Layer by Layer

Gretchen Howard in her Studio.

Anyone who has invested an afternoon putting a fresh coat of paint on a wall at home or over a favorite piece of furniture knows the transformative power such a seemingly simple task can achieve. There is certainly some of that essence in the work of decorative painter Gretchen Howard, though her process and the final results have more in common with the ocean creating sea glass than an intrepid homeowner with a paint bucket and roller.

Subtle or dramatic, conservative and classical—or whimsical and wild—the work Howard does on interiors, lighting fixtures and furniture can change them in unexpected ways, imbuing the familiar and sometimes mundane with new energy, reclaimed elegance or a brush of irony and fun.

A chandelier that is part of the Tattered collection.

Howard has worked as a decorative painter in New Orleans for more than 20 years, completing a great variety of residential and commercial projects. Now, she is embarking on a new artistic venture with business partner and fellow artist Kaki Foley. Their new local company, called Tattered, is producing both a distinctive line of furniture and one-of-a-kind pieces drawing on faux painting, decoupage and other techniques. The unifying aesthetic is far from the clean lines and sleek contours of modern design, but rather something Howard feels will be comforting and familiar to people who live in a city famous for its layers of culture and funky vibe.

“Everything about New Orleans is slightly tattered and worn, that’s part of the city’s texture,” says Howard. “Our pieces are things that make people think of something maybe their grandmother owned that’s stashed up in the attic, something that could be hauled down now to give it some new life.

The foyer floor at Alix Rico’s house that Gretchen Howard did the decorative painting.

“We’re taking old shapes, original shapes and funking them up with new style and symbols,” she says. “These are pieces with multiple layers, you can tell a lot has happened to them.”

A chandelier currently hanging in her daughter’s bedroom is a good example of the type of products to look for from Tattered. Howard literally found the classically designed old lighting fixture on the curb, discarded by its former owner. She plucked it up, repainted it, added jewels of color and covered it in pieces of libretto from the classic Italian opera “Tosca.” It is now an eye-catching, functional centerpiece to the colorful room. 

Howard got an early start in art thanks to her parents. Her mother Nancy Weller had a penchant for making art out of ordinary household objects or castoff pieces while her father, Dell Weller, long painted and showed his art along the fence surrounding Jackson Square.

Howard studied graphic design and after finishing her education moved to New York where she worked for the designer Liz Claiborne, creating materials for the company’s retail outlets.

A powder room at Alix Rico’s house was adorned by Gretchen Howard.

Like many other itinerant New Orleanians, she couldn’t stay away long and returned home. She began with faux marbling work in friends’ homes and her decorative painting business soon took off largely through word-of-mouth referrals.

An ancient art, Howard says decorative painting is something she approaches more with intuition than a precise process. For instance, to achieve a deep red color on one client’s wall, Howard started out painting in hot pink. The client’s husband would shake his head in consternation as he checked in on Howard applying these first few intense coats. “I kept telling him, ‘look, don’t worry, this isn’t the final product, you’ll see,’” she says.

All the while, Howard was carefully building the base for the final color, which, after five coats of paint and two coats of polyurethane, delivered a rich, glassy depth that was perfect for the room.

One of her most exciting recent decorative painting projects was to help complete a transformation of an old commercial building near her Uptown home. For many years, it was a corner barroom called Norby’s, best known for the intensity of its LSU sports fans and cigarette smoke. Later, it was renovated into an Italian restaurant called Nardo’s Trattoria. That business closed last spring and has since been replaced by a new restaurant called Patois. The new owners made plenty of their own design changes and brought in Howard to help find the right ambient colors for the interior.

Howard is also a fine-art painter and her mixed media canvases will be showcased during October at the Soren Christensen Gallery in the Warehouse District. Her show, called “Bridge,” opens with the Art for Art’s Sake celebration.

Categories: Masters of their Craft