This spring, tenants and invited guests who attended a reception at Mt. Lebanon Office Suites, 731 Washington Road, got their first look at 12 original pieces of hand-painted art, each stylistically unique. The murals, designed and painted by decorative artist Jennifer Rempel are located in—of all places—the building’s restrooms. Nadine Bognar, owner of the building and a well-known patron of the arts spearheaded the project, affirming that art can be found in unexpected places.
Clients of the businesses that make the building their workplace—an attorney, a consultant, a dentist, a therapist, a podiatrist, a hairdresser, a physician, a travel agency and, of course, the employees of Bognar and Company, will enjoy the murals, perhaps discovering something new each time they take a break from their desks or work spaces.
Conceptualizing 12 murals that complement the colors and patterns of each restroom’s tile and inventing designs that run around wall mirrors, metal stalls, and plumbing fixtures posed challenges for the artist. “I considered the wall you see upon entry,” Rempel says. “I considered what you’d see when you entered a stall, the view from the stall, and of course, the visual environment you’d experience when standing in front of the mirrors.”
It’s a remarkable achievement. (Admittedly, I’m biased; Jennifer is my sister. Her incredible drawing ability has been evident since she was old enough to hold a pencil.) But I am not alone in my admiration.
Rempel has worked all over the country creating murals, trompe l’oeil works and faux finishes for both corporate and residential clients through her company, Fine Art On Commission. Her work is featured on the PBS television program, Pennsylvania Train Stations, Restored and Revitalized. Some notable commissions include six murals and complementary wall finishes for the Alcoa Corporate Center, a triptych of classical paintings of Michelangelo sculptures at Pittsburgh International Airport, and a 70-foot landscape mural for Woodside Plantation in South Carolina.
Bognar met Rempel through interior designer Anne Genter, who recommended Rempel for several projects in Bognar’s home. Impressed with the work, Bognar offered Rempel the opportunity to design the 12 restroom murals. She had planned to update the restrooms, removing and reinstalling the wallpaper, but was intrigued with the possibilities murals might offer.
“I am so grateful for her trust and confidence in my abilities,” says Rempel. “She trusted me to be creative and artistic.”
The project began in May 2013 with Rempel sketching male and female faces for the exteriors of the restroom doors in the bas-relief style found in the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan. Based upon Jennifer’s drawings, local sculptor Susan Wagner created the molds from which the brass plaques were cast.
The restroom doors are gateways into 12 imaginatively themed painted spaces, each representing a specific time period. Mrs. Bognar’s beloved poodles found their way into the designs, cleverly incorporated into painted environments ranging from primitive cave wall art to an homage to Andy Warhol’s fashion illustrations to a Japanese landscape that extends gracefully out to sea from the mirror above the restroom sink.
Bognar is delighted with the results. “Jennifer came up with the concepts and the designs, “ she says, “and I approved them. I was impressed with the variety of ideas she had for the project.”
“Designs such as these wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate for residential powder rooms,” Rempel says. “But here, in these public spaces, upon consecutive visits, visitors have the opportunity to see things in the paintings they may not have noticed.”
The second floor of the building displays artwork representing the city of Pittsburgh. So Jennifer carried that Pittsburgh theme into the restrooms with a cubist cityscape in one room, and an Andy Warhol tribute in another.
“When most people think of Andy Warhol, they think of his famous pop art—Campbell Soup cans and his Marilyn Monroe prints, “ says Rempel. “But early in his career Warhol was a fashion illustrator. When I found these wonderful shoe illustrations he had created, I thought I could incorporate them to convey a fun, Pittsburgh fashion theme in an unexpected way.”
Worldview Travel is located in the building’s lower lobby. Restrooms on this floor represent artists from popular travel destinations and gave Rempel a chance to share works of art from two artists she loves—France’s Claude Monet, Italy’s Leonardo DaVinci. “What I enjoy about my work is that it provides me the opportunity to incorporate great works of art from the past into contemporary settings. They’re classical images for everyday use,” Rempel says.
With many commissions, the artist never sees the work again after it is complete, but because each room took two to three weeks to paint, Rempel had a rare chance to revisit the completed murals with fresh eyes as the project evolved. “For instance, after having been away from the tulip room for some time, I realized they needed more contrast,” she says. “I went back and darkened some areas and highlighted others. It really made a significant improvement in the finished mural.”
Bognar offered to host an open house to show off the murals. “Jennifer’s work is remarkable,” she says. “The murals should have a larger audience. And I thought that an open house would be a fun way to give Jennifer the exposure she deserves.”
“I’m so grateful,” Rempel says. “I’ve never had a client make such a generous and thoughtful gesture.”
On the evening of the open house in April, the building was packed with visitors eager to see the murals. Local jazz singer Buster Maxwell fronted a first-rate jazz quintet and the Common Plea provided the food, as visitors admired the artist’s work.
“I’m familiar with Jennifer’s work,” said Ron Booth, “and these murals are just incredible.”
Kevin Dadey, who used to work for a firm in Mt. Lebanon Office Suites, was taken by the assortment of themes: “You go into one room and see this colorful array of high fashion hats, and the next room features cubist scenes of Pittsburgh, and a short distance away are primitive cave paintings. Wow!”
If you’d like to get that Wow effect, next time you visit a business or professional office at Mt. Lebanon Office Suites, be sure to ask for the key to the restroom. You’ll probably be there for much longer than you planned.