ROBERT LEWIS sinks into an armchair sideways, legs dangling over one of the chair's arms, in the laid-back California manner that comes to him even more easily after a few banana daiquiries. For one moment he is not racing to beat the band.
Seven years ago you might have seen Lewis, 32, on the streets of Georgetown, peddling antiques from a handwagon for a family venture called "Funky Junk & Trunks."
Today New York designers fly down to discuss a line of Lewis craftwork for the national commercial art market.
With wife, Martie, and friend Miche Booz, Robert Lewis runs Weatherwood Design from a shop in the rolling Olney farmlands. In the four or so years Weatherwood has been in business, it has shed its humble beginnings as a simple sign maker and shows every appearance of becoming a topflight commercial design/crafts company.
For Lewis, it has been a somewhat frenetic search for The Big Job.
Currently, Weatherwood is preparing the sign work, and some leaded and etched windows, for White Flint Mall's new pseudo-Georgetown section.
At White Flint's Lewis and Thomas Saltz store, Weatherwood both designed and executed three large wooden wall murals and the etched glass paneling that stretches the length of the store's grand staircase and balcony.
Other Weatherwood creations -- signs, murals and wall hangings -- are scattered in stores throughout the mall. Soon, if all goes as planned, Weatherwood will be making prototype component murals for commercial layouts, or a "bread and butter" line that will make the company less dependent on commissioned works.
Until recently, Robert Lewis had been working almost exclusively in redwood, crafting signs of delicate design: wind-blown bamboo with I-Ching lettering for The Oriental Gallery at White Flint, for instance. Using gold leaf and layered paints and lacquers -- in chorus with a deft hand on the sandblaster -- his designs seem to float over the etched surface.
In the Saltz store are three murals, each 4-by-12 feet in size, of appealing women in scenes of the different seasons. His layered paint and lacquer treatment achieves translucent hues of lavender, plum and pink and a Maxfield Parrish look, or "a good combination of art nouveau, art deco, classic and the flavor of our times."
Weatherwood started with $13 and a piece of redwood. From the wood Lewis designed a sign that said "antiques." With the $13 he had it etched, which involves placing a resistent stencil of the design on the wood, then sandblasting away portions so the design is left in relief.
They chose "antiques" so that "if we couldn't sell it, we could give it to her (Martie's) father, who is into antiques."
And for the longest time, signs were breakfast, lunch and dinner: road signs, attorney's signs, state signs, city limit signs. The entrance sign to Brookfield, Md., for the Bicentennial was a Weatherwood product. As was the New Market city limit sign. Signs lost their appeal, says Lewis, when approval for the designs were sometimes six months coming.
"We finally found out where our market was," he said. "In stores. I really believe in art in public places. I want to do bigger, more advanced things and I want people to see them."
Getting bigger is as natural to Robert Lewis as lines are to graph paper. "I want us to be the second Tiffany," he says. Never for long has he been happy doing one particular thing. And if he's asked to do something big and doesn't know how -- he'll find out how and do it anyway.
The glass paneling in the Saltz store, for instance. The plans called for glass etching in a huge way -- years and yards of it.
Apparently, no one ever asked Lewis if he knew how to etch glass. Lewis had never attempted it. They asked would he do it. He was not about to say no.
"You can pretty much tell if you can do something. Even if you've never done it before," he says, tracing with his fingers the etching on one of the Saltz panels. Subtle changes in shade and constrast depend on how much glass is blasted away. "I really broke my teeth on this."
He drew up the designs -- fanciful scenes of leaping deer, unicorns and clipper ships -- prepared three weeks for the blasting and finished the job in two weeks working 18 hours a day.
"When I'm etching, I feel I'm performing. I can't make a mistake. A mistake happens in a second. And when it happens, you've lost it."
For all his laid-back manners, there is something frantic, something theatrical about Lewis -- something romantic, something a little crazed, something that calls for constant action. Static is not in his vocabulary.
Before becoming designer/craftsman-with-New York-connections, Lewis was artist-without-portfolio/have-guitar-will-travel. One day he locked the door to his design business in Monterey, Calif., and took off. He doesn't know what happened to the business and he doesn't seem to care.
"For years and years I used to do that -- go from one thing to another. I am a dabbler. And that's my main problem. I've really had to learn control."
Lewis began racing as a kid. His father was in the service. Robert spent time in 23 different public schools.He attended the University of Southern Mississippi, intending to become an actor and working on set designs. After a year of that, he abandoned studies and moved to Alaska.
Since then, he has spent nearly 15 years at such various pursuits as: painter; crayon drawer; surveyor of Alaska's backwood country with Takeetna bush pilot, Don Sheldon; advertising art director; poster artist; song writer; Defense Department logistics artist; television art director; sidewalk artist; antique peddler; brick laborer; window trimmer; freelance artist. He's been out of work and on food stamps.
But always with one eye open for a business of his own.
When the sign business was just paying the bills, the Lewis' went to Cincinnati. Through developer friends there, they met architects who referred them to the city design center. They were sent to Federated Department Stores, one of the country's largest chain-store owners, and from there to the office of Norwood Oliver, or "Uncle Norwood," as he is known in the Lewis home.
Oliver, a well-known New York-based commercial designer, took Weatherwood under his wing, as it were. He happened to be laying out the Lewis and Thomas Saltz store in White Flint Mall. The Lewis' soon had their first major job.
In the studio, once a small toy and doll house factory, Weatherwood has just finished a set of double doors with transom, etched in designs of swaying reeds, for a restaurant in Richmond.
While Martie, the business end of Weatherwood, is spending the family's Christmas money making contacts at a show in New York, Robert is hatching new ideas on the drafting table. ("A year ago we didn't even have a drafting table. We were drawing on top of the dryer.")
"Robert is a professional notetaker," says Martie, her blond curls bobbing just below the eyebrows. Not just a note-taker, but a schemer, an idealist, shooting for the top. He talks about filling malls with huge mobile sculptures; about writing books; about making work, not just for himself, but for perhaps dozens of area craftsmen.
"When I was about 3 years old," he says, sitting at the kitchen table in the family's old farm house near Olney, "I remember we had this TV set and it had this bubble, magnifying lens for a screen. There was a picture of New York and it scared me. I remember thinking, 'I'm never going there until the time is right.' When we finally went to New York, I figured the time was right. And I had a good time." CAPTION: Picture 1 and 2, Above, from left; Robert Lewis, Martie Lewis and Miche Booz; at right is one of their etchedglass panels at White Flint's Lewis and Thomas Saltz store.; Picture 3 and 4, Creating a Weatherwood design (top); and a finished product (above). Photos by Harry Naltchayan -- The Washington Post