The RENAISSANCE of Washington's Victorian houses (like Andrew and Pamela Scallans' on Capitol Hill) brought an acute need for wall stencilers, and Cynthia Lissfelt and Mary Madeline Kine stood ready, razors and paint-brushes in hand.
They'd been hobbyists for 15 years (King holds a fine arts degree from William and Mary, Lissfelt has one from Tufts). They went commercial last September with a studio in Falls Church called The Stenciled Pineapple. They closed it in few months because "we were never there," according to Lissfelt."So now we go to the people instead of them coming to us."
Either way, business is good.
Stenciling's been around a while - the Chinese have been at it for centuries - and throughout northeast America, especially New England, there are houses bedizened with bright, simple designs like those in the Scallans' dining and living rooms. Many old paterns have been obliterated by wear or paint, and purists may peel away several strata of wallpaper in search of original designs to use as guides for new ones.
"Once we redid an old 19th-century stenciling that Lloyd Herman (director of the Renwick Gallery) found under three layers of wallpaper at his home," says Lisfelt. "Before he repainted the room he traced the stems off the designs and gave them to us. Color coordination is important, and because he had used neutral tones, we did the new designs in a warm brown and iridescent gold.
Mr. and Mrs. Robert Norris of Clifton, Va., came upon the stencils in their 1880 Colonial-style home as fortuitously as Herman. When they redid the ground floor hallway, the Norris' found Victorian patterns, faint but still breathing under layers of wallpaper in the ground floor hallway. Suspicion led them to more elaborate designs in the living room. Robert Norris, a Capitol Hill house restorer, traced them on paper and stenciled them on the finished wall. It was easy. "All we had to do then was touch it up with white paint where we made mistakes," says Mrs. Norris.
(The Norris' house is included in the Clifton Community Womens Club historic homes tour May 25.)
King's and Lissfelt's designs come from New England (where Lissfelt once lived and spent some time tracing patterns from old houses), from museum pieces and from their imaginations.
The Scallans' patterns were arrived at through consultation over panels - protable mock-ups of finished designs. "When we agreed on a pattern, we measured the rooms and came up with a cost estimate," says Lissfelt. "Then we did a board, so any revision of color schemes would be done before painting began."
After the design is agreed on, the patterns are traced from the board and cut into clear sheets of plastic. The sheets are taped to the room's wall, then Lissfelt and King hand-paint the designs using washable acrylics.
The Scallans ended up with an quasiart nouveau floral design on the dining room frieze and a rolling Victorian pattern on the frieze in the living room. king did the dining room; Lissfelt the living room. Both designs are original. The master boards were given to the Schallans to assure that there would be no duplication. The whole job took King and Lissfelt about 30 hours.
Materials cost only $5 or so, according to King, so time is the main determinant of price. Depending on how much design work is involved, stencilwork for several rooms can run from $100-500. Floor-stenciling is possible too, but Lissfelt and King don't do floors.
"Not commercially. We teach (every semester through the Smithsonian Associates program), but we're never done floors commercially and we don't really want to, because there are so many steps involved. until we had done a floor and waited five years to see how it held up - well, we know this wall stenciling stands the test of time, but we're not so sure about floors," Lissfelt says.
"You know there really isn't any reason why they shouldn't hold up but until we find out, we hesitate to do it."
Wall stencils are not limited to application in Victorian or New England-style decors. Lissfelt and King decorated King's husband's downtown law office with square and angular patterns.
"It was an office in one of these big new office buildings," sayd King. "It obviously wouldn't have gone well with a Victorian pattern, but we had a very geometric design that was perfect for it."
Supplies for wall stenciling, which amount pretty much to brushes, razors, plastic sheets and acrylic paint, can be bought in most art stores. King and Lissfelt don't sell supplies or patterns.
"If someone gets in touch with us and is interested in stenciling, then we load the stuff you see here into the back of our station wagon and go out and visit them and talk about it," says Lissfelt.
Lissfelt and King can be reached at 533-7907.
King suggests "Early American Stencils on Walls and Furniture," by Janet Waring (New York: Dover Publications, 1937) for general reading, and "Early American Decorative Patterns," by Ellen Sabine (Princeton: Van Nostrand, 1962) for patterns and instruction. A more recent book: "The Art and Craff of Wall Stenciling," by Richard M. Bacon (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1977) includes instructions and patterns for stenciling walls and floors.