WHIPPING UP FANTASIES IN ARCHITECTURAL DESIGN

Abrightly patterned towel appears to be flying out a bathroom window, far above a frothy ripple of surf. On the wall, postcards seem to be whizzing through the air, one perching momentarily on a white wooden fence. One post card looks as if it's stuck under the toilet. But bend down to pick it up and the joke's on you.

Everything in this tiny room except the fixtures is illusory, thanks to the skillful carpentry and brushwork of two Laguna Beach artists who operate as Vasquez & Byers Art Services.

For the past year, Leah Vasquez and Christine Byers have been working their transformational magic on private homes and businesses in Orange County, enlivening interior decorating with perspectives from art history.

Adapting their inventive designs to exteriors as well as interiors, they create imaginative effects ranging from faux marble or granite accents to a reproduction of a medieval tapestry or a contemporary "fantasy environment."

This combination of art and craft employs "all our skills--carpentry, painting and drawing, planning and conceptual work," Vasquez said. "We both enjoy architecture--the humor of it and (contemporary developments) in it."

After working with several other artists, Vasquez decided in February to go into partnership with Byers, whom she met in the master's program in art at UC Irvine.

"Christine had a great research capability. She had a classical sense. . . . She had been to Europe. She knew how to pace herself, and she had a very giving personality. I had a lot of academic training in both arts and sciences. We had the perfect background."

Byers said: "As artists, we are problem-solvers. We take blank space and create a three-dimensional effect. We can present a lot of answers to people."

Working for residential and commercial clients, they are necessarily obliged to tread the line between sky's-the-limit creativity and personal taste.

"We have extensive interviews with clients," Byers said. "It's important to find out what they don't like; then we can find out what they do like. Lots of times, they don't have a background in art history. A number of times we've educated them."

Vasquez agrees: "Everyone has their own idea of what they think they like, based on what they know. Some of our clients never worked with artists before. We're trying to move them a little more toward the experimental (but) not just in terms of boldly going where we think we should go. The bottom line is that we're not living with this--they are."

For the most part, the artists said, "keeping up with the Joneses" tends to translate into a preference for very traditional homes. A client's initial notion of home design may be linked to a rigid parade of matching patterns or an overabundance of frilly trimmings.

Using volumes of research material and a patient, understanding approach, Byers and Vasquez try to educate potential clients about appropriate looks for particular styles of architecture. They also suggest a range of motifs and styles available from art history.

For a man who wanted a snow scene in his bedroom, they created an image "without all the cutesy details you get involved with in 'picture post card' painting," Vasquez said.

"Helping a client decide what is too much" is part of the job, she said.

"We don't want our work to be the focus (of the room)," Byers added.

"We want people to say, 'Oh, what a lovely home you have,' " Vasquez said, not, " 'Oh, isn't that interesting.' "

Still, the pair's most exciting commissions come from clients "not afraid they're not going to please the neighbors" who allow the artists more freedom to play with space and style and subject matter. The projects Vasquez and Byers most enjoy are on the order of the postcard-bathroom scene described earlier at the Laguna Beach home of Michael and Nancy Meyer.

Michael Meyer, a member of the board of the Newport Harbor Art Museum, said he loved the creamy, light-struck realist style of painter Wayne Thiebaud, a retrospective of whose work was shown at the museum last year.

But Vasquez and Byers didn't want to plagiarize the artist. So instead they used used wood, wire and paint to concoct a mildly surreal scene full of details with special meaning to the couple. One of the flying postcards is addressed from Michael Meyers' Omaha hometown, while another alludes to his frequent trips to China.

At another home, a woman with an authentic Monet in her dining room requested a playful wall treatment that made reference to the painting. Vasquez and Byers painted an eye-fooling window, through which can be seen the same lily-strewn lake in a style imitative of the Impressionist master's.

The ancient theme of the four elements--fire, water, air and earth--provided the motif for a red and green wall decoration in the French deco house of another client.

For Prego, the Irvine restaurant that boasts a dining experience akin to feasting in a Tuscan villa, the women turned a temporary wall that hid a nearby construction site into a dreamlike pseudo-Renaissance landscape with "a feeling of ruins, a vineyard, walkways leading from the real to the imaginary," Vasquez said.

Working there was an unusually public experience for the pair. They said the plumber gave them advice and the waiters fed them.

"The electrician said, 'Are you getting paid for this?' " Byers said, laughing. Their fees generally range from $2,000 to $4,000, depending upon the time involved, whether the work is repetitive or involves more mental concentration, and the accessibility of the area to be painted. (Some locations are unusually cramped or require a scaffold.)

Future projects involve creating rentable backdrops for photographers and designs for libraries, airports and other public spaces. Someday the women hope to employ several young artists to carry out commissions. Another dream scenario involves working with architects to create innovative wall treatments for new buildings.

Even Byers' unexpected move to Dallas this fall with her attorney husband is being taken as an opportunity to offer their design services to another part of the country.

"I'm one of those eternal optimists," Vasquez said. Not too surprising for a partner in a company with the punning slogan, "Take Us for Granite."

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