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The decorative-plasterwork atelier Wells Vissar makes some of the most convincing faux marble in the design world

 Jen Renzi (Architectural Digest 2014)

Photo by: Trevor Dixon

ly a well-trained eye could identify the tops of two English Palladian tables in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art as contemporary faux marble. Or discern that an ornamental fireplace at Tavern on the Green restaurant in Manhattan isn’t an 1870 original. The seemingly timeworn creations are the handiwork of Wells Vissar, a Philadelphia decorative-plasterwork atelier catering to designers and homeowners with a taste for fine finishes. “Clients don’t necessarily hire us for a specific technique,” says studio cofounder Kathleen Vissar, who’s crafted everything from pilasters and arches for a Georgian-style estate to ceiling medallions for an urban hotel. “They want an old-world effect but don’t know how to achieve it.”

Of all its distinguished specialties, Wells Vissar is best known for its artful scagliola, cast-plaster imitation marble that approximates the material’s integral veining and sleek feel. Perfected by Italian artisans in the 1600s, scagliola became a global phenomenon, appearing in grand 17th- and 18th-century residences from Ham House in England to Russia’s Pavlovsk Palace.

Vissar and former partner Amy Wells learned the method in the mid-1980s, when they were part of a team hired to make 32 Corinthian columns for a State Department dining room in Washington, D.C. “Executing them in royal-rouge marble would have been prohibitively expensive,” Vissar recalls, noting that scagliola was a feasible alternative, though something of a dying art. The process starts with teasing silk strands into threads, which are then dipped in pigment and laid in a urethane or silicone mold; a second pigment is applied to the threads with a whisk, and gypsum-based plaster is poured on top. The silk is then pulled out of the hardening plaster, leaving behind shadowy trails that mimic marble veining.

Vissar, who calls herself a “militant ornamentalist,” has been a scagliola evangelist since her firm’s launch in 1993. Early champions of the studio included decorators Mark Hampton and Bennett Weinstock. Now, a new generation of designers, including Chicago- and New York–based talent Kara Mann, is discovering scagliola’s chameleonic beauty—and making the venerable material relevant once again. scagliola.com

What Is Scagliola?

Scagliola

The word scagliola derives from the Italian scaglia, which means “scales or chips of marble.” Although this artificial marble is indistinguishable from the original, it is actually a colored and polished cement. Scagliola was used extensively in the western architecture of the 18th, thru early 20th centuries. Examples include many early 20th century State Houses and Theaters built during this time.

Scagliola provides a durable surface, which is far more permanent and far more realistic in appearance than faux surfaces. Scagliola can be casted into forms that would virtually be impossible or cost prohibited carving out of natural stone, therefore, making it a particularly attractive option for the design industry.

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