Eugene Orlandini, owner of Orlandini Studios in Walker's Point, 633 W. Virginia St., is the third generation of Orlandinis to create decorative plaster work, repair ornamental plaster and make new pieces from original or vintage molds passed down from family members who preceded him in the trade.
In 1918, Matthew Orlandini – Eugene's grandfather, an Italian immigrant who moved from Italy to New Jersey when he was 9 years old – started working with plaster. As a young man, Matthew left the East Coast for Minneapolis in search of employment. On the way, he found a job at a plaster outfit in Milwaukee and worked on pieces for the Eagles Ballroom, which was then being built.
"Then he went to a dance, met a cute German girl named Ruth, fell in love and the rest is history," says Eugene.
In 1936, Matthew's son, Julian – Eugene's uncle – joined the business.
Originally, Orlandini Studios was inside a leased space on 5th and Scott, but the building was demolished in the early '60s when the freeway was constructed.
Matthew and Julian considered quitting the business because, at the time, plaster work was no longer popular. Home and business owners were opting to hang dropped ceilings over ornate plasterwork to achieve what was considered a more "modern" appearance at the time.
"They were barely making it. They asked themselves, 'should we hang it up and get straight jobs?' But they decided to keep doing it," says Orlandini.
In 1964, Matthew and Julian purchased the Virginia Street building. Julian completely remodeled it and opened the new Orlandini Studios on Aug. 1, 1965.
Julian was never married nor had any children so he taught Eugene and his brother the art and craft of plaster. Eugene started working in the studio at age 13 during his summer vacation as an apprentice. After graduating from Cudahy High School, he started working full time, and this summer, he will celebrate 30 years in the business.
"I was around this place since I was a wee little kid," says Orlandini, who today lives with his wife, Shelly, in a nearby home.
Orlandini is potentially preserving the future of the family business by sharing his skills with his nieces and nephew who even have their own work aprons.
"They've gotten old enough now that I took the knot out of the apron neck string (to make it shorter)," he says, a tad wistfully.
Orlandini creates both fine art and functional plaster pieces, including crown moldings, ceiling medallions, statuary and columns. The business can accommodate every step of the process: from drawing a design to making it out of clay to creating a mold to casting the pieces and to finally installing it.
"People think plaster work is only in huge mansions, but it works in everything from a ranch home to The Pabst Theater," he says. "Of course, I'm a little biased."
Orlandini pieces are also available on eBay and through the studio's website.
"My wife is kicking me into the 21st century, which is good, and so I have a website. And we're on Facebook. I'm getting better," says Orlandini.
Most recently, Orlandini did restoration work at The Plaza Hotel and, in the past, at the Cafe at the Plaza inside the hotel. He has also completed jobs at The Pabst Theater, Wisconsin Historical Society, Central Library and The Oriental Theater.
A few years ago, when The Oriental Theater expanded its concessions stand, Orlandini made plaster elephants to adorn the new stand along with new air vents for the theater lobby.
"We do a little bit of everything," he says. "A lot of our pieces are all over Milwaukee."
Matthew and Julian worked on the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, which originally opened as the Performing Arts Center in 1969.
Orlandini is starting to explore the medium of cement, as well. His grandfather worked with cement a lot, but his uncle wasn't as interested, so Eugene is learning more about it on his own. The two materials are quite different.
"Cement can sit outside for a very long time and it's fine. It can handle weather. Plaster, no matter how well you paint it or treat it, will eventually start to decompose, get craggy and slowly vanish from existence," he says.
Cement work dries on its own, sometimes with the help of fans, and then can be painted or left unpainted.
"I work with some very talented painters and I'm envious of their abilities. I'm horrible with colors. But then again, I've been around a world of white for most of my life," he says.
Consequently, because of the dust factor, Eugene also wears a lot of white clothing.
"People say, 'you look like you're about to deliver some ice cream,'" he says. "I just need a different hat."
It's dusty work, but Orlandini says it's not a job that's hazardous to his health. He says that plaster dust, unlike coal dust or asbestos, is dispelled by the lungs.
"My grandfather and uncle both smoked a good portion of their lives, but they quit and when they died, despite their trade, had 'happy lungs,'" says Orlandini, who still occasionally wears a dust mask while working.
Orlandini has created thousands of pieces, but when asked which is his favorite, he laughs.
"That's a really hard question. It's like asking what's your favorite song," he says.
Orlandini Studio will be open for Spring Gallery Night and Day, April 19-20. Guests will be able to check out his studio and work as well as cast a small plaster piece of their own.
Orlandini encourages people to stop by any time.
"I have an open-door policy here. I just ask people call before they come but we welcome visitors and the curious," he says.
The studio participates in Historic Milwaukee's Doors Open program – which is next scheduled for Sept. 21-22, 2013 – and displays work in the cultural tent at Festa Italiana.
Orlandini says he and Shelly have debated for years whether he's an artist or a craftsperson.
"She says I'm an artist; I usually say 'tradesman,' but I guess I'm a little bit of both," he says.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.