At the Alley Gallery of Evanston, the shop's motto is "we frame the unframe-able." Indeed, the store's online project gallery shows that they're capable of mounting anything for display, from war medals to a glass-beaded flapper dress that was worn by the customer's grandmother during the 1920s. No matter the object or artwork, the staff uses the highest quality materials and do it all by hand.
"We frame everything by hand in-house," co-owner Ross Martens said. "We cut mats, glass and join frames by hand. No computerized cutting. We also don't frame with some 'new' materials such as polystyrene frames, since they are cheap and unforgiving to work with."
The Alley Gallery, so named because it is located, literally, in an alley on Sherman Avenue, was founded in 1985 by local legend Chris Molloy. Much beloved by his workers and customers, Malloy's simple business philosophy to provide museum quality custom framing and have fun doing it lives on today through Martens and his staff. Malloy was a mentor to his employees, artists, craftspeople, and even members of the nearby Lookingglass Theater. After he passed away in 2010, his employees took over the business.
"We apprenticed with him for 10 years," Martens said. "He was like a dad to us in many ways!" Martens himself has been a framer at the shop for 20 years.
Not only does Malloy's commitment to quality framing and customer service live on through the shop's staff today but another part of his life is a prominent fixture at the Alley Gallery: his vibrant green and yellow Amazon parrot, Jessica.
"Jessica has been here since the store opened in 1985," Martens said. "She was born to a parrot breeder that same year and has lived in the shop ever since. She's a wonderful friend to have around. She loves children and says 'hello' when folks walk in the door."
Martens and the current staff all have backgrounds in art, whether it's photography, painting, or print making, and all believe in encouraging a customer's creativity when choosing framing materials in addition to offering guidance. The store is decorated with thousands of prints that traverse centuries of art history, prompting many customers to say they stepping through the front door is like stepping back in time.
Last year the store added a new feature: the Saw Room, designed to showcase the work of local artists. Recent exhibitions included landscape paintings, portraits, and drawings. The area is a conversation starter for customers and is introducing new ones to the framing shop.
"The Saw Room Exhibition Space has been open since May 2016, so it's a fresh project for us," Martens said. "We know so many artists in the area, and being artists ourselves, we thought it would be a perfect fit. We feature Evanston and Chicago-area artists and all kinds of mediums."No matter the artwork or object to be framed, Martens and his staff want it to shine, not the actual frame itself.
"Our designers are guided by one philosophy: Let the artwork to do the talking, not the frame design," he said. "When your guests say, 'Wow, what beautiful artwork!' rather than 'Wow, what beautiful framing,' you know it's a success."