More to framing than meets the eye

PICTURE PERFECT: Sarah Marston reflects on the business of framing.
PICTURE PERFECT: Sarah Marston reflects on the business of framing.

After 20 years in business, Hamiltonian Sarah Marston still sees artistry in her work. Kashka Tunstall looks at the bigger picture.

In February, Sarah Marston will celebrate 20 years in business.

For her, the job hasn't become old.

And neither has the novelty of answering the cocktail party question: "What do you do for a living?"

“It's not a common profession and a lot of people are interested in what I do," she says.

The 54-year-old is a professional framer and owns The Framing Workshop in Silverdale, not far from Waikato University.

She has spent half of her life refining the custom-framing skill and these days can match the right frame to anything people bring her - photos, mirrors, artwork, diplomas, even embroidery.

Studying book design at the Ilam School of Fine Arts in Canterbury, Marston had always been interested in visual composition. But it wasn't until she decided to travel that she was introduced to what would become a lifelong passion. It was at an exhibition in London, where the combinations of different frames with various types of art, first caught her eye.

“There was some really interesting framing and the craft appealed to me . . . I've loved it from day one," she says.

"Making the matt and making the frame, deciding what the design is . . . it's one of those jobs where there's more to it than meets the eye.

"Even though it might be a simple thing you're doing, you can make it look a bit better by getting the right colour combination and the right proportions.”

When Marston returned to New Zealand she hit the pavement looking for a place that could teach her the skills she needed, and trained with Focus Frames in Auckland for six years before venturing out on her own.

In 1993, she set up shop in Cambridge and started making a name for herself.

In 2005, she moved from a home studio and workshop in Hamilton East into the glass-fronted space her business now occupies in Silverdale.

The business has grown from a small one-woman operation to a four-man band with one fulltime staffer and two part-time assistants working in the shop, each of them practising artists in their own right.

"We put a lot of emphasis on creativity and having an interest in the arts. We like to push the boundaries with ideas."

Small basic custom framing starts from $70, although the shop stocks ready-made frames for customers who do not want to pay that much.

“I do my best to make it work, you've got to work within the client's budget,” Marston says.

At the opposite end of the scale, a new range of lavish hand-finished Italian mouldings can cost closer to $1000.

That type of framing she would recommend for a mirror or small antique prints.

"They're super-expensive but beautiful quality . . . it stands out, you can see that it's different," Marston says.

Increasingly, the material Marston gets into the shop is from overseas, partly because the Christchurch earthquakes hit one of her main Kiwi suppliers.

"They provided quite a lot of our good basic stock, our basic mouldings . . . there's been a challenge of trying to find something that will replace those old faithfuls," she says.

In addition to regular framing, customers also come into the store for canvas stretching, art restoration work and conservation framing.

Her current project sees her rebuilding fragile antique Victorian-era postcards and creating frames to present them in a Victorian style.

“That's a bit of a challenge and it's the type of job that keeps me interested.”

Converting a small space in the glass-encased shop front into gallery space, Marston is big on supporting local artists.

She runs the gallery at cost and each month a new artist gets the chance to showcase work.

"It's a nice complementary side of the business," she says.

Marston would not disclose profit figures but said it was a profession that paid.

"It's flattened out over the recession but it's still a reasonably good business. I can't buy a Mercedes but it's a good business to work with,” she says.