October 20, 2014
Text by Allegra Muzzillo
Interior design and fine art come together with stunning results in the work of Rita Petta and Rebecca Thompson.
The union of interior designer Rita Petta and artist Rebecca Thompson can be traced back to a yearlong study in Florence, Italy, nearly seventeen years ago. Among the city’s acclaimed Renaissance-era sculptures, fountains, and museums, the women’s lives and creative sensibilities harmonized as they pursued master’s degrees, Petta in historic preservation, Thompson in art restoration. Although the two acquired distinct professional training, they discovered parallels that linked them, artistically and personally, before opening their namesake Oakville studio in 2007. “In between, we both had our own careers,” says Petta. “But,” adds Thompson, “we saw how to connect what we were doing separately, and turned it into a single endeavor we felt even more passionate about.”
The two women soon carved out a niche market for original artwork they would make together (paintings, sculptures, and later, wall coverings)—one that deftly overlapped the worlds of art and interior design.
The company’s predominantly large-scale sculptural works have a powerful presence due both to their stature and craftsmanship. “They grab you, pull you in, and stop you from thinking about anything else,” says Thompson. Hand-carved Oro cubes, for example, have real impact. Ranging from seven inches square to twenty inches square, the burlwood-veneer wood blocks can be wall-mounted, singly or in groupings, or put together to form functional pieces of furniture, such as benches and consoles. Their 16-karat gold-leaf concave surfaces retain a warm glow in even the darkest room. “They have such meditative value, too,” adds Thompson, “because they virtually exist in that place between light and sound.”
Amid the artists’ juxtaposition of tradition and function is the keystone principle of encouraged interaction. “We enjoy seeing it,” says Petta, “especially since it has traditionally been taboo to touch art—and because it furthers the viewer’s involvement within her environment.” Gilded Falling Blocks and the polished-granite Prayer Wheels invite contact via twisting, turning, spinning. Abacus, too, features moveable parts, and its stunning artistry takes it way beyond its storied use as a mathematical tool. Even the tactile Scatta line of wallcoverings features pompon- and daisy-shaped accessories designed to attach and detach through a system of metal snaps.
Petta Thompson’s art is characterized by centuries-old techniques (gilding, wood turning, printmaking) and media (India ink, marble dust)—and the duo works tirelessly to modernize the traditional applications. The artists’ cotton- and rice-based wallcoverings, especially, reveal decidedly modern spins. Although Sol is embossed in a traditional etching press, a hand-carved acrylic plate (versus copper) is now used because of its imperviousness to high pressure and moisture levels. And the transparent synthetic-gel beads on Lido are hand-applied so precisely, it looks as if their pattern is computer-generated.
Thompson maintains that solid skillsets have given the women confidence and latitude to utilize, and develop, contemporary media. “Sometimes,” she says laughing, “you can’t find exactly what you need in the art supply store.” Her Sumi-e, or Japanese-inspired, abstract ink paintings are often crafted with a four-foot brush that she retrofitted herself, using a wooden broom handle. “When using unusual tools as brushes,” Thompson explains, “you have to be sure about what will happen on the canvas—and at the same time be willing to accept the result, whatever it is.”
Each custom piece is produced inside the pair’s 8,500-square-foot workspace in Oakville’s industrial-era Old Pin Shop Factory—a landmark building featuring rich architectural detailing and a celebrated pre–World War I history. Now, the light-filled studio houses Petta Thompson’s vast collection of go-to media and custom-built, twenty-foot plywood tables designed to accommodate impossibly long rolls of paper. “The space is so flexible,” says Thompson, “we’ve reconfigured it multiple times.”
Petta Thompson’s work can now be seen in Donghia showrooms throughout the country and in Wynn Resorts here and abroad. Up next for the partners: multilayered Graffio wallcoverings in additional colors and finishes, burlwood-veneer wallpaper, Oro blocks in fiberglass and concrete (for outdoor installations), and several smaller, sculptural tabletop accessories.
And, as always, the company will maintain its participatory, tried-and-true strategy: the duo will always adhere to Old-World processes. Says Petta: “They’re exactly why we love making the work.” •
Editor’s Note To see more of Petta Thompson’s work, visit pettathompson.com.