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In the Arena: Amazing Textile Artisanship

Rusty Arena's hand-painted fabrics and wall coverings have made a splash for 30-plus years

Native Texan Rusty Arena is not your typical artisan. His introduction to textiles occurred as a youngster at his mother’s knee, creating collages from the scraps of her sewing machine. From there he set his eyes on The High School of Performing Arts in Houston, which opened while he was in junior high. An instructor asked him to assist with a summer silk screening project, and in return helped him gain admittance to the prestigious campus for gifted young artists in 1973 — the first of its kind in the state.

In High Gear

What followed was an immersion into painting and sculpting, and an entirely different approach to mediums, murals, furniture, and furnishings. It led to an illustrious career. “I declined scholarships to Parsons and Cal Arts because I had already gained a world-class education,” Arena explains.  

He moved to California and New York to paint abstracts and soak up the art scene, and then formulated a method to design and produce artisan textiles, canvas framed art, and his famous hand-painted and hand-printed wall coverings and fabrics — jute, linen, velvet, silk, and paper varieties galore.

Unlike a mass-produced endeavor, the painstaking production is strictly manual and originates from Japanese silk screening techniques — gloriously updated but still incredibly labor intensive. The result is that none of Arena’s prints are identical. The embossing is impossible to replicate. Yet when yards of the material are installed on walls or ceilings, or used in fabric applications, the subtle variances flow together.

Restoration Hardware

Hard work pays off. Flash forward to today, and you’ll find Arena’s line of pillow covers at Restoration Hardware. The collection of hand embossed Velvet Brushstroke Four Square covers and Oushak Vine covers (square or lumbar) is quite popular and available in the store, in the catalogue, and online.

“All of our fabrics are unique, luxurious, tactile, washable, and heat set for durability. If you have pets as I do, frequent laundering only makes it prettier. The fabrics last for decades,” he says.

Imaginative Applications

Arena papered his living room ceiling with warm and cold colors and matte and gloss-like elements that mimic tile work. Intentionally crude yet playfully chic, the juxtaposition seems celestial — silvery gold on brown craft paper, an interplay of soft blues, greens, and browns, and irregular edges of gold leaf.

"Many treatments yield atmospheric reactions to lighting, whether sun, moon, candle, or artificial," says Arena. "Clients often request this same treatment on their walls or panels trimmed in ornate molding, very much like a framed piece of artwork."

Acclaim and Adventures

Arena recalls his earlier days of being part of a 12 showroom collective in Chicago, New York, Houston, and Dallas. His company, Arena Design, earned a ROSCO award nomination in 1981.

The late, great Madeleine Hamm of the Houston Chronicle was fascinated with his use of iridescent ground powder (from mica), and matte and super flat paints to create depth, contrast, and even a slight glimmer. She noted that one particular pattern was favored in environments as diverse as the River Oaks Country Club ballroom to bathrooms and kitchens.

Cloris Leachman, who sadly passed away last year, adored him. “I had the pleasure of body-painting Cloris from head to toe for the fitness cover of Alternative Medicine Digest in the late 90s. She was 70 and wanted something unusual. So I adorned her with images of fruit, which took 14 hours. She looked like a cornucopia and had such a sense of humor.”

Eventually, Arena closed his showrooms to focus on his Houston studio. Still, glimpses of his work crop up in unusual places. One of his wall coverings appeared in a five-minute segment of the 2015 movie “Self/less” starring Ryan Reynolds. “Most of my family hails from New Orleans where the movie was filmed. How cool is that?” he says.

A Blessing in Disguise

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey flooded Arena’s Houston facilities with five feet of water. He was able to save 200 prints and happened to be experimenting with digital printing at the time. He felt his machine-made products were flat and soulless, and thus the storm had a silver lining. The printer was ruined and Arena returned to his artisan roots, noting that his clients preferred the long-lasting charm of his one-of-a-kind handmade prints.

After 30-something years and many incarnations, he has no plans to retire and welcomes visits to his studio by appointment. Visit arenadesign.us/ to learn more.

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