designer Alessandro also admires the trompe l'oeil perspective, or using one medium to create the feeling of another. His rich and luxurious ''touch me'' finishes for the Baker Furniture Company include marble effects.

The marble look has even invaded china. The Rosenthal Studio-Line has just introduced vases and candleholders, as well as tea and coffee services, in fine white porcelain shot through with marble-like swirls of color. The soft-blue or pink marbelized effect, which is an integral part of the porcelain itself, was developed for Rosenthal by Lord Queensberry, professor of ceramic art at the Royal College of Art in London. The pattern is called ''Queensberry Marble.''

Craftsmen in all parts of the country are also experimenting with marbleizing. Many are making end papers for handsome new handbound books. Others are taking the craft in their own new directions. Students at the Isabel O'Neil Workshop in New York are being taught the techniques of the faux-marbre, painted finish, as they have been for years.

In her classic textbook, ''The Art of the Painted Finish,'' the late Mrs. O'Neil wrote that ''one of the most ingenious painted fantasies is that inspired by marble.'' Faux marbre, as it came to be called, occurs in Mycenaean pottery dating to 2200 BC, on Roman columns, and on the woodwork, window shutters, vaulted ceilings, and furnishings of the palaces, villas, and salons of Europe and England. Mrs. O'Neil termed the technique ''demanding,'' but the effort ''rewarding.''

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