Modern man uses old-world plaster style
By Carolyn Torella
For the Poughkeepsie Journal
Venetian plaster artist Martin Ahlf of MRA Builder in Red Hook stands next to his work at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. This plaster work, completed in November 2006, is featured in the penthouse suite there
The reflection on a wall created by Martin Ahlf mirrors the past, literally and figuratively. Ahlf specializes in a centuries-old style of interior wall finish called "Venetian plaster."
At its most lustrous, Venetian plaster has the reflective effect of ripples on water — a deep, multidimensional look not often seen in common wall finishes. Look deep enough into the reflection and you just might see a glimpse of Old World Italy.
To paint the portrait of this young artist from Red Hook, look back farther than Ahlf’s 27 years on this Earth to 16th century Venice, and perhaps even before then.
Polished plaster wall finishes have been around since 900 B.C. in Egypt, but true Venetian plaster gained widespread popularity in Venice in the 1500s. Venetians wanted to replicate the elegance of marble-covered walls in mainland Italy, but solid marble was heavy and their city was built on sand and mud.
Crafting a solution
Faced with the dilemma of a sinking city and water, water everywhere, inventive Italians created Venetian plaster, a blended paste of aged slaked lime, ground marble and color pigment. This durable, mold-resistant plaster created the look the Venetians desired without the weight of traditional solid marble. That same basic formula is still used today but applied by a new generation of artists.
At Pine Plains High School, young Martin Ahlf loved art and math, key tools of an artist in the construction trades, and the impossibly designed art of M.C. Escher.
At 18, he worked as a carpenter in a construction company that did woodworking and plaster. He learned about tools, products and tricks of the trade from a master plasterer with 45 years experience in the business. That on-the-job education paid off when he tried his hand at Venetian plaster three years ago.
He found Miami-based Firenze Enterprises that imported plaster from Venice. "I worked at their Miami location for awhile and learned about their product," Ahlf said. The distributor liked his work so much they asked him to finish their showroom in Venetian plaster.
"I taught them a few techniques that they didn’t know; we traded secrets and tips. It’s a good relationship and they refer work to me if it’s up in our area."
That bit of networking got him his biggest job so far — the penthouse suite at the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. High atop Canal Street, Ahlf’s artistry reflects the beauty of a city that knows a thing or two about water everywhere.
Being one of only a few local Venetian plaster artists, it’s hard to know how your work stands against the competitors — but the steady stream of compliments from his clients and peers are etched in stone.
"The other applicator on the Ritz job said he’d been doing plaster for 12 years, he never saw a wall look like that," Ahlf said.
"Then we brought in a Ritz Carlton engineer. He looked at the wall and thought at first it was real marble," Ahlf said. "That’s when I knew I had something special."
Good Venetian plaster is in the product, yes, but also in the artistry of the applicator. There are several layers applied in the process, each adding richness and depth to the end product. The final step of steel troweling, or burnishing, is where the polished appearance is developed and makes the wall appear as one seamless piece of marble, bringing out the color and subtle texture in the layers.
This distinctive look is never the same twice, but the individual artist’s signature is apparent in the final work, which is why Ahlf does the last step even when he has help on the job. That help comes from his wife, Kerri, MRA Builder’s only other employee, when she’s not busy as an operating room surgical assistant. Ahlf taught her the technique.
"Part of it is very intricate," she said. "You see the motion of the artist’s hand in the work."
The perks of plaster
Venetian plaster is cold to the touch, durable, scratch- and dirt-resistant. Its colors and appearance of depth change with the natural light in the room but it won't fade. Its anti-mold/mildew allergy-free properties are perfect for high moisture environments like bathrooms and showers and it's often listed with "green" home-building products.
"It can be done in a variety of finishes, anything from a polished marble/mirror look, to a coarse, pitted limestone look, or suede, distressed stone. And it breathes in wet environments, releasing moisture back into the air, so you won't get mold," Ahlf said.
Ahlf's Venetian plaster application starts around $9 per square foot. That's only slightly more expensive than tile installation fees. Most 1,000-square-foot jobs can be completed in one week, with no more distress to the household than a paint job, Ahlf said.
"The great part about this plaster is that it can be applied to new finished drywall or existing painted walls and it gives it a completely new, brighter look, like a renovation, but without the mess. It's like fresh-painted on steroids."
It's suitable for foyers, whole rooms or as a decorative accent like a bedroom headboard wall, fireplace wall, framed by decorative moulding, or anywhere a unique, impressive wall finish is desired, Ahlf said.
While Ahlf's MRA Builder company still does finish carpentry, including a recent job at the Mohonk Mountain House, he wants to do more Venetian plaster jobs. Finding new clients is a challenge. "How do we get people interested in something they're not even aware of?"
That's also a challenge faced by another specialist in unusual interior finishes, Christopher Albert, a 35-year old artist and painter in Beacon.
Albert moved here from Colorado five years ago with only a few client referrals to get him started in doing speciality finishes and murals.
"The majority of my business is through word of mouth now, but getting that started was really the tough part," Albert said. "It's a slow process...but when it happens it's the best type of advertising you can do."
"It's really about networking and being creative, putting word out with friends and acquaintances — that's the first circle of influence, then going out from there," Albert said.
Ahlf might try direct marketing at the Dutchess County Fair, local home shows or with interior designers, but when working solo, it's hard to shut down the business to find new business.
Still, he hopes to offer those desiring a unique design element an alternative to faux finish painting and wallpaper. "This is not a faux finish. It's the real thing. You can't mess with 16th century technology. It's still being used today."
Ahlf is always creating and trying new finishes and glaze combinations. With his trowels and i-Pod in tow, he's blending old and new, putting a fresh, 21st century coat on an age-old tradition.