Charles Nitti’s clients find themselves staring at walls. And as an artist who specializes in creating optical illusions, that’s the highest compliment he can receive.
Nitti is a go-to man for interior designers and homeowners who have spaces that need a special something. That something is called “trompe l’oeil.”
“Chuck can turn a ceiling into a warm, sunny sky with clouds and little birds; a wall into a Venetian courtyard; a floor into a garden path with little animals and plants,” says Jae Berni, a River Forest-based interior designer who has collaborated with Nitti for more than five years. And just like the paintings by Bert, the chalk artist in Mary Poppins, viewers feel they can jump into the paintings and be transported to another world.
“A client told me that “when my dog barked at the painted cat, I knew Charles Nitti was the David Copperfield of finishes,” Nitti says with a laugh.
Trompe l’oeil is a French phrase meaning “to fool the eye or create the illusion of seeing reality.” In the design and artistic world, it refers to a style of painting so realistic that it achieves the sense of being three-dimensional.
“Trompe l’oeil can be whimsical, serious, playful, architectural,” says Gail Prauss, an Oak Park-based interior designer. She has recommended Nitti to many of her clients.
“I had a client who transformed the bedroom into a garden and recently saw a dining room ceiling transformed into a rotunda,” she says, by way of demonstrating the range of what Nitti can accomplish through trompe l’oeil. “In addition to creating atmosphere, trompe l’oeil can open up a room. It can make it appear and feel larger and airier.”
An ancient technique
Trompe l’oeil is a painting style dating back to the first century. “It was especially popular in Victorian times when people believed in the healthful benefits of the sun and the preference for a southern exposure,” says Prauss.
Nitti, according to the designers, has been credited with bringing trompe l’oeil to the Chicago area and beyond. Over the years, he’s brought the technique to churches, restaurants, museum exhibits, children’s rooms and even a 747 jet.
Nitti has partnered with River Forest interior Berni on the last two ASID/Infant Welfare Showcase Houses in Oak Park.
For the 1904 E.E. Roberts-designed Prairie/Tudor-style mansion in Oak Park’s estate district at 620 N. Euclid Ave, Berni collaborated with Nitti on one of the seven bedrooms”a guest room. “I wanted the room to be blue and white and promised the homeowner that I would paint over it if they didn’t like it,” says Berni.
Nitti created 46 harlequin diamonds and added a wool button in the center points to create a unique, upholstered appearance. “I wanted people to have to reach out with their hand and touch the wall to see which was real and which was painted”the button or the jacquard,’ Nitti says. “If they have to feel it, the trompe l’oeil has been executed correctly.”
After the ASID house was finished with its showings, Berni asked the clients if they still wanted the room painted over. “They didn’t!” says Berni enthusiastically.
For another ASID house in Oak Park, an enchanted garden was created for a little girl’s nursery, again by Berni. Nitti created a faux sky ceiling with realistic pink and blue-hued early morning clouds. Nitti also did the garden porch-style floor, where hand-painted bunnies could be found among the painted flowers.
According to Nitti, one of the many tricks to the success of trompe l’oeil is not to include any people. “The eye is drawn to a person in an illustration and the dream-like quality is broken,” says Nitti. The exception for him is cherubs, “but they must be almost translucent.”
Go west, young man
Nitti grew up in Southern California and came to Chicago to study at the American Academy of Art. “I was always the kid who was good at drawing,” he says. One year at school was all he needed to launch his professional career.
“Chicago was the hub for illustration and animation then,” he recalls. “All the advertising companies were here. Leo Burnett, J. Walter Thompson”there was plenty of work.” He quickly found a full-time job with Haddon Sundblom Studios, the creator of the now classic Coca-Cola Santa Claus.
Nitti also became a contributing illustrator for the Chicago Reader and Chicago Magazine. His self-starter personality led to his diversifying into larger work in restaurants and bars. “I did Gordon’s and L’Alexander’s”the first trompe l’oeil interior in Chicago,” he says. “And also Arnie’s and other Rush Street establishments.” In addition to being hired by Chicago personalities like Gordon Sinclair and Arnie Morton, he also worked with the internationally-acclaimed photographer Victor Skrebneski.
When his partner died, Nitti sought a change. With dot.com businesses beginning to flourish, he went west to the Seattle area. One of his more interesting projects there was illustrating airplanes. “I illustrated three jets for Boeing,” he explains. “Boeing had smaller private planes that they used to ferry important people to ski lodges and benefits and such.” He also spent 13 months working on a church, including a basilica.
As in Chicago, Nitti quickly put his signature touch on the city”at the Seattle Science Center and popular dining establishments like Jazz Ellie and Deux Tamales. The western location led Nitti to branch out to projects in California, as his reputation grew. But he longed for his Chicago home.
“I started really hating the drive,” says Nitti. “You have to drive for such a long time to get anywhere. And the houses and architecture in Beverly Hills are not nearly as interesting as in Chicago.”
Sweet home, Chicago
When he was offered a plum assignment in Chicago, he moved back. Nitti is currently re-creating a Gold Coast mansion for the creator of Kitty Litter. Working with the inventor’s wife, herself an accomplished artist, Nitti is transforming the 25-foot walls surrounding the backyard into a classic French street scene, complete with cats.
In line with his artistic training, Nitti creates a four-color mock up the finished design. “It actually ends up being a small work of art”a painting that I can then keep as a sample of what I’ve created,” he explains.
People often feel they can’t afford a high-end artist like Nitti to decorate their homes, but he says they’d be surprised. “People are paying $65 an hour for a house painter. I almost always charge by the entire project, not by the hour,” he notes.
To help people protect their investment, Nitti has painted scenery on flooring that can be applied as seamlessly as a skin to the floor. When clients change their minds and want to redecorate, or change season, they can roll up the artwork and store it away for another time.
Nitti now lives in Forest Park. “I’m right off Madison Street”it has changed so much. I had no idea,” he says. Never one to sit still, he’s collaborating with his friend who owns the house in redecorating it. “I have to paint everyday,” he says. “It gives me creative energy.
Nitti’s work can be seen at many area businesses ranging from Ferrara Pan to doctor offices. Mary DiSomma, an ankle and foot surgeon in Oak Park, liked the trompe l’oeil Nitti created in her professional office so much that she commissioned him to paint her daughter’s bedroom.
“He’s an absolute master,” says Berni. “You just look at his work and you are in the painting, far, far away from reality. You’re just there.”