The frame as art unto itself

Rob Sabo/NNBW

Rob Sabo/NNBW

Greg Drinkwine paid just as much attention to the frames as the paintings when he frequented the Metropolitan Museum of Art during his youthful days at The Art Students League of New York.

But when Drinkwine inquired at prestigious frame-making houses in New York about purchasing reproductions of the picture frames, he learned they generally cost $20,000 or more.

Drinkwine decided to start making them himself, purchased tools and materials and has spent a decade becoming an expert in reproduction of frames from the Arts and Crafts movement of 1880-1910.

Today, frames from his Craftsman Frame Company in Gardnerville typically sell for $2,000 - a linear foot.

"These are the ultimate in custom-made," Drinkwine says. "And it's a huge market."

He launched the company in 2005, and just two years later the company posted its best performance in 2007.

The market for hand-carved art frames dried up considerably beginning with the precipitous plunge of the investment markets in the fall of 2008. Clients typically are wealthy collectors, and many have lost significant wealth over the past few years.

"It was like someone unplugged my phone," Drinkwine says. "All of my clients are completely tied into Wall Street."

Business has slowly recovered, he says, and Craftsman Frame Company is profitable these days. To boost sales, Drinkwine runs ads in national art magazines as his budget allows. Much of his business comes from Internet queries for "hand-carved gilded frames" and similar search terms, and almost all his clients are repeat customers.

Craftsman Frame Company also received a big boost from Peter and Turkey Stremmel, owners of Stremmel Gallery of Reno. They've used the company's frames for several years to display prestigious paintings on sale at the annual Coeur d'Alene Art Auction in Reno.

"That was a huge leap for my business. It is the most important Western wildlife auction in the world," Drinkwine says.

Peter Stremmel says Drinkwine's frames are historically accurate, and he also can order frames to be delivered at lower cost and with much shorter wait times than buying from well-known East Coast framemakers. Stremmel Gallery already has ordered several frames for this summer's major art auction.

"He is so convenient being just down in Minden/Gardnerville," Stremmel says. "Because of the type of gallery we are, we need very expensive, gorgeously carved gold-leaf frames, and he can do as good a job as they do in New York."

An exhibition of his frames will run April 2 through Aug. 7 at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, and the museum will retain four of the frames for artworks that require historically accurate framing.

Name recognition spells big dollars in the frame-making industry, and Drinkwine faces stiff competition from a handful of custom frame makers in New York that dominate the industry.

"As a small guy in a rural area, I am up against giants," he says. "But my intention is to create magnificent frames and get my small slice of the pie."

The custom frames start out as raw boards and are milled into a desired profile. The design is drawn onto the frame and then hand-carved using mallet and chisel. It's then coated with gesso, a mixture of white pigment and rabbit-skin glue, and gilded in 22-carat gold leaf.

"As with any other skill, of course the first ones you start out with are clumsy," he says. "But I really took it very, very seriously, and now these are the very top of American framemaking."


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