Painting the Town: Carl Tillmanns MFA '76
It might sound odd to say that Sarah Lawrence prepared Carl Tillmanns MFA ’76 to paint houses. After all, he earned an advanced degree in dance at the College, then set about establishing a career as a performer, choreographer and musical theatre director in New York. He also toiled at the requisite booster jobs for a young artist: waiter, clothing salesman and antiques auctioneer—and, luckily, as it turned out, house painter.
Today, Tillmanns lives in Los Angeles, where he is a painting contractor, decorative artist and design and color consultant. In an architecturally young and uninhibited city that reveres renewal and transformation, Tillmanns is literally painting the town.
“House painting is theatre,” he says. “Our houses are sets. I am the director, and it’s my job to speak to the audience—the home owners—in ways they can understand and be moved by.”
Tillmanns is his own boss, handling everything from the books, to the bills, to the creative work alongside his crew, completing one job before starting the next. Clients who favor his taste for strong, sometimes earthy, colors include a number of Hollywood celebrities and, by his estimate, about a third of the homeowners in the city’s historic Hancock Park district.
“When I first walk into a client’s home, I often feel as I did in rehearsal looking at that proscenium, imagining the set,” says Tillmanns. “If we are characters starring in our own lives, our homes deserve to be the backdrop. What is the story we want to tell? What is the best way to tell it? Who is the audience?”
The home he shares with his wife, filmmaker Rachel Feldman ’76, and their children, Nora, 15, and Leon, 8, serves as laboratory and proving ground for—as well as monument to—his design and color ideas.
The dining room has a gold-leaf ceiling and diamond-patterned walls. Budding athlete Leon occupies an aqua, cornflower blue, purple and gold room, “with a hand-cut stencil of our family in 1940’s dress that wraps around the room,” says Tillmanns. “Imagine David Hockney’s room as a child.” Musical theater fan Nora’s room is “sort of 60’s pushed to the limit,” with a red fireplace, apple green ceiling, cherry red walls and royal purple door and window accents.
Tillmanns and Feldman met at SLC, then lived in New York for a few years, where she earned an MFA at NYU and created storyboards for feature films, while pursuing her own independent work. When her career took her to Los Angeles in 1984, Tilllmanns followed. “I said, ‘I’ll pursue musical theatre and choreography in L.A.,’” he recalls. “But I got out there and guess what? There is no musical theatre or choreography in L.A.”
Cue painting and design to the rescue. “We were barely making ends meet, when friends of ours needed someone to paint their house,” says Tillmanns. “‘Why not! I can do that.’ After that I forged ahead by word of mouth, one job at a time. As for decorating, that’s just who I am. I wasn’t voted ‘best-dressed boy in high school’ for nothing.”
Tillmanns credits his dancer’s fitness with helping him stave off the wear and tear of demanding days and some none-too-salubrious work materials. “The upside is great,” he says. “I’m outside all day, climbing, moving and creating. I wear jeans to work. I’m home by five; I can coach my kids’ teams.”
While Southern California’s creamy light, Spanish-influenced architecture and Mediterranean-style building materials offer a much different canvas from those in the Northeast, pleasing the client is a continental constant. “I’m a really good hand-holder,” Tillmanns says. “People need to be well taken care of, and if they are they won’t even consider calling anyone else.
“I have a friend and client for whom I’ve done multiple houses. When we were working on the exterior of the latest, we had daily coffee meetings at the break of dawn, lunch meetings, and sunset wine and cheese meetings sitting on the curb across the street, to check on the balance of color. We’d mix and match, add and subtract, until we were both happy.”
What better stage could an artist want?