King Cake

Gold Leaf Studios: A DC Treasure

April 11, 2017

I have lived in DC for 15 years, and I still discover hidden treasures. My most recent discovery is Gold Leaf Studios, a gilding studio tucked behind 22nd Street NW.

I have never been an artist, but one day when I was 15 years old I decided to paint the beautiful Louis Philippe gilded mirror my grandmother had gifted me in pink. Of course, back then I didn’t know it was a Louis Philippe piece and I did not know that gilding was real gold. I just thought it would look better pink. My parents have never been so mad with me. 

Detail of Process (Photo by: Gold Leaf Studios) Detail of Process

This mirror lived in my parents’ house until this past winter – when they finally gave it back to me, still pink. I asked a friend for a recommendation of who might restore this beauty to its former glory. That’s how Bill Adair of Gilded Leaf Studios came into my life. 

I was immediately fascinated by the studio, filled with frames, old objects, treasures. I loved Bill and how he told me that the pink paint had actually protected the gilding underneath, which was almost intact (of course I had to share this fact with my parents). And then I discovered I was three degrees of separation from Bill. That’s when I knew I had to interview him. 

My husband kindly came with me to pick up the mirror: even before knowing where we were going, he accepted to come with me to run a Saturday “errand.” As it turns out, his former wife is a gilder, in New Orleans. In front of Gold Leaf Studios, he couldn’t help but take a picture and text it to Madilynn Nelson. “That’s Bill Adair’s place,” she immediately texted back. Apparently the gilding community is small. 

I had to find out more. Here are Bill Adair’s answers: 

You are a gilder - is that the correct title? Please tell me exactly what you do? 

Yes, I am a Master Gilder. My studio, Gold Leaf Studios, specializes in the gilding of frames, furniture, decorative objects, sculptures and architectural elements using traditional Renaissance-era gilding techniques balanced with the technical reversibility requirements of conservation.

Gilding Materials (Photo by: Gold Leaf Studios) Gilding Materials

How did you decide to become a gilder? And what are the studies/ internships you did to become a gilder? 

I began my career in frame conservation at the Smithsonian Institution's National Portrait Gallery, where I became fascinated with gilding and the history of frames. In 1975, the Smithsonian awarded me a grant to travel to Europe to learn about tools and techniques from the few remaining master gilders working in the Renaissance tradition. I studied under influential framers and connoisseurs Paul Levi and Henry Heydenryk.

Please tell me a little bit about your business. 

I founded Gold Leaf Studios in 1982, so we are well into our fourth decade at this point. We are a team of 10 artists, craftsman and administrators.  Gold Leaf Studios is an internationally recognized authority on frame fabrication, conservation, gilding, and large-scale architectural gilding. We provide comprehensive framing services including hand-carved reproduction frames of period styles as well as custom-designed modern frames. Additionally, with our collection of over 3,000 antique frames we offer clients extensive options in choosing an original period frame. We maintain museum standards of conservation, mounting, and matting to protect and enhance artworks. Our clients include private collectors, museums, galleries, historic homes, universities, government agencies, and architectural and interior design firms.

Gilder sounds like a profession from the past … how many of you are there? I assume it is a tight-knit community? 

I don’t have exact numbers but it is a small community.  If you do a Google search for the number of gilders in the US, it will actually redirect your search to Master Golfers.  I initially worked in near solitude but over the last almost 40 years have worked to revive interest in a craft that has largely disappeared from public consciousness. 

I once told someone I was a gilder and his response was, 'Oh, you fix horses!'

William Adair teaching a workshop at Gold Leaf Studios (Photo by: Gold Leaf Studios) William Adair teaching a workshop at Gold Leaf Studios

You also paint. Please tell me about your “doors” project. 

The Gilded Doors Project is a multifaceted, ongoing conceptual art project, where abandoned doors become portals to cross-generational discourse, carrying with them the voices of artists and individuals. Collecting discarded doors and covering them with gold, I then take them out in public to be written and marked upon. The doors absorb the thoughts, words and images of their surrounding communities on an ever-fading surface, overlapping, abrading and referencing the history and value that is built upon it. Functioning as living timelines of interpersonal histories, the monetarily worthless doors, covered in gold and effectively “vandalized” by their viewers, speak toward the devaluation of goods and the intrinsic, sustaining value of intellectual property. I want to offer my audience a communal canvas and a platform where we can share our thoughts, dreams, hopes and prayers.

What is your favorite part about what you do? 

Saving old things from junk piles, selecting frames for people’s painting and teaching eager students.

Bill Adair is a gilder, a painter, an artist, an entrepreneur. Also a magician of sorts. He restored my mirror; and he did much more. My “new” mirror has inspired a complete renovation of my bathroom. It will be transformed from black and beige to white and gold.

Gold Leaf Studios can be contacted at The next workshop is scheduled for May 2017.

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My New DC Holiday Tradition

December 28, 2015

This time of year is filled with traditions, and I just created a new one.

Before moving to DC, when I lived in Boston, I used to go see the Nutcracker every December with a close family friend. Somehow the music and the act of doing something cultural in a season often overcome by consumerism always managed to remind me what the holiday spirit is all about.

After 12+ years in DC, I created a new version of this tradition. Last week my husband and I went to see Handel’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center, performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

Every year this performance comes to DC for four or five evenings of magic and emotion. In three parts, this two-hour oratorio composed in 1741 and premiered on April 13, 1742 in Dublin, brings the beauty of Handel’s composition, of soprano and tenor voices, of an amazing orchestra, and of course the choir.

While when it premiered in Dublin, the proceeds of this piece went to help three charitable organizations, the figurative interpretation of music historian Charles Burney’s quote is exactly what I felt that evening: this piece “fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and fostered the orphan.”

Three aspects of the evening stand out for me.

First, being in the Kennedy Center. This hall is so large and impressive it served as a reminder of how small we all are and how insignificant my concerns are compared to the beauty of the world.

Second, I saw a female conductor for the first time. Nathalie Stutzmann was outstanding in leading the musicians, and somehow the fact that she is a woman made a difference to me.

Finally, we dined at Marcel’s before the show, which was the perfect civilized start to the most special evening. Their car service to the Kennedy Center was the cherry on top of a perfectly magical evening.

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Quills on Que

September 13, 2015

Cathy Alter (Photo by: Cathy Alter via Facebook) Cathy Alter

There are many things I adore about living in Georgetown. The beauty of the rowhouses. The gardens and cemeteries. The uneven pavements, uneven because of the roots of the old, beautiful trees. The fact that everything is beautiful no matter the season. And the people. The amazingly interesting people. In particular, a very special kind of people – writers. When I moved to Georgetown, I had no idea I lived by so many amazing authors.  If you have not met them, try to. If you have not read any of their stories or books, do. It will give you one more reason to love this neighborhood.

Cathy Alter. My word for Cathy: Witty. Read her memoir Up for Renewal to get a sense of her self-deprecating and caustic wit. You will laugh and cringe. And laugh again. Read her numerous articles in Washingtonian Magazine and Washington Post Magazine. You will learn a lot, including about unusual churches a half-block from your home.

Elaine Crockett (Photo by: Elaine Crockett) Elaine Crockett

Elaine Crockett. My word for Elaine: Elegant. Actually I have three more words for her. Under-stated and under-cover and thoughtful. Her book, Do Not Assume, which takes place in Georgetown with all of the appropriate DC references and characters, is an anagram: DNA. I won’t reveal more so as not to spoil the amazing twists and turns of her novel. I can’t wait for the next one. And the next one after that.  

Jane Stanton Hitchcock. My word for Jane: Surprising. I met Jane thanks to her book Mortal Friends (set in DC, another amazing novel filled with love and suspense). I then quickly red One Dangerous Lady, Social Crimes, and Trick of the Eye. And then I found out this author plays in the World Series of Poker. I am hoping her next book will tell some of those tales.

Mary Louise Kelly (Photo by: Mary Louise Kelly) Mary Louise Kelly

Mary Louise Kelly. My word for Mary Louise: Cosmopolitan. She went to Harvard. She worked with NPR and travelled the world for many years. Then wrote her first book, Anonymous Sources. Then she summered in Tuscany, to write most of her second book, The Bullet.

Karin Tanabe (Photo by: Judith Beermann) Karin Tanabe

Karin Tanabe. My word for Karin: Glamorous. Half Belgian and half Japanese, she is drop dead gorgeous, even funnier, and a lover of all beauty products (perhaps from her past working at various glossy magazines and writing about beauty). Her first book, The List, takes place in DC and Middleburg, and is the best fall read ever (horses, cashmere, intrigue, and love). Her second book, The Price of Inheritance, takes place in Newport, RI, has to do with art theft, and how life never goes quite the way you expect it.

There are many more. I am sure some of them are men. These five were my first Georgetown author crushes. And my first author neighbors – it must be something about Q Street.

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