Extreme Fakeover

A romantic bedroom in
A romantic bedroom in "The House That Faux Built" has matched fabric and furniture. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Groer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2006

As decorator show houses go, the little brick fixer-upper in Arlington plays totally against type. It is neither a 30-room McMansion nor a famous, historic estate.

Its new furniture seems largely beside the point: generic, low- to mid-priced and, occasionally, too large for the space it occupies.

What does matter in this modest three-bedroom, three-level dwelling is that virtually every surface has been painstakingly altered to look like something else. An intricately painted and gilded porch ceiling mimics Italian mosaic. The bleached parquet living room floor is stenciled and stained to resemble a rug. A romantic, pale-blue bedroom contains an armoire and table painted to match a pillow and bed runner.

And that is precisely the point.

Featuring the work of 30 artisans from this country, Italy, France and England, this is more a decorative faux house than decorator show house. Those artisans who could not get to Virginia sent painted canvases, including a huge portrait of an Indian woman that hangs in a bedroom.

The charity project was conceived last June by artist Adrienne van Dooren of Alexandria. She persuaded four friends to join her in buying the $525,000 house and transforming it into an advertisement for their collective craft.

"We wanted to show that faux finishing has come a lot further than ragging and sponge-painting," says van Dooren, a retired Army officer. "Most show houses are mansions and you think, 'If I had a lot of money, okay.' But this is for anybody who has a normal house, who is just curious about the new techniques, anybody who watches HGTV," the home decor cable channel. "It's for real estate agents who want to show clients that this is the potential any modest house can have."

Thus was born "The House That Faux Built," which van Dooren estimates contains $100,000 worth of artistry. A nude adorning a basement door, for example, wears only a towel and a wry smile, and appears headed to the nearby shower, while much of the upstairs bathroom -- walls, floor, soap dish, toothbrush holder -- has been slathered with gritty, dun-colored finishes that evoke stone.

The kitchen floor now looks like textured flagstone. The inexpensive appliances have been painted to match the cabinets, once builder-grade birch but now a luminous butterscotch hue reminiscent of costlier maple or cherry.

Van Dooren herself turned part of the nasty basement into a Tuscan cellar and tasting room, complete with a fictitious Westover Wineries label on one wall to salute the Northern Virginia neighborhood where she and her colleagues have toiled for months.

Like other show houses, this one aims to raise money for a good cause: $75,000 to finance a Habitat for Humanity home in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Funds will come from house tour tickets ($20 to $22), a glossy before-and-after book ($40, but not yet available), artist-made birdhouses (to be auctioned on eBay in July) and the $500 fee to rent the place for private parties (it is so small there is a 20-guest limit).

Actually, there are currently two faux houses in van Dooren's universe because even after she had assembled enough artists for the Arlington project, offers of help kept coming. So her twin brother, John van Dooren, an Episcopal priest in Chicago, invited the late-comers to work on parts of the Church of the Atonement and its rectory, where he preaches and lives.

The only remaining untapped fundraising opportunity seems to be a television show chronicling both projects. Perhaps it could be called "How Faux Can You Go?"

Last week, several artists were busy finishing their Arlington creations before private-party season begins next month. In the basement "gentleman's retreat" Julie Miles zeroed in on the life-like grouse she had painted above the fireplace. "The wood-graining on the frame is not quite right, so I'm adjusting the color," she says, barely looking up.

But even for artists steeped in the business of tricking the eye, too much of a good thing can be, well, too much.

Consider Titan, van Dooren's dearly departed but convincingly "freeze-dried" West Highland terrier. Artist Amy Ketteran asked that the pooch be removed from the second-floor window seat flanked by faux bookcases she painted on the walls, van Dooren says. Titan now resides in the baby-blue bedroom.

Several other artists expressed immense relief that Iggy, a preserved pooch that van Dooren borrowed to use as a photo prop in the kitchen, is headed back to his California creator.

Clearly, fake Venetian plaster is a thing of beauty in these artistic circles, but a faux Fido? Forget it.

Faux House, 1457 N. Longfellow St., Arlington. 703-971-8252 orhttp://www.fauxhouse.com. Tours run May 15 to June 15.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company