Above Image: Decorative painter Caroline Lizarraga. Photo by Don Ross.
A shadowy forest mural in a vineyard tasting room. Watercolors softly brushed over expanses of silver leaf in a meditation space. Yards of simulated jewel-encrusted French lace winding down a staircase corridor. For each of her projects, fine artist and decorative painter Caroline Lizarraga delivers an exquisitely unique work of architectural art. With a mastery born of classical training and almost 25 years in practice, Lizarraga wields her brushes and tools to create pietra dura, expressive modern graphics, and natural scenes, pushing the boundaries of her discipline with inventive techniques and materials.
Lizarraga began her training in Florence, where she undertook a restoration apprenticeship. When she returned to the Bay Area—Lizarraga grew up in West Marin—she studied European decorative painting with Gail Lawrence, who mentored her in the motifs and techniques of chinoiserie, lapis, and inlay. She launched her own practice in San Francisco in 2000, and today Lizarraga and her all-woman, classically trained team are in demand across the country. For the 2021 Galerie House of Art & Design at Sag Harbor space designed by Nicole Fuller Interiors, they applied 5,250 pieces of aluminum silver leaf to the ceiling and walls. She notes, “That kind of methodical, intricate work totally relaxes me.”
Then there are the meticulous poured-resin applications studded with crushed rose gold or colored glass. Many of Lizarraga’s tools, materials, and techniques are age-old and labor intensive. Plaster, powdered metals, charcoal, pencil, resin, and lacquer are part of her everyday toolbox, and she’s ready to mix paints, glazes, and varnishes at a moment’s notice. “It’s just like cooking,” she says of her proprietary recipes. “I’ve nothing against off-the-shelf supplies, but I feel as if my homemade concoctions have an inner life.”
After college, you began your training in Florence. Would you paint a picture of that experience for us?
It was straight off my bucket list! We worked on artifacts from the Uffizi Gallery, and as a result, we had access to the museum’s library, where sketches and manuscripts by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Titian, and Rembrandt are housed. It was amazing to be able to see and touch things they had touched. That period of my life made me realize that I’m an old soul.
Restoration may not be part of your current practice, but you obviously have a strong reverence for history and preservation.
It’s important to honor the past—that’s how we learn about the future. Unfortunately, I witness a lot of beautiful things like fireplaces and moldings being ripped out of buildings I’m working on. Once, I uncovered a wonderfully faded set of murals—a circus scene of a woman on a tightrope—in a century-old building in San Francisco, but the owner had no interest in rescuing it. That was so sad. That would never happen in, say, Italy.
In other spaces, you’ve helped lay the foundation for a sense of legacy—for one client, for example, you incorporated personal letters and mementos?
Yes, on a recent project, in the newly constructed wing of an old house in Pacific Heights, the owners found one all-white room to be particularly sterile. The client and I were inspired by the Gare d’Orsay, the old train station that became the Musée d’Orsay in Paris—its walls with disintegrated layers of graffiti, schedules, and posters. So I asked them for family letters, photographs, and children’s drawings, from which I made photocopies that I stained with tea. Then I used plaster and glazes to conceal and reveal them on the walls.
It seems that authentic craftsmanship is more sought-after than ever these days.
Well, we’re certainly busy working all over the country. The current attraction to artisanship and evidence of the hand in our immediate surroundings strikes me as an antidote to the impersonal, fast-paced, robotic world we currently live in. At our job sites, we’re often working alongside the most talented people. Whether it’s an iron or woodworker, or someone who excels in one particular skill set, like wrapping leather around a staircase railing. Then there’s the level of craft of the upholsterers, the custom pillow makers, glass blowers, ceramicists, and bespoke-wallpaper makers. To use fashion terminology, it’s couture for the home. When I’m associating with people who value such high levels of detailing and craftsmanship, I’m proud to be a member of their tribe.
You just mentioned couture, and in fact you studied fashion in college. Why did you decide not to pursue it as a career?
As much as I love that world, I knew it wouldn’t nourish me professionally. However, I’m still inspired by designers like Dries Van Noten; I often study his prints and colors. Early Alexander McQueen was so bold and fearless, and the same is true of Jean Paul Gaultier’s entire career—he still takes risks. Then there’s my current obsession, Pierpaolo Piccioli, the creative director of Valentino, who wrinkles and folds jewel-toned textiles into baroque shapes.
Lizarraga’s atmospheric walls at Nightbird. Photo by Kassie Borreson.
Do you favor any one segment of your lengthy client portfolio?
Working with chefs has always fulfilled me creatively. I love their mindset. They typically deliberate over every ingredient, and every detail of the front and back of the house, so when they bring me in, our conversations tend to be fine-tuned. One of my starting points is to ask about the design of the plates, because I see a table setting as a concentrated version of the chef’s sensibility. In a restaurant, the aim is to make a bold, dramatic statement for a captive audience that plans to stay for a short amount of time and needs to be stimulated, embraced, relaxed, and entertained. It’s a tall order, and that atmospheric balance has to be right on. When you achieve it, there’s no better feeling.
Your work is now being copied quite a bit. Is it satisfying to be a trendsetter?
Some of my treatments catch on immediately once they receive some editorial coverage. Case in point is Robin, Adam Tortosa’s omakase restaurant in Hayes Valley. We painted the walls a moody umber, but they needed something more, so I suggested pouring rose gold down the walls until it inched onto the floor. Adam loved the idea, and since then, I’ve seen that treatment a lot.
Two loves: Lizarraga with her daughter. Photo by Lily Strandberg.
It seems as if you’ve found your true vocation.
Definitely! I love, love, love what I do. As a child, play was all about me getting my hands dirty and my clothing smeared with color and paint. The same is true today.
Lizarraga’s work can be seen in person at two literal jewel boxes: the new Fiat Lux boutique on Fillmore, where a spectacular ten-foot painted serpent coils on the marble floor; and at the upcoming, spacious new home of Metier, the beloved Hayes Valley jewelry destination. For those who dream of artistic pilgrimage, in May 2022 Lizarraga hosted a decorative-painting master class in Puglia, Italy, where she will share how she brings her vivid tableaux to life, in the country that was her first canvas.