Fooling the Eye with Custom Painting and Faux Finishes

A custom floor painted by Rory Conway. John Musnicki photo
A floor treatment at the Tory Burch Store in East Hampton crafted by Rory Conway.
A floor treatment at the Tory Burch Store in East Hampton crafted by Rory Conway.

By Dawn Watson

Mr. Conway has been painting houses and crafting restoration work for most of his adult life. With his skillset, he can certainly do the standard exterior house-painting job, though that’s not what he’s known for.

There’s a big difference between being a housepainter and the specialized restoration and decorative work that Mr. Conway is usually hired to do. The East Hampton-based painter has built his 25-year-old business from the ground up, literally, by creating fine finishes and custom paint jobs for floors, walls and ceilings.

Though he does his fair share of restoration work, Mr. Conway is known by many as their “go-to floor guy.” He’s completed commissions all over the world, and his work can be seen locally on the floors (and other areas) of Ralph Lauren and Tory Burch stores, as well as the ceiling of Guild Hall in East Hampton.

He got started in the decorative field while working on a job for Tory Burch. He was working with a builder who had been contracted to put in an intricately designed floor in one of the fashion designer’s retail shops. The challenge looked like fun, so the painter volunteered to take it on.

“It was a really interesting pattern and I thought I could tackle it,” he recalls. “So I had some samples made up and did it. It was a natural thing for me and I fell in love with the whole process.”

Using sandpaper; primer; stencils; eco-friendly and oil paints; acrylic; and sable-, ox hair-, and nylon brushes, Mr. Conway gets to work on his creations. Floors are his specialty, and he loves the way they can enhance a room.

“It’s exciting, exhilarating, and different when you see a painted pattern on a floor,” he says. “It’s a perfect way to bring your own personality into your home.”

Custom wall décor and restorative camouflage work are Ms. Dunn Kostura’s bread-and-butter commissions here on the East End. High-end clients and their contractors have her on their speed dial when they need a fix.

“The crux of our business is decorative painting and faux finishing,” she reports. “I’m the person they call when someone does damage or when they want to hide something.”

Wall and floor treatments by Heather Dunn Kostyra
Wall and floor treatments by Heather Dunn Kostyra

For example, the East Hampton-based owner of Heather Dunn & Co. has painted over her share of electrical outlets to make them indistinguishable from the walls and floors, hidden stains in rare $200,000 fireplace mantles, and covered up gashes in kitchen cabinetry. She’s been doing it for the past 20 years, after discovering that she had a surprising talent for decorative painting.

“I have an innate ability to mix and match colors. I can match anything. But I still can’t draw, not even a stick figure,” she laughs, adding that her husband’s house painting business initially drew her to the field. “I woke up one day and decided I hated my job … I had my life savings in a coffee can, and I used that to go to school and learn how to do it.”

Ms. Dunn Kostura likes to use environmentally friendly water-based shellacs and glazes, and what she calls “healthy plaster” — a natural, mineral-based lime and clay plaster — for her wall finishes and problem-solving painting. And the harder the job, the better, she says. She loves a challenge.

One recent job particularly stands out, says Ms. Dunn Kostura. It involved matching extensive paneling and wood-grained wall coverings at an historic estate in East Hampton.

“Every single room was a different shade. God knows how many cigars and cigarettes got smoked in that house over the years,” she laughs. “I had to match the original color in five different areas. It was tough, but it came out beautifully.”

Ms. Wilson, the Southampton-based owner of Faux Real has been plying her trade for the past 17 years. Her career initially started out as a way to make money between acting jobs in the city. But she enjoyed it so much that she stuck with it after apprenticing with a pair of Dutch faux finishers and landing an internship at Bay Street Theater. Since, she’s worked for clients such as London Jewelers in Southampton, Gurney’s in Montauk and photographer Cindy Sherman.

Faux flowers for Gerri Wilson on Sagg Road in Sag Harbor. Photo by Gordon M. Grant
Faux flowers for Gerri Wilson on Sagg Road in Sag Harbor. Photo by Gordon M. Grant

Problem solving is a big part of any job, says the faux painter. Much of her work involves fixing a mistake made by someone else, such as painting in a gap left by imprecise cutting, or fooling the eye into thinking an object is something it’s not, like painting outdoor speakers to look like moss-covered rocks.

In the Hamptons, painted walls and furniture are becoming in-demand requests, she says. Clients like customization, something that sets them apart from their friends and neighbors.

“They like hand-painted things and one-of-a-kind items,” she says. “Stuff that nobody can look at and say ‘oh, I saw that somewhere else.’”

She likes the immediate results of creation, and the reactions her work gets, adds Ms. Wilson.

“Most of the time, people think it’s the real thing. They walk up and they squint their eyes and go ‘is this real?’” she says. “It makes you feel really good when they do that.”

A custom floor painted by Rory Conway. John Musnicki photo
A custom floor painted by Rory Conway. John Musnicki photo