Painted Chamfers: Framing a Calligraphed Poem

This lovely poem by Dawn Gross was expertly calligraphed by Ben Yates. We used a 1-5/8″ wide walnut frame on the 15″ x 11″ paper. By chamfering the outside edge I gave the corners an abstract leaf form. I painted the chamfer with green milk paint, which I’ve been enjoying playing with over the past few months. (More on that in upcoming posts.) The sight edge is also chamfered, and we gilded it with 23 kt gold leaf.

I’ll stop there so you can enjoy Dawn’s “Voice of a Hummingbird” in Ben’s exquisite hand. (Just click the image to enlarge enough to read.)

Ben Yates and Dawn Gross framed poemFramed poem—oblique view

Framing the Great Wall of China

Just framed this Chinese painting of the Great Wall of China. The painting is 17″ x 20″. The 1-1/2″ wide frame is walnut with dilute black stain. We used a silk covered mat with grey paper filets inside the sight edge. You probably recognize the spiral pattern as a classic Chinese design.

Painting of Great Wall of China


Framing Marion Kavanagh Wachtel

Here’s a beauty from one of the state’s greats. In early California’s popular eucalyptus painting genre, this 24″ x 18″ watercolor by Marion Kavanagh Wachtel (1876 – 1954) is hard to beat. “Sunset,” is not dated, but is believed to have been done in the 1910’s.

Frame design sketchI proposed the frame design for the customer, California Historical Design, with the sketch at right, and Trevor Davis built the 3-1/2″ wide mitered frame in quartersawn white oak (Dark Chestnut Stain), with a carved gilt liner. Sam finished the frame and gilded the slip. Carved cushion forms on the sight edge and back edge complement the smooth low sloping cove, and repeat the rounded tree forms. As you can see in the sketch and the oblique view below, the back is cut in and sweeps out dramatically. The dark frame takes its color from the deepest shadows, enhancing the orange glow of the sunset.

Another Marion Wachtel watercolor we framed is in the Portfolio, here.

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel painting

marion Kavanaugh Wachtel painting

Frame corner detail

Frame corner detail

We also recently framed this 10″ x 12″ oil painting by Marion Wachtel for California Historical Design (available here). This frame’s a 2-1/2″ wide slope with a carved back-beveled back edge and parcel gilt chamfer at the sight edge. Whereas the mood and tones of the watercolor above called for a softer, more graceful profile, the more rugged subject matter of this oil inspired a more angular form.

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel painting

Marion Kavanaugh Wachtel painting

“With Four Sticks of Wood”: A Simple Home for Bernard Maybeck

A couple of months ago, we were asked to frame a portrait of the architect Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957) to hang in the larger frame of Maybeck’s 1902 Faculty Club at UC Berkeley.

No portrait cries out for the architecture of a frame like a portrait of an architect. You might say that frames are architecture at its most refined. So making a frame for a portrait of an architect to hang in one of his buildings* is especially gratifying to a frame-maker. Frames, no less so than the portraits they complete, are inherently honorific. To be asked to frame this portrait, though, was not only gratifying but also a special honor for Holton Studio.

First, though, the painting.

Framed Bernard Maybeck paintingThe noted portraitist Winifred Rieber (1872-1963) painted this likeness of Maybeck in the 1920’s after the architect had gained fame for his Palace of Fine Arts, the most beloved building of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. (In 1951, he would be awarded the Gold Medal by the American Institute of Architects.) Such portraits frequently become treasured heirlooms, as the original of this one is for the Maybeck family. (This copy we framed to hang in the Faculty Club is a print on canvas.)

Framed Bernard Maybeck paintingWe gave the 30″ x 25″ canvas a 4″ wide mitered frame. It is for the most part a plain flat, which allows the frame to rely above all on the inherent beauty of the wood. (That is to say, the quarter sawn white oak serves the frame the same way Maybeck’s raw redwood walls serve the architecture of the Faculty Club). We beveled the inside and outside edges of the flat face. The inside bevel leads the eye in to the picture, and also, along with the outside bevel, repeats the angularity of the rendering, especially the lines of the subject’s architectural setting. (Note how the sill of the window in the painting meets the miter of the frame.) Those bevels are carved. The tooled texture complements the smooth face of the frame and also echoes the loose, impasto brush work.

The outer bevel also serves the outset corners of the frame, which protrude slightly but have their radiating effect enhanced and accented by the outer carved bevel which stops where the corners step out. (Similar treatment can be seen on this frame, and this one. This Thomas Hill painting was the first piece we made this frame design for.)

Detail of frame for portrait of Bernard MaybeckTrevor Davis and I built the frame, and I carved the architect’s name across the bottom. The lettering is a simple Roman, but “waisted,” meaning the stems are all pinched a bit in the middle. Sam gilded the letters.

When the Maybeck Foundation asked me to help them honor my city’s great architect by framing a portrait of him to hang in one of the architect’s exemplary public buildings, and requested that I carve Maybeck’s name across the bottom, I don’t think they had any idea what the task would mean to me. For natives like me, the city is impossible to imagine without Maybeck’s architectural legacy.** And personally, it was a chance to express my admiration and appreciation for a great advocate of craftsmanship in architecture, and thus one of my heroes.

It’s not at all an elaborate frame. But that was part of the beauty of this opportunity—to provide a simple home to honor the master of Berkeley’s simple home ideal. Framed portraits are reciprocating: they not only represent a figure (that is, literally re-present the deceased, making the departed present again), thus honoring him or her; they also represent (and re-present and express) the admiration of the painter and the framer who are honoring the figure, and more broadly, the community that person has touched.

Lettering being carved—Bernard Maybeck

In any case, frames, as I said, are inherently honorific, and so is carving a person’s name in oak and gilding it—especially when the honoree is himself a carver (although in Maybeck’s case too self-effacing for us to ever know which carved details to attribute to him). The very act of carving is devotional. It’s not only the pinnacle of the art of frame making but the epitome of the ideal of work as “love made visible,” in the words of Kahlil Gibran.

Even apart from the carved lettering, though, the simple architecture, the simple home that the frame provides his portrait, offered the opportunity to honor Maybeck. “With four sticks of wood,” he once said, “you can express any human emotion.” Such wisdom, especially helpful to a frame-maker, is only a glimpse of the many elemental lessons Maybeck taught me in the art and architecture of the frame.

Faculty Club

Speaking of the devotional nature of carving, in the Great Hall of the Faculty Club (right), carved into the supporting beams along the sides of the room, dragon heads keep watch over the proceedings. Maybeck said that carved dragon heads, a recurrent detail in his buildings, were his tribute to his father’s trade—and, we can surmise, the craftsman ethos that his father’s work impressed upon him. It’s hard to imagine Maybeck didn’t have a hand in their making.


Carved dragon head, UC Berkeley Faculty ClubIn any case, as dragons go, these appear remarkably friendly. That is to say, they express Maybeck’s own affable spirit. When the university decided it needed a building that would be a place for the faculty to enjoy “mutual good fellowship” it couldn’t have chosen a more suitable architect than Maybeck.




Bernard Maybeck on jobsiteMaybeck’s generous spirit and appreciation for craftsmanship in the art of architecture was once illustrated for me by Robin Pennell, whose father, Frank Pennell had been a contractor for Maybeck. Robin recalled his father’s story of meeting the architect on a job site to inspect the house’s just-completed framing. Maybeck was struck by the framers’ beautiful workmanship, admiring in particular the perfectly mitered and nailed stud braces. And he said to the contractor, “Forget about the paneling specified for the interior walls. I want to be able to see this workmanship. Just fill in between the studs with plaster and leave the framing exposed.”

Interior, Maybeck's First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley

First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley

Pennell’s story tells us that for Maybeck, details like carved dragon heads are more than a quirky personal gesture.***  To walk through Maybeck’s masterpiece, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley, is to witness not only the old understanding of architecture as the collaboration of trades, but also those trades practiced at their freest and most expressive. It is to experience the full meaning and truth of William Morris’s, “Art is the expression of man’s joy in his labor.” It is in the well crafted details, at the scale at which human hands are able to work at their most dexterous, expert and expressive, that the artisan feels his or her individual power and participation.

When we finished framing the painting, a friend picked it up from the shop and hung it at the Faculty Club. A few weeks later, the Maybeck Foundation hosted a small gathering to celebrate the portrait’s installation. In this building made for “mutual good fellowship,” I got to bask in fellowship with my hero—not only in the presence of his re-presentation that is the portrait, but also in his still-living architecture (that is a living reminder of the humane way of building that modern architecture might have been). Not least of all, I got to enjoy Maybeck’s presence in the friendly company of a number of his descendants. Tim Holton with framed painting of Bernard MaybeckA couple of family members, including Maybeck’s great-grandson, Scott Nittler, filled me in on what he regarded as the family’s main trait traceable to Bernard Maybeck: his optimism. And though Scott wouldn’t have pointed it out to me, I observed for myself that other oft-noted Maybeck trait: kindliness.

I love that the picture shows Maybeck in one of his simple wooden homes, one we could re-present and complete with the home that is a frame. And I love that the architect is seated at a window, a picture frame being a window as well, and windows being “the eyes of a house” and offering prospect—that necessary complement to protection and shelter, and of keen interest, therefore, to any architect, but especially to an optimistic one.

Maybeck looks a bit shy, and not too excited to be the focus of attention. There is no vanity in this portrait. The shadowy frame complements and enhances the sun shining through the window and falling significantly on the architect-artisan’s plain white shirt, and on this figure remembered for his sunny disposition. I was satisfied by how the slightly outset mitered corners of the frame suit Maybeck’s benevolent radiance, demonstrating for the master that I’d learned his lesson: “With four sticks of wood, you can express any human emotion.”


Process—the carved and gilded lettering


*The room where the portrait hangs was in fact designed by John Galen Howard, and was added on to Maybeck’s original building adjacent to the Great Hall. Maybeck’s first biographer, Kenneth Cardwell noted that “Nothing would have please Maybeck more that this organic growth of a building.” At least for me, then, the whole building is, if not Maybeck’s, supremely Maybeckian in its social and collaborative spirit.

** See Ursula Le Guin, “Living In a Work of Art,” in Words Are My Matter, 2016. As tributes to Maybeck go, this account, by one of Berkeley’s best writers, of growing up in a Maybeck house is a brilliantly observant and insightful. Le Guin digs deep into the influence and meaning of houses and architecture, and the especially beneficent effect of Maybeck’s architecture on her as a person and especially as an artist. I would add that, given the architect’s influence on the city (at least its hillside neighborhoods), the essence of Le Guin’s experience in the surroundings of a Maybeck house applies nearly as much to those of us who didn’t actually live in a Maybeck but nonetheless grew up surrounded by Maybeck’s buildings and the whole architectural tradition in which he was the primary force.

***In On the Edge of the World, architectural historian Richard Longstreth attributes much of Maybeck’s fundamental concern with craftsmanship to his reading, while a student in Paris, the work of Gottfried Semper (1803-1879) and Viollet Le Duc (1814-1879). “Semper emphasized crafts…because he believed they provided the key to the laws of architecture. His underlying thesis, that the laws governing crafts and architecture were the same, may well have had the greatest impact in shaping Maybeck’s views.” Similarly, “Viollet repeatedly emphasized the construction process as a craft and principal contributor to the building’s spirit. Viollet believed that in the past creativity and discipline in design came from the builder… His portrayal of the artist as a liberated craftsman probably inspired Maybeck, as it reinforced his own inclinations.”

“Humanization”: Framing Ukrainian artist Aleksei Bordusov

I’ve been wanting to post about this job we framed many months ago. Finally pulling it out of the archives I remembered the enigmatic image as well as its intriguing title: “Humanization.” But I’d forgotten who the artist was. Looking it up today, his identity gave this picture’s title a whole new meaning: “Humanization” stands in opposition to the dehumanization that is war—what the artist, Aleksei Bordusov (a.k.a. Aec Interesni Kaski) is presumably witnessing right now in his city of Kyev, Ukraine.

framed Aleksei Bordusov print

frame detailframe detailThe picture portrays humanization as not only evolutionary. For this muralist with a degree in architecture, humanization evidently has much to do with the art of building and the many arts it shelters. Such making, after all, makes us human—humanizes us. Conversely, acts of war and destruction are our unmaking, our dehumanization.

But the picture is nonetheless as enigmatic as a dream—and perhaps that’s the nature of our imperfect and elusive understanding of our own humanity.

The architecture of the frame is drawn from the architecture depicted in the 26″ x 36″ print.  Playing off the vaulted ceiling that frames the fantastic scene, we created a 2″ wide Honduran mahogany cove frame with a chamfered and parcel gilt sight edge. I made a steel punch in the shape of the gilded stars on the ceiling and used it to decorate the mahogany. We finished the wood with clear oil followed by a dark wax to accentuate the punched stars.framed Aleksei Bordusov print

Aleksei Bordusov and St George

Mural by Alexei BordusovAfter earning a degree in architecture, Aleksei Bordusov’s artistic career began in earnest in the early ’90’s when, according to his website, “he started painting on the streets of Kyev as part of a graffiti crew.” He eventually became a muralist and now has murals all over the world (including several in the US).

At right is one in Kyev. It’s called “St George.” John Ruskin, in founding his utopian project, the Guild of St George, identified the dragon St George is traditionally shown slaying as “the Lord of Decomposition”—the antithesis of the human creative spirit that joins the world. Note that in Bordusov’s version of the story, the dragon is a pair of land-grabbing hands. A webpage by a Kyev tour guide surveying the city’s murals notes that the artist has explained that “the warrior symbolizes Ukrainian people, and the serpent—all the sorrows and obstacles which the country stands opposite.”

One wonders, what will be the fate of this mural? We may hope that, even if Putin’s forces destroy it, the massive, architectural place and presence it has enjoyed has earned the image a permanence in the minds of many Ukrainians—an image of the human spirit conquering the dehumanizing, destructive beast.

But it is the lives and well-being of Mr. Bordusov and the Ukrainian people that we are most concerned for. May the war be brief, few lives lost, and the elusive dream of humanization somehow triumph.

Framing Thomas Jefferson Kitts

James Rieser at Rieser Fine Art in Carmel recently asked us to frame this beautiful landscape painting by contemporary Oregon artist Thomas Jefferson Kitts. “Tranquility” (2021, oil on canvas, 36″ x 48″) is available from Jim’s gallery. (View online, here.)

The old wooden structure (the remnant of a bridge?) in the picture’s foreground pushed us toward a plain mortise-and-tenon frame design: a 4″ wide compound Aurora in quartersawn white oak (Van Dyke stain) with a simple 1″ beveled sight mould with a carved and parcel gilt sight edge chamfer. The inner molding gives it emphasis, its bevel profile sustaining the wonderful perspective.

I especially love the light in this extraordinary painting by an extraordinary painter.

Thomas J. Kitts painting

frame corner

Thos Jefferson Kitts painting

A Second Carl Sammons Painting (for Twosday)

My last post featured a painting by Oakland landscape painter Carl Sammons (1883-1968), which was on display this past weekend in California Historical Design‘s booth at the National Arts and Crafts Conference at the Grove Park Inn. Carl Sammons paintingIt was actually one of a pair of 24″ x 30″ Sammonses from the 1920’s that we framed for California Historical Design. So this being no ordinary Tuesday but also “Twosday” (2/22/22), it seemed fitting to post the second of the pair. As you can see, the frame design for this one is similar in approach to the first, but different, each of the two frames carved with patterns adapted to their respective paintings—the peaked crown and zig zag pattern for the rugged mountains and the rounded crown and scalloped corners for the rolling hills. (This one below, showing the Russian River, is available here. The first one, shown at right, “Mt Moran—Jackson Lake—Teton Mountains, Wyoming,” is available here.)

Like the frame on the Mt Moran painting, this one is also a compound made by Trevor Davis in carved quartersawn white oak, 4″ wide, with a carved gilt liner.

Framing Carl Sammons—and Hanging at The Grove Park Inn

This weekend is the 35th Annual National Arts and Crafts Conference at The Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina, and our friend Gus Bostrom of California Historical Design in Alameda once again has a big, beautiful booth displaying antique furniture, pottery, metalwork—Carl Sammons paintingand a few notable paintings we framed for him, including this mountain scene by Carl Sammons (1883-1968). The 24″ x 30″ canvas, titled “Mt Moran—Jackson Lake—Teton Mountains, Wyoming,” is from the 1920’s. More on Gus’s site, here.

The compound mitered frame, made by Trevor Davis, is carved quartersawn white oak (Medieval Oak stain) with a pale gold liner. The outer cap molding has a peaked shape to echo the mountain peaks, but which is interrupted at the corners which are flat. The broad, carved inner flat molding nicely echoes the surface of the water. The corners of the flat are raised with a diagonal zig zag pattern.

This is one of a pair of 20″ x 24″ Sammons paintings Gus brought to us and which we framed in similar but different frames. Read about the second one in my next post.Carl Sammons painting

By the way, here’s the frame it came to us in:

Carl Sammons painting in white frame

Here are more pictures featuring our frames as part of California Historical Design’s display at the Arts and Crafts Conference.

Laura Armer painting

This is Laura Adams Armer’s “Hopi Woman Oraibi Village,” 1929. (I posted on this one here.)

paintings displayed at Grove Park Inn

The one at the top left is a terrific Will Sparks from the 1910’s. (More here.)

two paintings

An oil painting by Charles Warren Eaton (1857-1937), “Entrance to the Woods, Bloomfield, NJ,” ca. 1910 (more here.), hangs above a 1918 watercolor of mountains in Sweden, by Gunnar Mauritz Widforss (more here).

California Historical Design’s website is

Have a great show, Gus!

Carl Sammons paintingGo to the next post to see the companion to the Sammons painting featured above.

Keep the Beast Happy: Framing Milivoj Ćeran’s “Jormungandr”

It’s hard to think of another realm today where human beings unleash our imaginations more than we do in science fiction. The Studio recently had the great privilege of framing a painting born of the extraordinary imagination of Croatian artist Milivoj Ćeran, 2018 winner of the European Science Fiction Society‘s Best Artist Award. Known as an illustrator for the massively popular trading card game, Magic: The Gathering, Ćeran is also the creator of “The Norse Mythology Art Book,” for which he painted “Jormungandr.” The story is that Jormungandr is a deep sea serpent who grew so large that he circled the globe and was able to bite his own tail.

M Ceran painting, Jormungandr

Milivoj Ćeran, “Jormungandr,” acrylic and airbrush on paper, 15″ x 23-1/2″.

Frame detail for M Ceran painting, JormungandrSuch a work of imagination pushed my own creativity. I got a good nudge from the frame actually depicted in the painting: the decorative brass border around a ship’s porthole. (A picture is a window; sometimes it’s a porthole.) From that I came up with the carved 1″ wide bronze powder-rubbed liner. Attempting Ćeran’s masterful knot work would have been foolhardy, and too busy in any case. But a simplified pattern, a serpentine band quietly winding all the way around to resonate with the picture’s subject, felt right.The carving is flat rather than in relief, the pattern simply outlined with a v-shaped carving tool (v-tool) and the background stippled.

The main frame is a 2-1/2″ plain flat profile, but with corners articulated and decorated with a new way of using proud splines: instead of being proud all the way around the corner, the splines are partially recessed. The curves repeat those of the water line, while the slight flair and double points at the corners are echoed and amplified by the splines, the resulting composition of points playing off the spiny monster.

The whole frame is stained quartersawn white oak.

The customer and artist were both pleased. (“The frame is absolutely stunning!,” Mr. Ćeran wrote on a Facebook post with a photo of the piece.) But the crucial thing was to give the great serpent a distinguished, honorific setting that will keep the beast happy. Because, as the story has it, if Jormungandr lets go of his tail, that’s when Ragnarök happens. We can only imagine.

Frame detail for M Ceran painting, Jormungandr