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by Diane Capuano, executive editor Born to Paint A closeup of the four-sided bar. (Rec room,
by Diane Capuano, executive editor
Born to Paint
A closeup of the four-sided bar.
(Rec room, bar and kitchen photos
by Christopher Ruhaak, Heartland
Photos & Design)
If
you ask Sandra Lassley what
inspired her to be a profes-
sional decorative painter, she
will refer you to her early

childhood days in Omaha, Nebraska. Back then, she was little Sandra Stiefel, and she thought her dad, Marlin Stiefel, had one of the best jobs in the world. “My dad was a painting contractor, and he used to spray glitter on ceilings,” says Sandra, who is widely and fondly known in the industry as Sass. “I was four or five

Sandra Lassley—fondly known as Sass—reports that the word “can’t” is not in her vocabulary. She adores her job and lives to create.

Sandra Lassley, fondly known as Sass, was destined to be a decorative painter from the moment she opened her first can of glitter. Did we mention she was only four or five at the time?

by Diane Capuano, executive editor Born to Paint A closeup of the four-sided bar. (Rec room,

Sass used four different finishes on this four-sided bar: a copper leaf for the top sof- fit; a glazed bronze metallic for the second soffit; a saddle leather plaster finish look with a custom copper leaf wave running the full length of the bar; and a copper leaf ceiling on the interior bar ceiling (the latter, not visible in photo). Sass won a first- place honor at the 2006 Fauxcademy Institute of Decorative Finish Awards for this pro- ject, which also features the saddle leather on the walls of the surrounding rec room.

years old, and every day, I got to open up this big can of glitter. It was won- derful, and to this day, I am known as the glitter queen. I love glitter and metallic.” Her childhood days helped Sass formulate an early understanding of her destiny. Some people are born to write great novels. Some are born to compose inspiring music or direct epic movies. In Sass’s case,

by Diane Capuano, executive editor Born to Paint A closeup of the four-sided bar. (Rec room,

she has known for many years what she was born to do: “I was born to paint,” she says. Even more specifically, she feels she was born to own her own deco- rative painting company. She’s al- ways had great entrepreneurial skills and had run other businesses before she ever started her faux-finishing business, Fe Fi Faux Studios, Inc., which is based in Omaha. To say that painting is in Sass’s blood is certainly no overstatement.

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by Diane Capuano, executive editor Born to Paint A closeup of the four-sided bar. (Rec room,

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The fine leather look on these staircase walls was achieved through a multiple faux-finishing process. The

The fine leather look on these staircase walls was achieved through a multiple faux-finishing process. The crew completed 30,000 square feet of this finish. (Photo by Jeffrey Bebee)

Not only was her father a painter, but her four uncles also became painting contractors as well. In fact, one of her uncles was a partner in her fa- ther’s business, Stiefel Painting & Decorating. Marlin Stiefel lived in South Dakota, but moved his family to Nebraska to start that business with his sister and brother-in-law. In addition to opening cans of glitter, Sass has other fond memories of the business, including riding around in the company van and accompanying her father on painting projects. Sass’s mother, meanwhile, also

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The fine leather look on these staircase walls was achieved through a multiple faux-finishing process. The

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had entrepreneurial tendencies. She started out as a seamstress and cus- tom-designed many of Sass’s clothes as a child, even making the patterns, and then later went on to run her own custom drapery business. While Sass got her love of painting from her dad, she got her attention to detail from her mother. “She was so fussy that she even washed our shoelaces,” Sass reports. Adding to her well-rounded child- hood, Sass spent her summers with her grandmother, who was a teacher. “We would do these unusual and

elaborate art projects,” she recalls. “We would pull all of these great things out of a closet and see what we could do with them.”

Is it “Fo” or “Faux”?

Sass’s first exposure to decorative painting occurred when she married at a young age and her father helped her paint her home. It was all done as straight painting, and Sass could tell immediately that her home needed more pizzazz. “I knew something was missing, so I began to read dec- orating books—whatever I could get my hands on,” she explains. “I start- ed doing classical sponging around my home, and then I really got into Southwest. All of my shirts had tri- angles on them.” But Sass’s first real experience with professional decorative painting oc- curred sometime later, when her father was asked to participate in a local Pa- rade of Homes project. He requested Sass’s help in doing the entryway, but she had the smarts to recognize that she would need professional training to do the job justice. She convinced her father to send her to New York to take a class at The Finishing School, which at the time was under the direction of industry icon Ina Marx. Her sister went with her because her father didn’t want her to be alone in New York. “I was literally at my first class before I ever heard the word ‘faux,’ ” Sass recalls. “I remember writing in my notes ‘F-O-Question Mark.’ That was 1989. When I came home, Fe Fi Faux Studios was born, and I never looked back.” Sass did the entryway for the Pa- rade of Homes, creating a stunning fantasy marble. “Hundreds of people went through that home, and my phone started ringing off the hook,” she states. “Then, my friends would ask me to do finishes in their homes. They would have parties, and more people would see what I had done, and then I’d get even more calls.”

Another of Sass’s Fauxcademy first-place winners for 2006, this kitchen has plastered walls featuring an Old

Another of Sass’s Fauxcademy first-place winners for 2006, this kitchen has plastered walls featuring an Old World Anaglypta relief finish.

Miss Congeniality

Kelly also helped Sass dis- cover the importance of indus- try networking. She attended the debut of Kelly’s innovative awards program, the Fauxcad- emy of Decorative Finishes, which was held in 2002 in Key West, Fla. And while she wasn’t an award winner that year, she still came home with the valuable reward of getting to know many other decorative painters. She’s been an enthu- siastic networking advocate ever since, and her bubbly per- sonality certainly makes her a memorable personality in the industry. “Everyone who knows me calls me the Miss Congeniali- ty of Faux Finishing,” Sass says. “If I haven’t met you, I want to. Meeting other artists is so important. After all, art is all about sharing.” Sass also is enthusiastic about communicating online with other artists and being part of an online community. She is a frequent contributor to KSKInstitute.com and also par- ticipates in the Talk Faux/House of Faux online community

Another of Sass’s Fauxcademy first-place winners for 2006, this kitchen has plastered walls featuring an Old

The kitchen project, shown in closeup: The Anaglypta papers are colored, hand-torn and applied in various areas, then plaster is skip- troweled over the wall and some also over the top of the papers, giving them a worn-with- time, broken-away effect.

Another of Sass’s Fauxcademy first-place winners for 2006, this kitchen has plastered walls featuring an Old

Another kitchen closeup, this one highlighting a treatment on the oak cabinets, which were coat- ed with two coats of brown tinted primer fol- lowed by two coats of metallic bronze paint, sprayed by Sass’s uncles Ken and Nick Stiefel, followed by a black embedded glaze technique.

Her father, who had already been in the painting business for 25 years, was just as excited about the faux phenomenon as Sass was. “He saw all of this as the wave of the future,” she re- calls. “He helped me out so much. He would send out his guys to tape and clean up. I was two years into the business be- fore I taped anything myself.” Tragically, Sass’s father died of a heart attack at the age of 51—just two years after Sass had started her business. “He died just as my business was taking off,” Sass says wistfully. “He

didn’t live to see what it would become.” As part of her goal to better her business, Sass continued to educate herself. She went to some of the most prestigious schools around the country, including the Miller-Wage- naar Art School of Chicago, and she also took additional classes at The Finishing School, where she gained an important understanding of the Munsell Color System. Coincidentally, one of the indus- try’s most respected schools, run by Kelly S. King, was right in her own back yard of Omaha, Neb. “I even- tually took all of Kelly’s classes, and he has become a close personal friend,” reports Sass. When asked about Sass, Kelly replies, “The best word you could use to describe Sass would be pas- sion. She is passionate about life, and that certainly comes through in the enthusiasm she has toward pleas- ing her clients as well as in her fin- ished masterpieces.” As it turned out, Kelly taught Sass a few important business skills over the years. “He was the one who con- vinced me to show the next level of finishes, no matter where you think the client’s budget is. I grew my busi- ness by 35 percent the first month af- ter he told me that,” she reports.

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Another of Sass’s Fauxcademy first-place winners for 2006, this kitchen has plastered walls featuring an Old

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Fe Fi Faux Studios participated in this “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project, involving the creation of

Fe Fi Faux Studios participated in this “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project, involving the creation of a mural depicting intertwining trees to symbolize two families coming together. (Photo by Alan L. Jackson)

(www.talkfaux.com, www.houseoffaux. com). “This is a great way to share and get quick answers to technical ques- tions that inevitably arise,” she says. But nothing beats those in-person contacts, and that’s why Sass was a return visitor to the 2004 and 2006 Fauxcademy events, both of which took place in Las Vegas. She enjoyed working closely with Kelly in de- signing themes (Pirates’ Night and a Masquerade Ball) for the elaborate parties at the past two Fauxcademy events. It was in 2006 that she won her first Fauxcademy of Deco- rative Finishes award, and then was delighted when she won a second award just a few min- utes later. She also attended the Faux Event for the first time in 2006 and plans to become ac- tive in SALI. Sass’s vibrant personality, coupled with her interior de- sign and painting skills, are the key reasons that she has earned so many satisfied customers for Fe Fi Faux Studios. In fact, repeats and referrals are what

Sass reports. “My clients are so pleased that they are always happy to refer us to someone else, and when we leave, we always get a hug.” Most of Fe Fi Faux’s work is resi- dential, but the business also does its share of commercial, including day spas, doctor’s offices and other pub- lic spaces. While most of the work is for Omaha and surrounding envi- rons, sometimes a project will take

Fe Fi Faux Studios participated in this “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project, involving the creation of

drive the business. “We never have to do any advertising,”

Sass works in her business with husband Jeff and daughter Sasha.

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Fe Fi Faux Studios participated in this “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project, involving the creation of

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Sass and crew elsewhere. “We’ve done work in 11 states,” Sass reports. “We recently completed two large projects in Arizona. Sometimes I get an out-of-state project because the designers and clients I work with have second homes in other states.”

A Family Affair

And just who are the members of the “crew” that work alongside Sass in the business? They are none oth- er than her husband, Jeff, and their daughter, Sasha. Sass is pleased that Sasha has followed her footsteps— and those of Sass’s father—into a

Fe Fi Faux Studios participated in this “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project, involving the creation of

These boots were made for fauxin’…and that’s just what she did. Sass created this imitation animal skin and gets compliments every time she wears them.

painting career. “I’m a second-gener- ation painter, and she’s third-genera- tion,” Sass says proudly. Just like Sass herself, Sasha grew up in the business. “She did her home- work in my workroom,” Sass reports. “As part of her training, I’ve been ask- ing her opinion about things since she was 8 years old. I would show her col- or samples and ask which carpet she thought went with what sample and why. She has her mother’s eye for de- tail and is now a master finisher who enjoys designing finishes of her own.” Sasha has been officially part of the business for eight years, whereas Jeff teamed up with his wife about six years ago. “He has a background in graphic design,” Sass reports. “For a while, he had his own con-

tracting business, and he used to hang drywall. His skills match up perfectly with our needs. He’s a mas- ter woodworker and also a trim car- penter. Now he works as a finisher right along with me. It’s worked out wonderfully, because where one of us is weak, the other is strong.” Sass’s son, Sage, isn’t a finisher, but he does bring his considerable computer skills to the family endeav- or. He’s currently in college, but al- ready has helped the business by de- signing and maintaining the company Web site (www.fefifauxstudios.com). Whereas the business has had oth- er employees at one time or another, Sass is very happy with the current family trio doing all of the work. “We’re big enough to move in a timely manner, but still small enough to get into a bedroom,” she says. There also is another aspect of the working relationship that Sass en- joys, and that’s the ability to spend so much time with her husband and daughter. “Everybody asks how you can work with your family, and I will admit that sometimes it can be chal- lenging, but the rewards are definite- ly worth it,” she says. “Being a fam- ily business, we have an inside joke about everything. We have a good time, and my husband and I get to spend much more time with our daughter than we otherwise would.”

An ‘Extreme’ Experience

One of the most recent experi- ences that the family enjoyed to- gether was participation in a mural project that was featured in the pop- ular ABC-TV program, “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project. The project took place in Lincoln, Neb., just a short drive from Omaha. A local manufacturer had recom- mended the studio for the project, which involved a painted depiction of intertwining trees to show two families growing together. The project was created for the

tracting business, and he used to hang drywall. His skills match up perfectly with our needs.

Fe Fi Faux effectively uses the Anaglypta finish on a ceiling to crown this lovely master bedroom.

portion of the show called “Ty’s Se- cret Room.” Of course, the “Ty” in this case refers to the enormously popular host of the ABC-TV pro- gram, Ty Pennington. Sass and crew didn’t work with Ty specifically, but they did work closely with the pro- gram’s head muralist, Nancy Hadley. “We did the mural, even though for the most part we do very little mural work,” Sass reports. “No tape could be used, and we had to work with flat paint over flat paint.” Sass recalls that the project was a bit of a challenge, given that there were so many workers going in and

out of the house all of the time. “It was November, so it was 22 degrees outside, and it was simply freezing because they had to keep the front door open,” Sass states. “We worked in the house for nine hours, body to body, doing detailed handwork in two colors. However, the people on the program treat you so well. They bring you pizza, coffee and Red Bull. And eventually, of course, everything gets done.” Of course, the project was com- pleted for no compensation, but Sass and her family do that type of thing on a regular basis. “We try to do several

tracting business, and he used to hang drywall. His skills match up perfectly with our needs.

Sass created this dramatic wine grotto for Gregg Classon as a surprise from his wife, Sharon.

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tracting business, and he used to hang drywall. His skills match up perfectly with our needs.

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Sass was commissioned to create an explosion of color for this dining room dome. volunteer projects

Sass was commissioned to create an explosion of color for this dining room dome.

volunteer projects every year,” she re- ports, citing work she has done for the Symphony Showcase House and “In- spirations and Innovations,” which features a tour of designer homes.

Total Commitment

Of course, most of Fe Fi Faux’s time is spent devoted to the studio’s paying clients. Sass reveals that one of the secrets to her business’ success is “total commitment to the client.” As she explains, “My ultimate goal is to guide them to the finish and the color that is right for them. I could do a million things to make a wall look fabulous, but I have to be concerned about the entire room. I have to con- sider the whole scheme and consider, ‘It may be a great wall, but does it go with the rest of the room?’ ” As part of her total commitment, Sass will even shop for accessories to make sure the room has a com- pleted look. This is the type of thing that makes for satisfied clients. “The week that we are with them, they are the center of our universe,” Sass says. “This the kind of commitment that has landed us so many whole house projects.” Another key to the business’ suc- cess is Sass’s full-size portfolio that

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Sass was commissioned to create an explosion of color for this dining room dome. volunteer projects

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happens to encompass…her entire home! “Most of my clients are from Nebraska, so they can tend to be conservative,” she says. “They have to see it to know that they’ll want it. With a sample board, they can’t nec- essarily visualize how the finish will look on a wall with the corners, the edges and the baseboards. When they walk through my home, they can see all of that.” While some may lament the inva- sion of privacy, Sass doesn’t see that as a problem at all. “We consider it a full-size model that illustrates what we can do,” she says. “The whole house has a flow to it, and that’s an- other reason why we get so many full house projects.” Some of those full house projects can really be quite extensive. For in- stance, she recalls one major residen- tial project that involved more than 30,000 square feet of finishes. “One ceiling in the home took just under five hours, and since we had to keep a wet edge, no break was allowed!” Sass recalls. Sass admits that many times she will go to a client who wants to finish only a few walls and walk away with a commission to do several rooms and not only the walls but also the ceilings.

Initially, she was surprised to learn

that not only was she born to paint, but she also was a born salesperson—and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. “It came to me that when a client wanted one room, I could sell two rooms. When they wanted two rooms,

  • I could sell four rooms,” Sass reports.

“And the clients were actually happy with me for doing that. I wasn’t do- ing anything wrong. It’s called ‘sell-

ing,’ and that’s part of what we do.” Sass also keeps in mind that a client who calls her is already in the mood to buy. “When I go into a home, I keep my ears open,” she says. “My mouth may be running, but I am always listening, ready to interpret their ideas into a fabulous finish.” Now in her 18th year of business, Sass hopes to continue her decora- tive painting career for a long, long time. She realized that was possible after taking a course in Totem lime plasters at Scott Porter’s Twin Cities Faux Finishing Institute in Min- neapolis/St. Paul. While there, she met Scott Porter’s mother (Eleanor), who is still an active faux finisher. “She’s 77 years old, but she looks 50 and acts 30,” Sass reports. “She started faux finishing at age 66, which is incredible inspiration for someone in their 40s like me who is wonder- ing, ‘How long can I do this?’ Hope- fully, I can be an inspiration to people in their 20s who are just trying to get their business off the ground, but peo- ple like me who’ve been in business for 20 to 25 years can take inspiration from Eleanor. She gives me hope that

  • I can keep doing what I’m doing un-

til I’m her age.” If she puts her mind to it, there’s no reason to think that Sass will fall short of that goal. “My motto is any- thing is possible, and since the pos- sibilities are endless, I think it’s im- portant that we continually spread our wings and try new things,” she says. “That’s what I’m out there do- ing every single day.” TT FF FF

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