by Becky Hurley

Colorado Springs

Founded: 2005

Founders: Chris and Michelle Lobato

Employees: 4 to 6

Chris Lobato’s built-environment artistry involves custom materials and a commitment to train a new generation of old world makers

What’s old is new again, at least for one Front Range company. Chris Lobato and Old World Designs bring the artistry of ancient Italian plasters and architectural limestone to a modern audience, hungry for distinctive finishes and forms.

Authentic seasoned slaked lime Venetian plaster is the company’s primary finishing material, imported from Trieste, Italy via a West Coast supplier. Plaster layers are applied either to a wet or dry base, depending on the desired outcome. Lobato’s technique and expertise, honed since 2005, has earned his company awards and recognition in a number of million dollar Parade of Homes entries.

As a result, the firm’s overhead is less about equipment and materials costs and more about human capital.

Clients are usually surprised when they discover the amount of time required to achieve a desired result. Pointing to his two key tools of the trade – a trowel and a spatula — Lobato says high-quality finishes are achieved through careful, layered application. That means newly trained employees must learn not only to mix Venetian plaster, but also to recognize how differing degrees of dryness or tackiness yield varying results.

To plaster each wall and ceiling in a Southern Colorado ranch home and guesthouse, for example, took 10 weeks with a crew of six. That’s a far cry from the three or four days it would take to simply paint the walls.

But the result is worth it.

“Our work on the ranch property was a total of maybe 4,000 square feet, with 12,000 square feet of plastering, but the ranch and guest house remodel made it worth about a $2 million by the time we finished,” Lobato says, adding that while the materials may be “old world,” how the material is used is often fresh and contemporary.

And small projects often grow into bigger ones.

Old World Designs has worked for clients in a number of mountain ski resorts as well as for upscale Denver clients. Last year Lobato’s crew added a patina’d limestone to the exterior of an exclusive Cherry Hills Village home. Once the owner saw the potential for improved curb appeal and property value, he asked Lobato’s team to do even more, resulting in a $100,000 project.

“That happens a lot,” Michelle Lobato says.

Another increasingly popular Old World Designs product is cast limestone mantelpieces, tables and trims. Prior to casting, exact measurements and specifications are input, using CAD software. Architectural drawings are then used to build a mold for the liquid limestone mix.

Samples of each are on display in the company’s new showroom.

“We’re in a visual business. A lot of people just couldn’t understand how a polished Venetian plaster or custom cast limestone columns would look in their homes so we bring them here,” Lobato says, adding that he maintains a backshop and warehouse nearby.

In January Old World Design was awarded the contract to provide interior finishes for the Broadmoor Hotel’s new Ristorante del Lago and for remodeled interior suites in its West hotel building. Lobato, himself, will lead the project team, but will enlist several talented new employees as well.

But finding those with the patience, knowledge and flair for the job isn’t easy. Lobato recently met with officials opening a new trade school at a charter school in Colorado Springs. He looks forward to working hand-in-hand with his young students, helping them prepare for a potential career and for work in a specialized field.

“My goal this year is to train a dozen Venetian plaster finishers. With everything we have going on, we’ll need them,” he says.

Opportunities: “Our opportunities – like our challenges — are the same: to find the right people who are willing to learn a new skill and become proficient. It’s difficult, especially working with Venetian plaster, a very durable material if hard to master.

Challenges: In addition to finding good people, it’s reaching high-end home clients and builders. What we do is very specialized, almost architectural in nature.

Needs: Increased visibility. In addition to building a showroom for our clients, we are also updating our website.