Walking into The Jefferson, a venerable hotel on Washington’s 16th Street, is like embarking on a luxury cruise back in time. Exquisite Beaux Arts architecture transports the visitor to a courtly age. And decking the walls, gilt-framed art opens some 1,000 views onto the past.
That’s the number of paintings, prints and other wall objects that Evelyn Avery’s studio framed, restored, reproduced or created from scratch as part of the hotel’s recent renovations. These historic and newly minted pieces arrived in truckloads from Avery’s workshop in Atlanta, Georgia. A longstanding resource for interior designers and clients in the Washington area, Avery moved her studio to Alexandria, Virginia, last summer.
“After 20 years of working here, the business was so strong it seemed a natural transition when our lease expired in Atlanta,” she says.
During the hotel’s three-year restoration, Avery worked closely with William McGovern of McGovern Design Studio, who was then a lead interior designer at Forrest Perkins, a design firm that specializes in luxury landmark hotels. Implementing McGovern’s vision, she provided many art pieces based on themes related to Thomas Jefferson’s life and times and also devised ways to present a wide range of new and existing works.
During the project, her studio framed a group of Jeffersonian documents in classical styles, cleaned a darkened nautical painting and restored its now gleaming frame, and reproduced a circular, convex, girandole mirror. Her artisans built media cabinets with mirrored folding panels to hide TVs in luxury guest suites. And they created the largest gilded work in Avery Studios’ history: an eight-by-11-foot frame surrounding two majestic, 19th-century landscape paintings. This elegant combination forms a scenic, glittering backdrop against a charcoal wall in the hotel’s reception area.
Petite and perfectly groomed, Evelyn Avery exudes energy and determination. She speaks in a fast-paced Southern lilt, which she describes laughingly as “a blend of North and South Carolina with a lot of drama.” On a recent afternoon, she gave a spirited tour of the new Avery Studios.
At the entrance, a public showroom displays dazzling frame options, from iridescent abalone shell and antiqued metal leaf, to faux bird’s eye maple, brilliant polka dots, gilded stars and painted stripes. “This is only a sample of what we can do,” emphasizes Avery. “All finishes can be mixed and matched. We’re not tied to an inventory of stock moldings. What I started out to do was serve the designer. I will do one thing, one time, one way.”
Miles of linear feet of wood moldings designed by the studio are stored along the workshop’s back wall. At one worktable, a carpenter finishes sanding a poplar frame covered in gesso, a chalk undercoat that bonds to the wood and provides a smooth surface. He carefully inspects the piece for any scratches, gouges or ripples. “Seventy percent of the work happens before a frame gets to the gilding or painting department,” Avery points out. “Beauty is in the prep.”
Another carpenter enters a spraying booth, slips on a respirator for protection and sprays a frame with a primer coat, as an exhaust fan draws out particles that might fall on the frame. This modern step contrasts with the centuries-old techniques that prevail in the studio.
In a separate area, a gilder restores a damaged antique frame. Working on its inner lip, he replaces drab gold paint with more reflective and refined gold-metal leaf. Across the room, faux tortoiseshell frames are drying. They were painted with several coats of tinted shellac, a natural resin secreted by the female lac bug. Achieving the desired effect, explains finisher Tony Laseur, “depends on holding the brush a certain way and controlling temperature and air flow in the room. The material has a life of its own.”
Avery Studios now has six employees. Only one, production manager Ellen Barber-Rackley, made the move from Atlanta. With a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Leicester in England, she worked as a painting conservator before joining the studio 18 years ago. Barber-Rackley, who fills in on all jobs when needed, says, “It’s very rewarding to start with an idea or a drawing and see it finished as a one-of-a-kind frame that works with a painting or other original art.”
Two veteran artisans from the Atlanta studio spent 60 days in Alexandria training new employees. Skills passed on endure in jobs finished or underway. Recent projects include small desk stands made to house former Senator Bill Frist’s Civil War documents in an archival manner at his private library in Tennessee, and a series of modern, black-lacquered frames to showcase scenic photographs of Washington, DC, for team owners at the Verizon Center.
Around the workshop, a small reproduction plaster intaglio carved image depicting a classical theme leans against the rubber mold in which it was cast. The mold was taken from an original ceramic intaglio, one of many bought as souvenirs by generations of travelers on the Grand Tour. Artisans at the studio use a similar casting technique to reproduce ornaments from antique frames that Avery collects on travels in France.
A growing cadre of local designers relies on Avery for art acquisition and custom creations, from frames to furniture. Interior designer Barry Dixon says he has not installed a job in years without at least a few pieces by Avery Studios. “These custom bespoke frames are made the Old World way,” he says. “Evelyn is pretty amazing at what she can do and the gamut of possibilities she brings to the table. The truth is she can do anything you can think of.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Michael Ventura is a photographer in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Avery Studios is located at 100 South Early Street, Alexandria. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and Saturdays by appointment. For more information, call 703-823-3935 or visit averyart.com.
For a tour of Evelyn Avery’s chic DC penthouse click here.
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