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Hand-painted pizazz

With an 8-inch plastic putty knife, Michael Chapas bent over an 18-foot padded worktable and with quick, practiced strokes _ chop, chop, chop, chop chop! _ created a pattern of stylized fans out of the thick white ink spread on the paper before him.

Then, with a flourish, he lifted it on a wooden dowel and flipped it onto a drying rack. Another strip of hand-painted wallcovering done.

Scores of wallcovering books offering millions of printed patterns tower in home centers and hardware stores, but they won't do for Chapas, who works with interior designers to produce the exact design and coloring to suit them and their clients.

It took just three or four minutes to work the design of fans down a standard 15-foot strip of liner paper. That's the heavy vinyl paper that's typically used over damaged or textured walls, but for Chapas it's his canvas.

Once the first coat dries _ it could take two hours or overnight _ a paper might come back to the worktable repeatedly for coloring or highlighting with pearlizing or metallic powders.

The ink, known in the business as "plastique," is "almost like clay," Chapas said, scraping it and smoothing it. "You have to play with it. You can use thick or thin plastique, depending on the pattern." It dries to a textured, vinyl-like finish.

He starts by rolling a smooth base coat on the vinyl paper. Then he scoops more plastique onto the paper, working on an area about 3 feet long at a time, using the plastic trowel to create the fan design. "There's a little bit of a knack to putting it on," he admits.

He works on the edges first, "so they're not an afterthought, and so you don't see the seams" when the paper is applied to the walls, then fills in the middle with the motifs.

Fans whir to dry the paper, and scented candles burn ("The carpet smelled kind of funky") in the rented storefront on 49th Street near First Avenue S that houses his Transitions Studios, where his neighbors include an upholsterer, a carpet store, an alterations shop, a florist and a handmade soap shop.

"I always did something with art," said Chapas, 43, a native New Yorker who moved here four years ago from Chicago. He first lived with his parents in Pasco County, but that was short-lived for the big-city boy: "There were cows across the street!" Now he lives in a 1950s house in St. Petersburg.

When he was 19, Chapas started air-brushing T-shirts on the beach in Montauk Point, N.Y. "Album covers, surfers, portraits, shells _ we were making $200 a day," he recalled. One day he spotted a help-wanted ad in the Village Voice for a spray gun operator. He figured if he could handle an air brush, he could handle a spray gun, and soon he was spraying colors on wallcovering at Walter Knabe Functional Art. Six months later, he was the production manager.

He went on to a career as wallcovering designer, faux finisher ("I've been fauxing since I'm 18") and decorative painter. He studied advertising, graphic arts and cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He learned upholstery, and he still enjoys plucking a castoff chair out of the trash, refinishing and reupholstering it.

He worked for Universal Studios, creating and faux-finishing the sets for My Best Friend's Wedding. He spent a year with Maya Romanoff, the legendary creator of handmade wallcoverings, at the New York New York casino in Las Vegas. ("We did a lot of vinyl there," he recalled, "all different techniques.")

Turning the pages of a photo album, he pointed out the friezes he carves out of Styrofoam panels, using a craft knife or a hot wire to create what look like classical murals, which are coated with epoxy and given a faux stone finish. He showed pictures of dated mustard-colored rock fireplace walls that he repaints and faux-finishes to look like limestone.

Chapas has developed a library of about 50 original wallcovering patterns over the years, "and 80 percent of my clients choose one of my patterns" rather than suggesting an original, Chapas said. But some designers will say, "Give me your rendition of this" _ something they saw in a magazine, for instance. Eighty-five percent of his clients want to specify their own colors, and he will work with them to come up with the right colors and finishes to suit their decor.

A single roll (27 inches wide and 15 feet long, the industry standard) costs between $40 and $60, depending on the complexity of the design. A typical minimum order is six rolls. A bathroom typically takes six to 12 rolls, a kitchen 12 to 20. Some orders for commercial installations call for 100 rolls or more. By contrast, commercial wallcovering ranges in price from less than $10 per roll to hundreds for silks or grasscloths.

The tools of Chapas' trade include a lot of found objects: the painter's trowel, big silk leaves from a crafts store, a piece of thick lace fabric, sea sponges he buys on the docks in Tarpon Springs, chunks he carves out of upholsterer's foam. He created a three-dimensional motif using a frosting tube after he stopped by to see his mother, who worked in the bakery department at Publix, and watched another employee icing a cake. The texture of the frosting was similar to that of his plastique, and a creative tool was born.

"He does beautiful work," said Sheldon Abrams, owner of Jeffrey Stevens Wallcoverings, a high-end trade-only showroom at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles that shows Chapas' samples. Chapas, he said, is "one of maybe a dozen to 15 people around the country" who make handmade wallcoverings.

Jerry Beegun of Beegun's Galleries International at the Merchandise Mart in Chicago said Chapas can "translate your words into art, and can reproduce the colors and patterns repeatedly. He's one of the very, very few of the hand-painters who can duplicate what they make in multiple colors the second, third, 10th, 20th time" as they fulfill a large order. Beegun's is a wallcovering showroom that sells to an international market, with 1.9-million samples on display.

"He'll listen. He'll work with you," said Angelo Telese, who heads his own design studio in St. Petersburg. Chapas recently did faux finishing and created custom wallcovering for one of Telese's clients. Chapas marbleized some existing columns in that house, and when the new paint reacted chemically (and badly) to old paint on the columns, "He redid it two or three times until it was right," Telese said.

Other local clients for his custom wallcovering or faux finishing work include Devil Rays bench coach Billy Hatcher, for whose home he did 17 rooms; the lobby and clubhouse at the Tides Beach Club in North Redington Beach; and several St. Petersburg businesses, including Silverberg Jewelry on 22nd Avenue + near Tyrone Boulevard. He did faux finishing for Lasting Impressions Home Gallery and Allikriste Fine Cabinetry, both on Fourth Street N.

The choice between custom wallcovering and faux finishing may depend "on how much texture they want. If they want a lot of texture, I'd advise them to go with wallcovering. If you put a lot of texture on the wall" with a faux finish, "it can be hard later to knock down and scrape off," Chapas explained.

Chapas occasionally hires helpers to do some of the work, like rolling on the base coat to free him up to do the painting and coloring. Or he might hire part-timers to help out with a recent order for 127 rolls that had to be wrinkled by hand before painting for a particular look that required creased, crumbled-looking paper. "I'll pay people $10 or $15 an hour to wrinkle paper," he said.

"I'd like to teach people how to do this. That is my goal," he said. "I find it rewarding. It's a great feeling to teach somebody how to do something, and they feel proud when they've actually done it."

He recalled the delight of one helper when he saw the final installation in a home of wallcovering that he had helped to paint. "He was real excited when he saw the house and said, "It's hard to believe I actually did this.' You get a different impression when the finished job is up on the wall than when you're doing it on the table."

Michael Chapas can be reached at Transitions Studios, (727) 481-2200.