Decorative artist and faux expert Stephanie Poe pulls out a piece of what looks like old wood. She encourages me to touch its knotty surface, its grooved lines promising real splinters. It’s a faux piece she created for local eatery The Obstinate Daughter that looks and, most importantly, feels so real that even the servers who see and touch it each day were surprised to learn it wasn’t wood.
Poe collaborated with architect Reggie Gibson to create the faux wood as a fix-it solution that used Poe’s talents in a way even Gibson didn’t know was possible.
“That’s what I thrive on, to collaborate to come up with unique approaches,” says Poe. “Reggie explained the challenge and wanted to know what I thought and could do. He didn’t realize I could take it to the extent of realistic finish that I did. There really are no boundaries. My gift is this: If you don’t have an idea, I can give you one. What differentiates me is my product knowledge.”
Poe has studied Italian plasters and trompe l’oeil in Rome, Venice and Versailles, and is certified to do more than 20 types of plasters, including pearl finishes. For more than 20 years, her approach has been to combine old-world finishes, new and old techniques with trends in each piece she creates, from finishes on walls and floors to facades, furniture and more. She is uniquely trained in artistic techniques no one else in Charleston has mastered, particularly those related to historical architecture. A decorative finishes specialist, Poe is a consultant for the Historic Charleston Foundation on wood grain finishes and the preservation of original shutters and doors, having trained with one of the best wood grainers in the world.
Her projects almost always involve creating finishes that mimic the real thing. “If it’s a historical renovation, the challenge is encapsulating 200 or more years of aged surface so I can plaster or paint over it, or making repairs and simulating years of finishes like I did at 492 King Restaurant,” she says. Poe collaborated with Gibson once again on that project, a new restaurant in a 200-yearold building. After preserving layers of peeling and cracked plaster on the original walls, she used eight colors of plaster and then forced it to chip and crack over new sheetrock to mimic 200 years of peeling paint. “It was so successful,” says Poe of the project, “that even Reggie could not find where the original salvaged areas were and where my finishes started.”
Top: Impasto techniques and vibrant hues evoke the textures and colors of the coast. Bottom: A close-up of the buffet on the previous page shows off its realistic finish.
For a residential project in Wrightsville Beach, she created bedroom walls that looked and felt like sinker cypress so the room would be in keeping with the rest of the home, which had cypress throughout, including the skirt boards on its three-story stairwell. Working with Glenn Keyes Architects and designer Cynthia Walters, Poe provided the homeowner with the texture and continuity she desired. “I’ve created a textured finish that looks and feels like grass cloth wallpaper in order to have that look in humid environments and bathrooms,” says Poe. “Usually, I can come up with a finish to meet a request.”
Finishes change with the industry, she says. This year is all about skins and natural elements: driftwood, malachite, tortoise shell, leathers, shagreen, snakeskin and ostrich. Poe has mastered them all in both visual and tactile finishes and is incorporating them into furniture designs.
“The use of skins is very cutting edge, very tactile,” she explains, “yet using them is inhumane and politically incorrect. Faux finishes are a better solution.” One of her latest projects is a faux shagreen finish on a buffet cabinet she designed for a client.
“I like to give each piece interesting textures that you can actually feel,” Poe says. “Most artwork is meant to be simply looked at, but I think the tactile nature of these pieces creates a new kind of environment.” Opening her new studio a year ago in Mount Pleasant has allowed her to expand on her talents and take on the kinds of creative projects she likes to do.
Poe’s business has grown to include partnerships with local artists and specialists (including her two daughters, one of whom is the beading artist for her chandeliers, while the other is a lighting designer) to bring her ideas to life with new lighting and custom-designed furniture.
“I team with designers and architects to bring their projects to a new level, and to do that I continually stay inventive and bring new ideas,” she says. “I collaborate to fix and update existing décor, but I’m often called upon to recreate something perfect for a client’s space.”
Currently, Poe is mastering verre églomisé, the French technique of reverse painting using gilded gold and silver leaf on glass and mirrors. “It’s a historical finish dating back to 13th-century Italy, and we are modernizing it into our furniture tabletops and mirror designs.
“We don’t want to do next year what we did this year,” says Poe. “That’s what I thrive on.”
M.S. Lawrence is a freelance writer based in Charleston. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org