Modern Renaissance: Gold Leaf Studios

Take a look through this gilder’s frame studio — just a quick browse:

A 17th-century cathedral tabernacle frame, 17 feet high by 11 and a half feet wide.

Now, I ask, where do you think you are? A centuries-old atelier in Florence, or maybe Paris? Wrong!

If you’ve been out sipping beer at the Brickskeller near Dupont Circle lately, it’s right beyond the rear wall, accessible down the alley and around the back: Gold Leaf Studios is the only gilder’s workshop in Washington and among very few in the entire United States.

Bill Adair, whom I just came to know this week, invited me to his studios the other day to take a look around. The converted carriage house contains more than 3,000 frames, with some dating back to the 17th century, such as this one:

The origins of this frame are unclear. It's not gilded, revealing the natural, unfinished wood.

“I’m nuts about anything that can add to my story,” Bill told me. He is a walking encyclopedia of art history, and can hold forth on a frame’s provenance for as long as you are willing to listen — which is generally not as long as he is willing to talk. “I love my job!” he says, which pretty much goes without saying.

Here's an illustration of a palace-style frame, purchased at auction, inside another historic frame, which is inside of a "trophy" frame created in the early 20th century by the owner of a Ford distributorship.

He is a curator, historian, restorer, and creator of frames — oh, and he’s a master gilder, too, which is the art of making the thinnest leaves out of gold and then applying them throughout the nooks and crannies of elaborately carved frames.

“There is no place in the country that does what we do,” he told me. Considering the work orders in his shop at the time I visited, I think I believe him.

Adair’s frames are like his children — he has so much to say about each one. His proudest accomplishment, lately, is creating two replicas of a frame that was presented to George Washington by Louis XVI, containing Louis’ likeness:

Bill Adair peers out from the frame. Look closely, and you'll see Louis' initials in the top corners, and in each bottom corner, the letters G and W. Clearly, political one-upsmanship is as old as time.

The replicas were commissioned by Mount Vernon. Adair will deliver one to Paris in May, at a gathering of the European Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, as it celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan.

“It’s going back to a unified Europe in a symbolic gesture of continued support between our country and Europe,” Bill said.

The other replica will go back to Mount Vernon, where it will likely hang in the house, while the original will go to the Mount Vernon museum.

But that’s not the only thing going at Gold Leaf Studios. Let’s go down to the workshop:

This antique frame is being restored.

This Mary is being taken back to her former glory for a DC church.

Adair has a government commission to create seals for various agencies and states.

I'm particularly fond of the Florida seal -- I used to be a reporter for newspapers there.

This papier-mache frame was created by Antonio Gaudi in 1903. Designer Barry Dixon asked Adair to replicate it.

Bill's studio also does furniture conservation and restoration. This 1920 satinwood table had 78 percent of its decorative trim missing. They restored the trim, which looks like inlaid ivory, but really it's just a masterly paint job.

Bill, a Bethesda native who started his business nearly 30 years ago, is trying to pass on the art of gilding through a series of training classes he regularly conducts for city children at the National Building Museum. And even if you’ve never thought about the frame that goes around a picture before, he will engage you, like it or not.

And beyond his work for the State Department, numerous museums, churches, and his lectures here and abroad on frame history and conservation, he can simply provide anyone with a frame for their own artwork  It’s definitely worth a visit.

Here are a couple more pictures I took there, to send you off for a great weekend.


  1. Ann, isn’t he great?? Your comment reminds me that I should check in with him again/ haven’t spoken to him in a while!

  2. Wow, Jennifer! I just came across this most interesting post!

    I am a Society of Gilders member and met Bill last year in New Orleans. His enthusiasm and knowledge are awe inspiring.

    Thanks for the studio tour! Like being in a candy shop for me.


  3. What an amazing group of talent–water gilding and other gilding tecqniques are extremely diffucult to replicate and do properly. Will be passing through this area in the fall and will definatly plan a stop by with a few pieces that need a bit of TLC…Thanks!!

  4. Great find,..I rescued a gilded frame destined for Salvation Army..from a neighbor..dated 1930’s and too beautiful to put my painintgs in! It is a fine & rare piece of art all on its own! I will look for his studio..

  5. How intriguing! You never think about where old frames go to be restored. I’ve done some simple gilding and some faux painting in my day but Bill is truly a master artist. I’m grateful that he is teaching his craft so that it won’t become a totally lost art. Really amazing work.