In the world of high fashion, creating lasting glamour is all about craftsmanship–a principle decorative artist Caroline Lizarraga knows all too well. With a portfolio that includes luxury homes and high-end restaurants, Lizarraga is considered one of the Bay Area’s best. The artist says her fashion buyer roots allow her to bring a sartorial sharpness to surface treatments and murals by adapting traditional finishes to stunning effect (think floor-to-ceiling agate patterns in jewel-tone hues or ombre lacquer with gilded accents). “I’m constantly searching for ways to use old-world techniques with a more modern twist,” says Lizarraga.
Her unexpected transition to decorative artist began at weekend flea markets, where, as a hobby, she would scout for antiques to transform with paint. A humble chair that caught her eye proved to be life-changing after she refurbished it and sold it to an interior designer for a nice profit. “That sale was the first time I thought of pursuing this fully as a career,” recalls the artist.
Honing her craft took her to Italy, where she apprenticed at the Uffizi Gallery. For the privilege of restoring historic pieces, “we often worked for free for the monks, but at least we got plenty of bread and olive oil,” remembers Lizarraga.
Returning stateside, she then worked under decorative painter Gail Lawrence in San Francisco before launching her own company.
Though strongly rooted in her classical training, the artist enjoys pushing its boundaries, like painting malachite finishes (traditionally reserved for small accents) on entire walls or applying a découpage of vintage library catalog cards to a whole room. “I am constantly experimenting in the studio, playing around with new materials that nobody has seen on walls,” says Lizarraga.
“I usually try the thing that one should not do first, testing to see how materials react, and figuring out how to use them in interesting ways.”
Such an inventive spirit seems natural for an artist who is still inspired by designers like Alexander McQueen and Dries Van Noten. “Fashion and the texture of materials plays a big role in my creative process,” says Lizarraga, who religiously attends Paris Fashion Week every year.
Like any great fashion designer, Lizarraga loves tailoring her treatments to best suit her clients, but in her case, she’s complementing specific architecture and design features rather than a person’s silhouette. “I enjoy working hand-in-hand with clients, learning more about their story and what inspires them,” she says. This leads to memorable designs such as a fanciful chinoiserie mural accented with gemstone-cut glass pieces, or a plum Venetian plaster adorned with architectural blueprints.
Lizarraga’s work is on view in some of San Francisco’s most popular restaurants, including Robin in Hayes Valley, where she created a moody, cloud-like wall treatment with streaks of gold, and in the New Orleans-style Alba Ray’s in the Mission District, which features her hand-painted floor murals and damask-textured walls.
Her portfolio is eclectic, but there are no wallflowers in the artist’s work, partly due to her commitment to never doing the same thing twice, but also because of her deep understanding about how decorative painting can conjure atmosphere. “I love to create spaces clients can discover over and over,” says Lizarraga. “Creating that fantasy for my clients is the best part.”