In Greater Los Angeles, frame shops are almost as ubiquitous as pizza parlors. Locating a self-proclaimed custom framer is as easy as finding a traffic snarl at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon, but how do you know you've found a good one?
You can judge a framer's taste by looking at the samples waiting to be picked up in his workshop, but a more important consideration is: Does he know how to protect your valuable work of art? If you're not concerned about preservation -- if you're framing an inexpensive poster, for example -- then you might as well buy a ready-made frame. If, however, the art has financial value, or is precious in some other way, then you require the best framer you can afford.
As with any craftsman, there is no simple rule of thumb that tells you which framer has superior skills, but a good place to start is to look into his experience. Framing is a tradition-oriented business, so a shop that has a long history probably has proved its worth.
Jay Mittel launched a Santa Monica art supply and framing store in 1954. With branches in Woodland Hills and Thousand Oaks, Mittel's Art Centers are still family operated and Jay's son John has a lifetime of framing experience. The biggest change he has seen is a far greater consciousness of the importance of conservation, a trend he endorses.
"It's the framer's responsibility to ensure that the work will be preserved in the best possible condition," he said. "That means using archival materials such as acid-free rag mat board, and conservation glass or Plexiglas that filters out the ultraviolet rays that can change the colors of pigments. The back of the frame should be sealed to keep out bugs and debris."
Conservation is a mantra at Jerry Solomon Enterprises on La Brea Avenue. Solomon's family already was in the framing business when Teddy Roosevelt entered the White House, and he launched his present company in 1975.
Employing 65 skilled craftsmen, he makes frames for artists such as David Hockney and John Baldessari, for top galleries such as Gagosian, museums, corporations, collectors and decorators.
Unlike many custom framers, Solomon's artisans use no mass-produced moldings -- the frames are created from scratch. Using time-honored techniques developed in Europe centuries ago, they shape, carve, gild and otherwise embellish raw wood.
Gold leaf is applied according to the traditional "water gilding" method that permits the ultimate highly burnished finish, and the burnishing itself is achieved with agate-tipped tools such as those used by craftsmen making frames for Rubens or Rembrandt. Except for the occasional power tool, there's nothing in the vast workshop that would seem out of place in 16th century Venice.
If you choose a high-end framer such as Solomon, you will find yourself dealing first with a consultant. "We use nothing but white rag mat boards," said David Carroll, one of five specialists at Solomon. "It's the same with linen or silk -- we'll employ it only if it is not dyed or tinted. Even the glues we employ are important. They must be water based." For glazing, the choice between glass and Plexiglas depends on the artwork. "Plexi is lighter, so it's best for larger frames. It's prone to scratching, but it can be made completely clear, without glass' greenish tinge. For pastels and charcoal, though, glass is preferable because Plexi carries a static charge that tends to loosen and attract the granules."
Conservation aside, framers cannot entirely avoid matters of taste. Mittel offers this advice: "There are still customers who ask 'How will this look over the sofa?' I tell them to worry about complementing the art, not the furniture, because what's hanging on the wall is likely to outlast a lifetime of sofas."
When you're evaluating a framer, or framing a work of art yourself, you should also observe the following:
* Before framing, works on paper should be protected between sheets of acid-proof tissue (available in most good art supply stores).
* Works on paper should never be permanently attached to any other surface. Paper expands and contracts in response to moisture in the air so that, if glued to a support of any kind, it is likely to be damaged. Nor should they be in contact with the glass placed over them. This is one reason for the mat; art can also be "floated" unmatted with tiny pads at the corners of the frame.
* Framers should never use rubber cement, animal-based glues or household tapes for mounting. Only wheat or rice starch paste is safe.
* For paintings on canvas, the frame should be deep enough to hold the stretcher bars away from the wall.
* A stretched canvas should not be forced into the indented area at the back of the frame. There should be space for natural expansion and contraction.
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Skilled framers are all over Southern California. Here are some of those at the top:
Aesthetic Frames & Art Services, 6221 Melrose Ave., L.A., (323) 653-9033.
Art Concepts, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 315-9772.
Frames by James, 777 S. Arroyo Parkway, No. 102, Pasadena, (626) 583-8382.
Frames Galore, 14437 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 986-4000.
Jerry Solomon Enterprises Inc., 960 La Brea Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 851-7241.
Mayen Olson, 20512 Crescent Bay Drive, Suite 100, Lake Forest, (949) 583-1146.
Mittel's Art Center, 2016 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 399-9500; 22100 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, (818) 710-0517; 808 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks, (805) 497-0195.