San Marco USA studio, located in the Summerour building in Midtown Atlanta

In Atlanta, the door to San Marco — a purveyor of natural paints, plasters, and cements — is propped open all day, welcoming a never-ending stream of visitors.  An architect brings his cabinetmaker by for a demonstration of their wood varnish.   A young couple pops in to report how beautifully their bungalow’s paint job turned out.  A flooring contractor spends several mornings perfecting a lime-washed effect for his client’s hardwood floors.   I, too, have become a regular visitor; first drawn in by their limestone stucco, the discovery of all these other eco-friendly, high-performance and surprisingly affordable finish materials from Italy has me “just stopping by” for my own impromptu tutorials.

San Marco USA owners Chris Lewis (above right) and Mike Aiken are very gracious about these interruptions, viewing each as an opportunity to share their knowledge and passion for old world construction methods and materials.  After 25 years in Italy building houses, Chris returned to the United States three years ago with a new perspective on building science and what it means to be sustainable.

“The Italians have been building breathable, naturally-insulated, long-lasting homes since Roman times,” says Chris.  “The paints, plasters and cements they use today have the exact same ingredients responsible for the longevity of the Pantheon!”

Even though he was living la bella vita abroad, Chris felt a strong pull to introduce these products to the American market, currently dominated by petroleum-based paints and Co2-emitting Portland Cement.  He partnered with the Italian manufacturer San Marco to create San Marco USA, importing their natural limestone plasters, mineral paints, and low-VOC metal and wood finishes.

Mike Aiken demonstrating the cleanability of the Domus paint using potato chip grease

Mike joined the company shortly after he and his wife used San Marco’s potassium silicate paint Domus, in their home renovation.  Derived from a type of rock containing sodium silicate (which forms 90% of the earth’s crust), the minerals in the paint actually calcify to the material it is painted on to create an integrated stain. The Aiken’s were so impressed with its beautiful, toxin-free finish that Mike approached Chris about becoming partners in his endeavor.  The daily routine, creating custom colors for San Marco’s designer devotees and teaching application techniques to new disciples like me looks a lot different for this former commercial leasing agent.  “Trust me, this is much more fun,” he assures me, “Crazy busy but fun!”

Colors for their paints, stuccos and interior plasters are created the old-fashioned way, by eye and color theory.

All fun aside, making a positive impact on environmental and human health through sustainable building products is the real motivation for these guys.  The key to getting more and more people on board, says Mike, is to offer the consumer a green equivalent that works even better for the same price.  “This is why I was so taken by the potassium silicate paint.  Besides being a beautiful finish, our eggshell is biodegradable, exceeds EEC standards (European regulations that are far more restrictive on toxic ingredients than in the U.S.), is extremely durable and costs only $30 a gallon.  Not even the best latex paint on the market can compete with this paint!

Peruse the San Marco USA website for a wealth of information, covering the history of architectural finishes from 400BC to the present. (It’s like getting a peek into Chris’s encyclopedic brain!) Or better yet, just stop by for your own hands-on lesson.  The door to San Marco is always open.

Photo Credits: Lisa Vail.