While touring a friend’s new home recently, something just didn’t click. The custom furniture was gorgeous, the silk window treatments exquisite, and the French country-inspired kitchen was to die for, but something seemed terribly off. Then it dawned on me—no art work. There was nothing on the walls—no paintings, prints, portraits, or posters framing all those pearl grey walls. Not a single pop of color to catch the eye or create a theme. Sadly, it was a home without panache.
Wallpaper helps but nothing speaks volumes about a room’s owner than a well chosen piece of art and once you’ve selected that perfect piece, your task is not yet complete. Proper framing helps draw the eye to your artwork, but if not carefully selected can detract rather than enhance your carefully chosen piece.
Everybody has heard about picture frames, and most of us know about their basic parts. However, when faced with selecting a frame, whether custom or stock, many of us are at a loss. John and Rebecca Fralin of Fralin Art & Frame understand this dilemma all too well and their goal is to help their clients navigate through the bewildering array of framing and mounting options available today.
And if you think custom framing is only for the well-heeled, consider the fact that your home is your single biggest investment and your artwork deserves to be showcased to best advantage. Custom framing can do all that and more.
As children growing up in Arlington, John and Rebecca were surrounded by creativity. Their father, a CIA operative, was also a talented self-taught woodworker and his love for fine wood and the custom designs that resulted rubbed off on them at an early age.
Their mother was a curator of photography at Corcoran Gallery of Art, and so the house was often filled with an eclectic mix of notables from the art world, including Lou Stovall, world renowned printmaker. It was under Stovall that John began a general apprenticeship when he was just thirteen.
For the next four years Stovall taught John the art of screen printing, picture framing, woodworking, museum installations, and other attendant duties. Under his tutelage, John had the opportunity to meet some of the finest artists and musicians of the time—Gene Davis, Martin Puryear, and Oscar Peterson to name a few. Inspired by all he saw and experienced, upon graduation from high school John enrolled in Virginia Commonwealth University’s painting and printing department, and minoring in furniture design.
After leaving VCU in 1979 John bought a motorcycle and formed a rock band, the Bobcats. It was a heady time for a young artist as he played various gigs while working for a number of picture framers, including a decade at Corporate & Museum Frame, Inc. who appreciated John’s multi-faceted talents and his close attention to detail. Inspired by his continuing education courses at VCU, it was at a painting conservation seminar John experienced an “ah hah” moment.
Drawn to the intricacies and science behind art conservation, “the methods and protocols were more along the lines of what I had been taught in Washington DC,” John recalls. “I started leaning heavily towards conservation framing. I checked out every book the library had on conservation, but had no real mentors I could rely on. So I began contacting conservators and asking a million questions, and started practicing on trashed art work supplied by various antique dealers.”
Through trial and error, John learned to wash, repair, and touch up art of all kinds as a means of educating himself to the intricacies of conservation and the skills necessary to become a knowledgeable conservation framer. In order to concentrate on this facet of the art world, John felt it was time to open his own business, Fralin Associates Fine Arts Services.
Meanwhile, Rebecca was immersed in her own world of art. A history major at the University of Virginia while summer interning at the CIA, Rebecca drew on memories of her childhood and their mother’s incredible eye for beauty in composition, and she went on to pursue a master’s degree in American Southern Decorative Arts at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Following graduation she spent a short time working with a paper conservator in Richmond, Mary Studt.
John began the business with one client and after a decade had several employees and a clientele list numbering in the hundreds that kept his shop humming. By the late 1990’s John’s work was heavily weighted towards conservation framing and less commercial framing, to the point John was unable to keep his employees busy. Many were art students who lacked the skill sets necessary for his exacting conservation work. With the exception of Rebecca, John gradually had to let his other employees go.
Over the years there were hundreds of memorable commissions. “One in particular was a WiIlem de Kooning painting on a paper towel that the artist had glued down on a board. It was so fragile I couldn’t touch it so I wound up building an acrylic cradle to support it that was so complicated I still enjoy looking at pictures of it. Then I matted in such a way that no part of the frame touched the fragile art work.”
Then there was the 110 inch long painting that a collector wanted framed. John created a welded metal frame with a graphite patina to display the impressive work. But it was his furniture making that gave him the most pleasure. His favorite piece being a coffee table made of cherry and laminated maple staves he created for his sister.
Rebecca recalls these years fondly. “Working with John is probably the closest I have ever gotten to using my degree. My art and material culture history background has given me an understanding of many of the artworks and objects we’ve work with, historical objects we’ve framed or mounted and an appreciation of very old documents, paintings, prints, and historic artifacts.”
Following 2001, as the economy slowed, John’s work changed dramatically and even Rebecca was no longer able to assist him with his exacting work. For the next nine years he worked alone until opening Fralin Art & Frame inside DéCOR: Design Center of Richmond in bustling Carytown. It was an economic decision neither of them regrets.
John chuckles, recalling the ad he saw on craigslist for a picture framer. “You just don’t see too many ads for framers! So I contacted Andrew Chasen of Chasen Galleries and he explained they were taking over an old frame shop, gutting it, and putting in a design center but wanted to keep picture framing as part of their services. After interviewing other framers they chose me. We just clicked and it’s been a fantastic ride ever since.” The venture also reunited John and Rebecca once again as John coaxed his sister out of retirement.
John handles custom moulding, sensitive mounting of art and documents, and technical support to museums and special exhibits. Rebecca concentrates on much of the stock framing, manning the shop full time while John travels back and forth between it and his old shop, located in Shockoe Bottom, now used as a workshop.
All of their custom work is done by hand. Employing skills he learned from his father and in university, John fabricates much of their custom mouldings from raw wood stock. He also creates exquisite painted finishes and antique patinas that seemingly glow against domestic and exotic woods. French matting, a technique using watercolor washes and ink lines to embellish the perimeter of a matted piece of art, is one of their most popular custom features.
John also recreates period antique frames for historic paintings where stock gilded framing just won’t do. And in keeping with his family’s legacy of woodworking, his handmade, painted furniture adds uniqueness that blends well with the work of other featured artists within the design center. “This gives our shop an edge and sets us apart from all the other frame shops,” John points out.
And Rebecca’s keen eye for composition, color, and attention to detail is essential as she assists customers in selecting just the right look for their artwork and creating masterful frames that enhance any décor.
In the past year John and Rebecca’s business has grown beyond their expectations. With a dozen framing jobs and an equal number of custom furniture projects going at any one time, life is full. “We’re absolutely delighted to be here. Business has been fantastic!”