Industry Businesses See Reason for Optimism

by Diane Capuano Franklin

As we continue to recover from the dual whammies of the subprime mortgage crisis and the financial market meltdown that disrupted our economy for the better part of a decade, there is greater cause for optimism among those who make their livelihood in the realm of decorative arts and faux finishing.

Reason for Optimism #1: Uptick in Housing Market
The National Association of Home Builders reports housing starts were up nearly 11 percent in 2015, with a rise in housing permits indicating that the surge will continue. Meanwhile, existing home sales rose 6.5 percent to 5.26 million units, the highest total since 2006. Good news on the housing front is expected to continue in 2016, with experts predicting a robust increase in housing starts and a more modest boost in existing home sales.

Reason for Optimism #2: Home Improvement Stages a Comeback
The performance of the housing market is tied to the demand for home improvement products. The encouraging news is that the vast majority of homeowners expect to spend as much or more on home improvement projects in 2016 in comparison to 2015.

Reason for Optimism #3: Falling Unemployment
The unemployment rate has fallen to below 5 percent for the first time since 2008. True, there is still some uneasiness in the economy because the rate of participation in the labor force is lower than it has been in decades. However, we can still take solace in the fact that the number of unemployed has shrunk from nearly 13 million in January 2012 to less than 8 million four years later.

Reason for Optimism #4: Rising Wages/Discretionary Income
There are also signs that Americans’ salaries are beginning to rise, which is encouraging news given that stagnant wages had been a real soft spot in the economy. And given that gas prices have plummeted quite dramatically over the past few months, consumers may consider taking the money they’re saving at the pump and putting it into their homes.

What Does This Mean for Our Industry?

With that economic news as preamble, how are decorative painters and industry businesses faring in various markets across the United States? We contacted decorative painters and business owners in three markets—Akron, Ohio; Houston, Texas; and San Diego, Calif.—to gain a cross-section of insights into that question. From that, we can draw a few general conclusions:

  1. Yes, the economy is improving.
  2. The economic uptick is slowly but surely translating in to a better outlook for decorative painters.
  3. The decorative painting industry has irreversibly changed, and those who do best are those who can read their market accurately to determine where the most demand and best business potential is coming from.

So, let’s take a look at each of the markets that we contacted for specific details on how artists and business owners are faring.

Akron, Ohio

John Catalanotto and Greg Frohnapfel of ProFaux gave us a thorough run-down of what is happening in their market, based not only on their perspective but also on the perspectives of individuals in the home building and retail paint industries. With just a few brief edits, here is their report:

The economy in Akron (Summit County) is improving according to a 43-year veteran of the Home Builders Association for Summit and Portage counties in northeast Ohio. This source told ProFaux: “We are still down 50 percent in new construction since 2006. However, we are up 20 percent since 2001. There are consistently 30 permits issued for new homes in Summit County each month. The homes are typically in the $300,000 range, with some much bigger.”

Summit Paint—an independent paint retailer selling Benjamin Moore, Martin Senour, Pratt & Lambert, Flood and other products—reported that this past month was the store’s best January in two years. The folks at Summit Paint speculate that the mild winter may have something to do with more traffic in their store. Also, lower gas prices may allow their retail customers a little more discretionary money for paint projects.

Summit Paint sees some retail customers but caters mostly to professional contractors in the greater Akron area. “One of the 20-year employees told us that faux is practically dead,” Catalanotto and Frohnapfel passes on to us. “One painter came in the other day for glaze liquid because he couldn’t find it at Lowe’s or Home Depot. He said they do sell Benjamin Moore metallic and iridescent glaze but mainly to those who can spray it because it’s impossible to brush and roll without lap lines.”

Summit Paint also reported to ProFaux that metallic glazes are doing best and most likely for cabinetry since the stuff they sell is not workable on larger surfaces.

ProFaux also spoke with Lori Kus of Custom Wall Design in Valley View, Ohio, who said her business was picking up; she is seeing an increase in straight painting as well as an uptick in decorative painting.

“Lori thinks that there has been an increase in DIY projects but feels that things could be a lot better if there were more exposure in the way of demos or articles,” the ProFaux owners report.

ProFaux’s experience confirms industry reports that decorative painting seems to be picking up in the high-end portion of the market. “We’ve done a number of projects in very high-end homes in the past two years,” Catalanotto and Frohnapfel report.

In the last two years of contract work, ProFaux has done gilding, graining, marbling, glazing, sky ceilings, stone blocking, freehand trompe l’oeil patterns, floral, stripping, glass painting and medieval finishes.

ProFaux has a strong lineup of products serving the faux-finishing and decorative painting market, with several of those products experiencing solid sales.  “Cottage Paints, designed primarily for furniture for DIYers and professionals, is doing quite well—not only in our area but nationally!” Catalanotto and Frohnapfel say. “We are selling more Open-Time Glaze than anything else these days.”

Houston, Texas

In the Houston area, an economic rebound also looks to be in progress. “Thankfully the economy in Houston is usually holding strong compared to most of the country,” says Glenda Mosley, owner of Ross Designs in Houston, Texas (and also the current president of IDAL). “Although, we are oil-driven for much of the economy, and we do have our downtimes, all in all there always seems to be a lot of new building throughout Houston and its ’burbs.”

However, Mosley does see the economy corresponding with an uptick in the call for more decorative finishes—primarily because the demand for such finishes never really went away in the first place. “They have always been strong here,” she says, though she has noted a shift in what is popular. “I have seen a call for more subtle soft and light finishes. Grays and whites are in here, too. I do see designers using decorative finishes differently more often—special finishes on furniture, coffered or groin-vault ceilings, niches, built-ins … the younger generation is much more contemporary or eclectic.”


Because oil currently is experiencing a downturn, however, Mosley says her work is currently trending toward smaller jobs, such as one or two rooms (as opposed to the whole house), powder baths, furniture and built-ins. Clients are less likely to throw out what they have and work with what they already have. As Mosley explains, “Kitchen cabinets are big for remodels. I even get quite a bit of repair work, which tells me the client still likes what they have enough to keep it.”

Concurring with this opinion are two other artists in the Houston area: Cindy Howard and Dana DeBuck. “We seem to be doing smaller jobs, but a lot of them,” say the two artists, whose business is Decorative & Faux Finishes by Dana & Cindy. “Many of the entire house plasters are being done by the cheap labor/cheap product crews. We still get the true Venetian plaster jobs, though.”

The housing market in Houston appears to be holding its own, according to the two partners, who note that prices in the southwest suburbs are particularly strong. They cite Sugarland as example of a locale that is doing well in the housing resurgence though the overall area is going up in value as well. Fortunately, that has translated into a diverse amount of work.

“We've had a lot of bids for cabinets and murals lately,” Howard and DeBuck report. “We seem to be doing a lot of metallic plasters for walls.”

The partners aren’t doing as many ceilings lately, though they observe that these tend to come in waves. “We just had a bid for several in one house yesterday,” they report.

San Diego, Calif.

The economy in San Diego did well in 2015 and is continuing to do well in 2016, according to J. Paloma Glass, who co-owns Olde World Artisans with her partner Vulfie Munson. “Clients have been a lot freer with spending money on their homes, and consumer spending appears to be up,” Glass says. “New construction here is still a little slow, but the remodel business appears to be strong and I think it will continue this year.”

Having said that, however, Glass acknowledges that faux finishes are not as strong in San Diego as they used to be because of changing styles. “The Tuscan feel is on its way out,” she says. “For those who can afford it, more contemporary finishes like the Lusterstone plasters and the vintage finishes are popular.”

Glass and her partner have adapted to the new market, however. “Our business used to be 90 percent wall finishes and 10 percent furniture/cabinet finishes. It is now about 70 percent cabinet/furniture faux finishes, and 30 percent wall finishes/murals,” she says. “I believe the reason for this is twofold. For environmental reasons, clients don’t feel right about throwing away or ripping out perfectly good cabinets when they can completely change the look with a new finish. The second reason is the cost can be substantially less to refinish cabinets than to rip them out and get new ones, and a lot of times, the quality of the new cabinets isn’t as good as their old cabinets. The same goes for furniture.”

Summary

The professionals in all three markets we contacted certainly have one thing in common: adaptability. Though the economy is coming back, the faux and decorative painting industry is not the same as it was before the economic crisis. Decorative artists must adapt to meet the market where it currently is rather than hoping for the market to return to the way it was, and perhaps will never be again.