By Dale King
Richard Haas has spent nearly a half-century deceiving millions of eyes. The 77-year-old artist, muralist, print maker and architectural maven has “installed” bay windows on the flat, brick side of a Chicago building. He designed a “working” steel mill on the wall of a theater in Pittsburgh. He “punched” a hole in a wall to reveal Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel. But all of these were pained illusions.
The gray-haired, mustachioed master of trompe-l’oeil – “tricking the eye,” as the French say – is a Wisconsin-born multi-media craftsman who moved to New York’s SoHo district in 1968. He has made a career of creating eye-catching, but optically elusive, designs inside and outside of blank-walled buildings.
Haas took an early interest in architecture, and even played with geometic blocks, as an infant. But when he went on to study the twists and turns of architectural style, he found that painting balusters, casements, parapets, columns and other structural pieces was a lot faster than designing them on paper and then building them. So, since 1975, Haas has created 60 such designs around the United States and one in Munich, which “is now gone,” he says. Forty-four of his works survive.
Inspired by a Master
For further inspiration, Haas took his cues from an even more iconic figure – the man considered to be America’s greatest architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.
“He was born [in Green Spring, Wisc.], two miles from where I lived,” said Haas. “My great uncle was a stonemason and worked for him for 30 years. I worked for him two summers. My dad, who ran the local butcher shop, also knew him. I saw Wright maybe 50 to 100 times. I saw his studio when I had to drop things off for his assistant.”
Haas quickly learned Wright’s idiosyncrasies. “He often stopped by to make comments while we were working.” One day, Wright rolled up in his chauffeur-driven Volkswagen Bug, his normal mode of transport. “He got the Volkswagens as payment for a project,” Haas recalls.
“We were helping to lay a foundation for a restaurant on the banks of the Wisconsin River. We were nailing joists, working on a rickety scaffold, when Wright got out of his Volkswagen and came over. He tapped his keys on the scaffold and said, ‘Get rid of this, it’s ugly.’ The associate I was working with said, ‘How are we going to get the work done without a scaffold, Mr. Wright?’ The master answered: ‘You’ll hang like monkeys.’”Wright wasn’t always that irascible. “He came back two hours later and was in a jovial mood,” Haas said. “Maybe he got a loan from a bank.”
Haas’ First Trompe-l’oeil
Armed with degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the University of Minnesota, Haas set out in 1975 to help beautify the SoHo neighborhood as part of the City Walls program. The area suffered from “urban destruction,” he said. So, he created a trompe-l’oeil painting on a building. And that put him on the map of great designers.
Haas says he has never actually painted the outside of a building. “I was spoiled rotten from the first. There are other guys much better at it than I am.” As the designing artist, he does paint interiors, usually by “getting on a stepladder at my studio.”
His brush strokes are all over Florida, he says, though the Fontainebleau design had been destroyed. “I have done a lot of interiors in Florida. The Sarasota County Courthouse, two large murals in a bank in Tampa, mosaics at banks in Vero Beach, Aventura and Bradenton.” His works are on display at a gallery in Naples.
Haas is currently devoting time to his print making business, having just finished a 10-year, 14-mural project in Homewood, Ill. “This project allowed me to expand my work in many ways. Homewood now has the largest concentration of my works in one area.” His largest single work ever, he says, was a three-sided mural at the Edison Brothers Stores building, St. Louis, a 110,000 square foot effort on a former warehouse that is now a Sheraton Hotel and Edison Condominiums.
At 12 years past age 65, does Haas plan to retire? In a single, quickly spoken word, “No.”