Prophet of Plaster

ARTISANAL PLASTER, the stuff that interior designers and architects routinely spec for walls in lieu of paint, is usually an elegant backdrop for furnishings, but Oakland plasterer Rye Hudak has bigger plans for his medium. He wants plaster to be the star.

He recalls the time he was first recruited, as a teenager, by his father, a professional painter, to restore horsehair-and-plaster wall surfaces in old colonial buildings in New Sharon, a tiny town near their home in Maine. Now, skilled at hand-troweling smooth expanses of naturally derived eco plaster and at the helm of his own decorative finishes company called Level 5 Design, Hudak, 41, has found a more engrossing distraction.

The abstract expressionist plaster works Hudak makes in his spare time are an all-consuming passion because each one is different, as some of the unique titles — Aerial, Burnt Toast and Bleached Alligator — clearly indicate. The four-by-four-foot creations are made on medium-density-fiberboards and range in price from $2,500 to $5,500. Recently exhibited at Paige Loczi’s design studio/gallery in San Francisco, these heavily textured and layered Italian slaked limestone plaster, earth, clay and cement creations, in deep graphites, gunmetal grays, shades of bone and earthen tints, sometimes evoke Anselm Kiefer–esque landscapes seen from the air.

Perhaps one inspiration for these mesmerizing topographic renderings in plaster was Hudak’s childhood full of summer walks along riverbanks and skiing on mountain slopes in winter. His parents, who were “back-to-landers and hard-core college-educated hippies,” Hudak says, raised him in woods far out of town in an off-grid country barn they built for themselves. There was no electricity, but his mother was a candle maker, so there was always light when they needed it.

“We had a hand pump for water from a well, and it wasn’t until the early ’80s when I was 8 years old that we finally got a phone,” Hudak recalls. “There were no neighbors in that remote setting, but there was always nature.”

Not surprisingly, it is comforting for him to tease earth and clay mixed sometimes with plaster and cement into facsimiles of the land he once knew intimately.

“As a material, plaster is organic, is unique when it sets, and can be unpredictable,” he observes.

To achieve his artful effects, he uses techniques carefully mastered on the job and insights gleaned from his own experiments. He knows that Venetian slaked lime plasters can be worked longer than faster-setting hydraulic plasters, and when some plasters cure faster or slower than he wants, he has learned to slow down or accelerate the process. “I also work sometimes with cements to cast a texture and add them to the mix,” Hudak says.

His otherwise natural eco-conscious palette includes domestic cotton plasters as well as traditional plasters from Trieste mixed with marble aggregate from Carrara. None of it is exactly new. Hudak’s slaked lime plasters date back to the Roman Empire; earth-and-straw adobe from the Taos Pueblo tradition goes back a thousand years; and Japan’s Wara Juraku, a traditional earthen plaster composed of clay, sand and rice chaff, is one of his favorites.

Plaster, the go-to practical surfacing material for millennia, is now admired for its aesthetic qualities more than ever before, and Hudak explores that. The process for making his panels, depending on the number of layers applied and their drying time, takes about a week. Hudak’s panels are laid flat on a table surface, where he applies a base coat, a topcoat and sometimes added wax. He then distresses the surface and adds more plaster/clay/cement layers spontaneously to build the surface up about one-quarter- inch thick. “Unlike wall finishes, this does not have to be formulaic because consistency is less relevant than creative expression. That is exciting,” Hudak says.

Armed with a visual studies degree from Dartmouth College, he went to Italy during the late ’90s and began to consider the rich, almost metaphysical qualities of plaster at the Art Institute of Florence and later at La Cipressaia Studio in Montagnana, an artist’s residency hosted by South Africans Rose Shakinovsky and Claire Gavronsky, who collectively call themselves Rosenclaire.

“You could not walk 200 yards without seeing some form of decorative plaster in Italy,” Hudak says. “Even in austere modern interiors with walls that have flush baseboards, plaster brings an earthy, organic and decorative quality,” he adds. “No other ornament is required when plaster is juxtaposed against tile, glass, steel and wood.”

In the Bay Area, Hudak is at the confluence of the plaster trade, interior design and fine arts, working alongside several collaborators. In San Francisco that includes Anthem Interiors, Aidlin Darling Design, Feldman Architects and Gensler; in the East Bay, interior designer Michelle Wempe of Zumaooh; and in Marin, EDG, which is using his skills for a project in Hawaii. The work is often experimental, but even so he usually has “to create reproducible results that are scalable on large surfaces,” Hudak says. “But with my smaller panels I can go much further as an artist because they can be one-of-a-kind.”

A recent seven-by-nine-foot Japanese-plaster panel installed at Palo Alto’s Yayoi, a restaurant designed by Aya Yanagisawa, is also larger than most. Hudak had to work after-hours to install it, but he was determined to stretch.

“I have always wanted to elevate plaster, quite literally, off the wall plane,” he says. “Now, by putting my work in a frame, I ask the viewer to think of it as art.”

Zahid Sardar

Zahid Sardar brings an extensive range of design interests and keen knowledge of Bay Area design culture to SPACES magazine. He is a San Francisco editor, curator and author specializing in global architecture, interiors, landscape and industrial design. His work has appeared in numerous design publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle for which he served as an influential design editor for 22 years. Sardar serves on the San Francisco Decorator Showcase design advisory board.