Made in Sarasota

By staff April 1, 2004

Walking into Gary Shapiro's office on Northgate Boulevard, you can't resist looking up-and gasping. That's exactly the reaction Shapiro, owner of Florida Custom Ceilings & Walls Inc., hopes for when clients first glimpse the gorgeous examples of tin tiles that adorn the ceilings of his office. From this 10,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and showroom, Shapiro's staff makes and installs beautiful hand-painted tin ceilings in every hue and 18 patterns.

"Our goal is to bring back an era and offer design drama to people's ceilings," says company president Christopher Caccia. "Ceilings have been a forgotten area for a long time; now, people are starting to design from the top down."

With gleaming metals and rich woods, Florida Custom Ceilings & Walls Inc. transforms bland ceilings and empty alcoves into stunning focal points. For one client, Shapiro and Caccia beautified the white popcorn of a hallway ceiling with cherry paneling and brushed antique copper. In another house, in a tray ceiling within an octagonal alcove, Shapiro and Caccia installed muted gold tiles and a hammered filler on the border, creating a spectacular effect resembling a massive golden flower blooming above guests' heads. A more conservative client asked for brushed antique copper and mahogany beams, while contemporary furnishings worked perfectly with the black lacquer and stainless steel finish that another client requested.

Shapiro started the company in Sarasota about a year ago, and within a year, he and Caccia had opened offices in Boca Raton and Naples to cater to clients all over the country. Shapiro explains that tin ceilings began as colonial nouveau riche attempts in New Zealand and South Africa to recreate European Venetian plastering techniques. New Zealanders made theirs out of hammered copper, but in New York City in 1870, artisans figured out how to make the panels out of thin rolled steel-what we now call tin plate. The ceilings provided good insulation and were an excellent fire retardant, especially for apartments above department stores, but turn-of-the-century American wives loved them for their beautiful patterns.

The ornate style fell from popularity with post-World War II modern brides, but the recent love for all things retro has propelled the look back into vogue, says Shapiro. Now, he and Caccia are busy filling orders for some of Sarasota's most prominent builders who are integrating the ceilings into model homes and design centers. Although there are other firms in the country that press patterns on tin, Caccia claims that his company is the only one that custom-designs and hand paints the tile with three coats of $115-a-quart automotive paint and-if you live in Florida-installs them also.

The company just installed tin ceilings in a Palm Beach home that hosted President George Bush, but you don't have to be a millionaire to afford one: A rough cost estimate is $1,500 for a 12-by-14 white tin ceiling with crown molding. Thanks to an innovation the Sarasota company pioneered-the snap lock-these ceilings have become a more affordable option. Until now, tin ceilings could be installed in one of two ways: the "drop-in" method, putting up an artificial grid to which the tiles are attached; and the "nail-up" method, attaching the tiles to a plywood base, which is attached to the ceiling. Both are time-consuming and expensive, so Shapiro came up with the snap-lock system that allows anyone to install the tiles by locking them to each other using flanges and then screwing them up directly on to drywall. And the results, he says, are well worth the trouble.

"Each ceiling is like a snowflake," says Caccia. "No individual is the same. Depending on how the light hits them, you have a new ceiling every day."

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