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The New Look of Gold : A Classic Returns--With a Touch of Sophistication and Fun

AFTER ALMOST a decade of understatement in interior design, metallic finishes are beginning to reappear. The most dramatic example of this is the new popularity of gold: gold leaf on serious, expensive furniture; gold paint on moderately priced pieces; gold trim on accessories, and gold threads and patterns woven into decorative textiles.

Historically, gold has symbolized the measure of earthly wealth. In art, it was the color of divinity, a synonym for light and salvation. The tradition of gilding interiors and furnishings goes back many centuries.

Think of Versailles. “Louis XIV was a great showoff and self-promoter who flaunted himself and French glory to foreign dignitaries and ambassadors through the incredible excesses of this palace,” says Charissa Bremer-David, assistant curator of decorative arts at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. “Imagine the effect this place must have had on the people of that time who came here and saw the jewels, real silver and gold furniture, gold leaf moldings, gilt bronze chandeliers and tapestries woven with real gold threads. His excesses were legendary. The craftsmen who produced these things were truly amazing.”

Art nouveau craftsmen of the late 1800s also made great use of gold trim and gold leaf. In the 1920s, furniture was ornamented with metals including gold, silver, bronze, steel and chrome.

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Today, Southern California designers and artists are rediscovering gold as a decorative finish. Designer Larry Totah eschews conventions and defies taboos dictating that certain furniture styles and finishes should never be mixed with others.

“I love the old, the new, as well as the unusual,” Totah says. “I feel that the resurgence of gold’s popularity is a return to tradition, but drawing on tradition in a new, artful way. I like the absurdity of contrasting objects like my gold Italian Art Deco chairs with the novelty of a gold-painted papier-mache dog table. For me, gold evokes a spiritual quality and consciousness.”

Interior designers Daniel Cuevas and Richard Hallberg, who own the Melrose Avenue showroom Formations, have been selling neo-traditional furnishings, many of which feature high-quality gold leaf, for the past few years.

But, Hallberg says, “we don’t at all intend to be trendy. I have a hard time thinking about our things being associated with a trend. We’d like to be thought of as selling furnishings that never go out of fashion. Gold has always had its following, and we tend to cater to designers who don’t deal in fads.”

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Differences between gold paint and gold leaf are fairly easy to discern. The art of gold leaf requires a true craftsman--actual 22-karat gold is painstakingly applied to a surface, then rubbed and burnished. Gold paint also can be rubbed and antiqued to a pleasing patina, but it never has the richness of the real thing, and often it isn’t intended to fool anyone.

Particularly on art furniture, gold paint is sometimes used in jest. Artist Jon Bok uses gold liberally on his furniture. “I like gold paint because it’s shiny and flashy. I like the absurdity of it. When I sprayed my macaroni-covered chairs with gold paint, I did it because that’s the kind of thing the Beverly Hillbillies would have done had they made them,” he says.

Formations’ Cuevas, however, sees gold more seriously. “Even starkly contemporary black, white and gray schemes as well as California casual interiors are now featuring small touches of gold and gold leaf, which gives them a newer, more sophisticated appeal,” he says. “I think this gives such interiors more credence and a longer-lasting quality.”


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