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Framing Treasure: Clint Downing on Elevator Rides and Artistic Motivation

September 29, 2016

If you could write the description for your dream job, what would it say?  Would it include riding on top of a New York City apartment elevator while carrying a 150-inch Robin Rhode piece?  How about suspending soy seeds in clear resin to form images?  For Clint Downing, events like these are just another day in the office.

In 2008, Clint founded Downing Frames in a one-room studio in Brooklyn after a photographer came to him and said, “I wish you could do this.”  “I can do this,” Clint thought to himself, and the rest is history.  What is that history, you ask?  It includes expanding into a 19,500 square foot facility in Long Island City, making only the highest-quality custom frames, and boasting a client list featuring over 70  prominent artists and galleries.

Before opening his own business, Clint had amassed nearly two decades of experience in framing at Axelle Fine Arts, City Frames, and Baobab Frames.  Even in his success, he’s never lost sight of the simple mission that delighted and inspired him in the first place: creating frames that not only protect, but complement objects that people cherish.  He’ll make frames for anyone because he cares about everyone.  A passion for helping the art world is what keeps him motivated every day.  Why else would you ride on top of an elevator?

We met up with Clint to find out more about the inspiration behind his business.

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1.There usually comes a time of reflection in a person’s career when they have an “I’ve finally made it” moment. Can you remember the first time this happened to you?

The first time I saw Matthew Barney’s name on my caller ID, I felt pretty special. He is one of my favorite artists, and to work with him was total reassurance I had, in part, made it. Also, seeing our frames on display at the Met for the first time, one of the best-known institutions in NYC and otherwise, was a really exciting moment.

2. After having worked at a highly regarded framing company, what gave you the courage and confidence to go out on your own and start Downing Frames?

Richard, a photographer, needed a job done and my boss at the time was too expensive for his budget. Richard said to me, “I wish you could do this, I really like your work” and I thought, “I can do this,” so I did.  One 15-hour day later, I had completed a job on my own.  I think many business start in small ways like this.

3. It seems that music has played a very important role in your life. What is the difference of being in that universe versus being in the art universe?

In my personal experience, I have a lot more control in the art universe. Music, inherently, is more of a collaborative experience when you are not a front in a band. Framing is also a collaboration, but I am able to set the standard from one clear vision at Downing Frames. I prefer less cooks in the kitchen when hard decisions need to be made.

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4. People in the framing industry could almost be considered the “unsung heroes of the art world.” Do you take pride in knowing that without the products you create, the art being displayed would be taken differently?

I feel as though we get a lot of praise and thank you’s from our clients on all levels.  Galleries, artists, and collectors value our work alike.  In many ways you are right, though.  We are often hidden from the end of the line but I really enjoy our positioning in the industry.  It allows us to grow faster and develop exciting ways to help art world. With that said, we will make frames for anyone.  I love creating beautiful frames for objects that people cherish.

5. When developing your frames, which type of woods do you prefer to use, and what advantages do these woods bring to your frames?

Maple is what we most commonly use. It has a very tight grain pattern that remains completely smooth during finishing. It also works well with stains and lacquers. We also use walnut, ash, white oak, mahogany, cherry and red oak. All beautiful choices with different, but beautiful grain character and staining ability.  All of our wood is sustainably harvested form Canadian forest as well. We try and stay away from popular South American woods for ethical reasons.

6. Downing Frames has quickly gained a reputation for making quality, crafted products. What are some of the most elaborate and detailed projects you have worked on?

Kate Steciw specifically comes to mind regarding elaborate projects. Her work often involves cut-outs and three dimensional surfaces, and the frame is often woven into the concept behind each piece. Observers typically note this when describing her work, so the pressure is on when it comes to Kate! Each piece is a photographic, acrylic, and wooden wall-mounted sculpture. http://higherpictures.com/exhibitions/kate-steciw/  Also, Letha Wilson and I have developed a great relationship working out designs together and integrating metal work into the wooden frames as sculptural elements with her folded photography.  I love this work.  http://www.lethaprojects.com/

7. It hasn’t been 10 years since Downing Frames was created, and yet you’ve experienced great success and rapid growth in a short period of time. What does the future look like for you and your company, and how do you keep the ball rolling?

We stay fresh by adding more services and digging deeper into our current process. We are excited to be opening a 3000 sq ft photo studio in the fall. In addition to many more services, we are going to continue with our superior customer service. Our client relationships are the most important factor to us.

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8. Being in a business that involves a lot of creativity, what are some of the craziest projects and concepts that people have asked you to do?

I was once hired as a consultant to ride on top of an elevator with a 150” Robin Rhodes piece. The piece had to fit through a small space at the apartment and it barely fit. It was pretty nerve racking.  Another time, we made very large resin pours with Monsanto soy seeds for Artie Vierkant, and had images behind the corn suspended in layers of resin. http://artievierkant.com/

9. You have the unique ability to have a functional business while still being able to be creative. How much of your job is work and how much of it is fun?

I’m always having fun in some way. I’ve reached the point where I no longer stress about the things I used to stress about. I have an incredibly talented and dedicated group of skilled employees here.  They make my life more carefree than when I started.  This gives me the freedom to be more creative using all our unique talents and that is very fun for me!

10. You work with many incredible artists who have an extremely large following around the world. Have you ever received business from someone and thought “I can’t believe I’m working with this person?”

David La Chapelle, Hauser & Wirth, and David Zwirner come to mind. Sometimes that feeling also comes from the level of trust and involvement artists and clients give to us. Its a very involved process. In fact, we are adding a client-facing studio to help us work more collaboratively as part of our expansion.  

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