Crafting imagination

From Disney to Dairyland, a small group of theming artists turns the most outlandish requests into business showstoppers.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Looking for a 20-foot tall King Kong for your rooftop, or a 40-foot serpent on the front lawn of your business? Perhaps you want to create an incredibly realistic Arizona or Florida-themed office space to get through the dreary winter months, or create a saloon atmosphere out of a corporate lunchroom.

F5 can do it.

“We craft imagination,” says Pam Price, owner of F5 Theming and Design LLC, who’s been making a name for herself as a theme artist for the past 30 years. Theming, she explains, is taking an idea — any idea — and making it come to life. The term comes from theme parks, and Price and many of her colleagues have worked at some of the best, including Disney and Universal, either as contracted employees or as employees of other companies. Their work on the Harry Potter area at Universal Studios subsequently led to some Wisconsin business connections.

Price is recognized as a guru in the theming industry, notes Jan Swanke, F5’s chief and creative operations officer. “We call her TPP, for THE Pam Price,” she smiles admiringly. Price blushes.

Over the past four years, Price has led a team of themers who have been spending six to eight months a year on proprietary projects in the area. Finally, she just decided to start her own business and relocate to Wisconsin. “I just loved the atmosphere here,” the Virginia native says. “I love the people and the difference in attitudes [compared to Orlando]. People are naturally kind, it’s slower paced, and I love the fresh air.”

Conceptualization began with a foam core model of the original office building, top, and the finalized design. A 3-D painting technique called trompe-l’oeil tricks the eye. The doorway, above, is actually flat.

The artists have now joined Price under the F5 moniker, and several, including Price, are still in the process of moving here. “I usually bring about 10 artists with me on projects,” she says, “and they’ve fallen in love with this area, too. Madison is a very artsy town. Very appreciative of art.”

At the heart of their work is a painting method called trompe-l’oeil, a technique designed to trick the eye into believing something is real, creating an optical illusion. Price, who was classically trained in trompe-l’oeil, admits that 3-D painting just comes easy to her. “I’ve been doing it for so long that I could do it with my eyes closed.”

 Others have learned along the way. “Air brushing and spray painting teaches you a lot of this,” notes Swanke. The F5 team employs all methods of paint application to achieve their desired effects.

But these artists don’t just paint, they conceptualize and build models from a variety of materials, from foam to concrete. Through the years they’ve simulated environments at theme parks, zoos, and theater sets. “We can carve anything,” Price smiles. “Need a dinosaur?”

After officially launching as F5 Theming in June, the company’s first official project, at Duncan Edward European Hair Salon on Madison’s west side, is nearing completion.

Duncan and Gillian Cairns, the British-born business owners, will celebrate their 25th year in Madison in January and they’ve incorporated metal into their salon’s décor for years. Recently they decided they needed to extend that modern vibe to the exterior of their building on Grand Canyon Drive, as well.

“We’ve owned this building for seven years and a number of clients said they didn’t realize it was a business because it just looked like a typical bi-level home,” explains Gillian. “We didn’t want our business to look like a little house.”

Their original idea, to wrap the entire home in metal, didn’t fly with the neighborhood association. About that time, Swanke, a customer at the salon, learned how disappointed Cairns was that his idea had been rejected and offered to help.

What has ensued over a couple of months is nothing short
of fascinating as the F5 team transforms the front façade of the Duncan Edward building to look exactly like metal, complete with bolts and rivets around windows and doors that passersby would swear is real.

But it’s not real — it’s paint.



Home-sized canvas

Price and her team of seven artists first brainstormed Cairns’ idea, and Price created a 3-D model of the original building onto which she could Velcro design concepts to help the couple visualize their options. In total, seven different designs were presented before they selected a favorite.

From top to bottom: The building on Grand Canyon Drive gets a facelift. Before attaching the rain screen, or canvas onto which the team will paint, a structure is built to support it. Price maps the rivet spacing around the front doorway before they are painted.

The F5 themers then researched everything from Wisconsin weather conditions to the paint that would hold up to them. They studied daylight and how the sun cast its shadows on the front of the house throughout the day.

A local architectural firm designed the structure for the screen — or the backing that would be affixed to the building to support the painted canvas — and it had to be approved by the city for structural soundness and proper venting.

“We couldn’t take the siding off the house or paint it as it was, so we built what we call a rain screen,” Swanke explains. Once the design was approved they finalized it digitally. “Sometimes you have to make something digitally look right because the structure may not be exactly straight or level,” explains Swanke.

Price’s team uses high-quality paints and clear coats from Florida, and Swanke also alludes to an unknown “secret ingredient” that Price adds to all her paint to make it last even longer. Clearly, it will remain a secret.

Primed white, the screen becomes a giant canvas onto which the artists paint freehand. Throughout the project, Price steps back to the sidewalk to scan for “hot spots,” or problem areas that draw the eye but shouldn’t.

“Many people won’t notice the details,” Price says, “but they will notice the things that are glaringly wrong. Take the rivets, for example. We want people to notice them, but they have to be perfect. The entire design has to look fantastic whether it’s from two-feet away or 100-feet away.”

The texture of the paint and the shadowing created by airbrushing and spray painting is where the true effect unfolds. Price has been known to use common items such as brooms, brushes, Nerf balls, sticks, or even sand to cast a particular sheen or to help age a design.

From Grand Canyon Drive, Duncan Edward’s front façade now sports what appears to be a gunmetal gray and shiny brass exterior, especially when hit with late-afternoon sunlight. Metal scaffolding between the two color levels appears to extend out from the building but it, too, is just an optical illusion.

This kind of artistry isn’t inexpensive, and F5 generally won’t consider jobs for less than $10,000, but every project doesn’t need to be Disney-esque, either.

“Theming is a billion-dollar industry,” Price states. “Think about the theme parks.

“At Duncan Edward, we looked at what it would cost, marked it up for a profit and gave them a real-world price. We can do a lot with paint, and we didn’t need any steel. Paint costs $50 a gallon, and we are very, very creative.” The group still hopes to build a red telephone booth outside the salon as a further nod to Cairns’ British roots.

Meanwhile, Price’s creative palette is brimming with possibilities. The team will travel anywhere they’re needed, and she believes the Wisconsin Dells could present some great opportunities.

The company is currently working to partner with area architectural companies and designers whose clients want to stand out from the crowd.

“It seems like nothing we do is usual,” notes Swanke. “If a company wants some-thing to look like a Ritz cracker and we have to build it in concrete, we would sculpt and then paint a concrete cracker so they could see how it looks.”

Price nods. “If the city of Madison wanted a giant cheese curd and cow and barn built for the tourist bureau, we could build it.” If a company wanted mermaids flying from the ceiling, or a giant gummy bear in front of a building — heck, even playing on a swing set — or something as subtle as aging the appearance of a sign, a door, or a room, F5 would handle the high-end detail.

“With F5, I just wanted a group of people to have fun with their jobs,” Price states. “The name represents our five value words: focused, fun, inspired, visionary, and experts.”

F5 Theming is certainly all of that.

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