Master of the Decorative Arts

A jack of all decorative trades and master of most
See the beautiful inlaid stone tabletop? No, you don’t. That’s Brian Leaver and the tabletop he painted to look like stone. Sunny Khalsa

    Not everyone played Ping-Pong with Leona Helmsley and lived to tell about it. No, she wasn’t quite that dangerous, said Brian Leaver, but she lived up to her infamous reputation more often than not. He and his brother, Rusty, rubbed elbows, gingerly, with Ms. Helmsley while working in her Greenwich, Conn., mansion.
    During a recent tour of Mr. Leaver’s Amagansett house and studio, a visitor had to knock the top of a table in order to accept that it was not marble after all, just painted to look like it. Brian Leaver is a decorative painter, sculptor, set designer, muralist, a jack of all decorative trades and master of most.
     He recalled, with a laugh, a surrealistically godlike moment at the Helmsley Palace in New York City. It occurred the day he was gold-leafing an elevator’s molding and looking down upon Frank Sinatra and his entourage, who were forced to wait for the gold to be applied before being allowed to resume their ascent to the Palace penthouse.
    It all began when he was about 4, playing with clay. “Later I liked cars, so I sculpted a Bugatti, then during the Vietnam War I made military vehicles.”
    In fourth grade at P.S. 166 on the Upper West Side, young Mr. Leaver won a painting competition hosted by Lever Brothers. It made the evening news.
    “The dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History made a big impression too,” he said. “We lived in the city until I was 10. Summered in Montauk. It was a huge transition to move out here in 1970, but I was thrilled. It was getting rugged in the city. I was robbed at knifepoint.” 
    Mr. Leaver said he had not been single-minded about art until his senior year at East Hampton High School. “Then my family said, ‘You probably should do something with it.’ ”
    His parents had met at the Rhode Island School of Design. During World War II his father enlisted as a Navy flier. “Dad did fashion illustration. He got inspired in the Pacific during the war. There was a theatrical troupe who had been prisoners of war. He drew and painted them in costume, Japanese kind of painting, and sense of line. It helped to form his furniture design. He told me that to create a beautiful design, you should be conscious of each and every line. Each has a lyricism. I try to be conscious of it.”
     Gardner Leaver Sr. taught drawing at Pratt Institute, as did Mr. Leaver’s mother, Eleanor. Two years ago Mrs. Leaver, now 92, produced a book, begun in 1970, of her pen-and-ink drawings of historic places in around East Hampton.
    “Risdy,” as the Rhode Island School of Design is known, was a revelation. “I was surrounded by talent,” Mr. Leaver said. “There was a competitiveness, but not with the others, with yourself. You caught the spirit from others.”
    Mr. Leaver said that for him there had always been a fine line between fine and applied arts. He graduated from college in 1982 with a major in industrial design. His minor in sculpture had him cutting stone, doing foundry work, and welding. “I was fascinated by how things were made, how to open a stone — get the stone out of the way to reveal what you see in it.”
    “I was going to major in sculpture, but industrial design offered the broadest spectrum. It’s so varied: architecture, graphic arts, photography, model-making, metalwork, furniture design. I’ve used elements of it all. Now, I do a lot of decorative painting.”
    Mr. Leaver designed the house where he lives with his wife, Suzanne, and two daughters.
    Mr. Leaver said he had difficulty making the transition from fine art to the kind of work that would become his stock and trade. “I came at it as a fine artist who struggled with using the tools of the trade, drafting tools, how to figure scale, read architectural plans, the math of it.” He succeeded, and credited a RISD instructor named Bob O’Neill, known for his cutting critiques, for helping with the transition.
    When his brother married Diane Dickinson, whose family owned Deep Hollow Ranch in Montauk, Brian Leaver was put to work during the summer months. “The approach to work, the work ethic at the ranch. It was tough, formative.”
    His design work began in earnest when Ben Krupinski, an East Hampton builder and business owner, introduced him to Peter Marino, an architect. “He wanted a stenciled pattern with overlays for a vaulted ceiling. He asked if Krupinski thought I could do the math.” He could.
    Mr. Leaver said his work for architects and interior decorators, as well as his forays into mural painting and et design, has grown through word of mouth. He repainted the ceiling design during the restoration of Guild Hall three years ago. “It took a forest of scaffolding and a laser line generator. I liked it. It was a rarified space up there.”
    In May, he was designing sets at Guild Hall for a production of “Uncle Vanya” and, at the same time, doing the same thing for a production of “Extremities” at the Bridgehampton Community House. “What made it challenging was, I was also doing the sets for ‘Little Me,’ the musical at the Ross School,” where his younger daughter is a sophomore. Mr. Leaver has built sets for Ross theater productions for the past eight years.
    He worked with the Jimmy Ernst Artists Alliance soon after graduating from college. “My mother was the first elected president. She had me there as her young son fresh out of art school. There was a Surrealism show. I covered the whole gallery in black photographic paper and used white chalk.”
    These days, in addition to his design jobs, Mr. Leaver is working on a production of “Eve” for LTV, being produced by Kate Mueth and the Neo-Political Cowgirls. He described it as “an immersive theater experience.”
    He can be counted on to help with theater at the Mulford Farm, too, including the barn’s annual Haunted Halloween. “I’m the go-to guy when nobody has money but wants to have fun.”
    Not always. For example, he designed the interior of Billy Joel’s house. “He had gone to the Ligurian section of Italy. I painted the floor. On the outside I painted trompe-l’oeil French doors and shutters.” Mr. Leaver said Mr. Joel told him he didn’t want the house to look uniform, not like Michael Jackson’s patchwork of plastic surgery.
    Nor is Brian Leaver a stranger to Palm Beach, or the Bahamas, where he was hired to cover the interior walls of the Lyford Cay Club with chocolate brown, grass cloth, and painted palms. “I’m really fast,” he said. And while he allowed that some of his clients could be obsessive and quirky in their visions, he himself feels “extremely sane. Both sides of my brain are fully functioning.”
    Mr. Leaver’s wide spectrum of work can be seen on his Web site, brianleaver.com.