Rafael Arana’s Illustrated World Beautifies Interiors

A San Francisco artist draws on his entire experience to transform interiors and walls.

IN ESSENCE, muralist Rafael Arana’s innate talent for beautifying spaces parallels what his Salvadoran parents do for a living: housekeeping and window washing.

“I knew nothing about the design world,” he says. But, born and raised in San Francisco alongside his two sisters, this 30-year old was always drawn to doodling.

Encouraged by teachers in grade school, “I saw that I could be an artist. I saw that it was possible,” he says.

He went on to study art at UC Santa Cruz and, armed with a degree, he looked forward to being a fine art painter — until a serendipitous introduction to interior designer Ken Fulk’s home-staging business in 2012 spun him into a different, wider world.

A forest scene for a master bathroom in Vail.
A forest scene for a master bathroom in Vail.

For a year he churned out small pieces to be hung in houses that were for sale, as well as “little canvases for kids’ rooms,” Arana says. “Then, slowly my mentors, Daryl Serrett and Philip Buscemi in the interior design department for Ken Fulk Inc., invited me to help with murals. That is how Ken noticed me.” Arana was hired full time in 2013; within a year he became one of several in-house artists and the only muralist and was called on for a range of skillful work, including concept drawings and painted furniture.

“My first big project was painting a mural Ken designed for his dining room in Provincetown,” Arana says. It was supposed to be sketched, approved, enlarged, transferred to the plaster walls and painted in two weeks, but even though he labored on it 16 hours every day, completion took three weeks.

Still, Fulk loved it, and more than a dozen other eclectic, unusual projects followed. For Three Sticks Winery in Sonoma, Arana painted an exterior mural to celebrate General Mariano Vallejo, who was responsible for some of Sonoma County’s first adobe structures; the on-site Vallejo-Castaneda Adobe, built by the general’s brother Salvador Vallejo, has a rich Mexican/ American past that bilingual Arana knows well.

a mural depicting General Mariano Vallejo
A mural depicting General Mariano Vallejo and his horse at the Three Sticks Winery in Sonoma.
A linear work for the Coltrain Gym
A linear work for the Coltrain Gym.

The general and his horse, rendered in a doodling, linear style, are among the artist’s favorites. In the winery’s powder room he painted a colorful pattern of thistles that drew inspiration from the design of a Timorous Beasties wallpaper that would have been impossible to glue onto the undulating surfaces. Drawing in black-and-white against textured adobe comes naturally to Arana, but is not something he gets to do often. “I also work on fine troweled plaster in more rendered styles,” he says.

For instance, in a master bathroom for a house in Vail, Arana painted a moody forest scene with realistic and stylized animals. In San Francisco at Fulk’s Saint Joseph’s Arts Society, in a chapel-turned-banquet-room, he conjured a monochromatic “Roman-style temple surrounded by a California country landscape, to provide a peaceful feeling when you walk in.” A mural depicting neon signs evoking graffiti artist Drew Straker and a hallway decoupage of simulated comic-book pages “light up” the walls of Detour, a new San Francisco bar.

Arana’s mural for a dining room at Ken Fulk’s Saint Joseph’s Arts Society in San Francisco
Arana’s mural for a dining room at Ken Fulk’s Saint Joseph’s Arts Society in San Francisco

“Usually a designer has a vision for the artwork and I come up with a sketch on paper or on an iPad,” says Arana, who has become proficient with Procreate software. Although the final design is usually transferred using a grid onto a prepared or primed surface, sometimes he prefers to draw it freehand. In almost every case, though, Arana uses acrylic wall paint from Precita Eyes, his go-to brand because it has a wide range of fade-resistant colors and dries faster than oil paint.

However, one 2015 showcase project, for a House Beautiful kitchen-of-the-year in New Orleans, had to be done in record time, forcing him to find a new medium. He discovered colored pastels. He completed the pastel drawings on textured canvas-like wallpaper in San Francisco; they were then shipped and swiftly installed, with only a little seam touch-up needed at the other end.

“Normally my murals start with a drawing, but here the drawing was the finished piece,” he marvels, thrilled with that development.

Arana at work.
Arana at work.

Last year, armed with his bigger toolkit and years of experience, Arana set out alone. Based in Los Angeles, he has become an itinerant muralist up and down the coast, and new names on his client roster include Bay Area interior designers Kimberly Rider and Marie Fisher.

Ever versatile, he is happy to bend to a client’s vision but increasingly finds himself leaning toward a surrealist style inspired by Salvador Dali, the surfer/graffiti artist Barry McGee and other creative heroes. Sometimes his lines even resemble those of contemporary Bay Area muralist Zio Ziegler, whose work he admires, and while he hones his craft, he keeps on learning.

“My parents pushed education a lot because they were stripped away from their own when they left El Salvador. For the longest time I was doing well in school just for them,” Arana says. “But now, it is also for me.”

This article originally appeared in Spaces print edition with the headline: “Rafael Arana’s New World”.

Zahid Sardar

Editor-in-chief Zahid Sardar brings an extensive range of design interests and keen knowledge of Bay Area design culture to SPACES magazine. He is a San Francisco editor, curator and author specializing in global architecture, interiors, landscape and industrial design. His work has appeared in numerous design publications as well as the San Francisco Chronicle for which he served as an influential design editor for 22 years. Sardar serves on the San Francisco Decorator Showcase design advisory board.