Is the age of the artist-craftsman coming to an end? Maybe not, judging by the skill and passion of these seven talented and successful artisans. They share many traits in common--their passion about their work, their insistence on perfection, their non-conformist view of the world. But, like the well-funded artists of the Italian Renaissance, they have learned how to make their hard work pay the bills. They embrace computer technology and automated tools, when the situation suits the purpose. They shun menial distractions (and menial clients) in favor of important lifestyle choices and people who respect their work. Most importantly, they refuse to follow a narrow definition of their place in the cosmos. That refusal pays off for all of us, because they bring beautiful detail and fine, unique objects to every home and client lucky enough to gain their services.
Like most professional designers, John N. White Jr. and Cynthia R. Sours are always on the lookout for unusual specifications that will make a bland space grand or increase the "wow" factor of their work. Finding these kinds of specs used to be easier to execute when they practiced in Europe for four years and standard products had custom-level quality. But when they were looking for copper sinks for projects here, they found that the pickings were slim.
"All the manufacturers were using stamped, thin copper that is mass produced," Sours says. So they did the next best thing: In 1999, they started making and marketing their own line of sinks. "The European experience led us to the idea of doing custom products," says Sours. "One of the reasons we started this line was our search to find something unique."
From their 3,500-square-foot architectural firm and metal studio just outside Atlanta, the duo designs and manufactures Cu Collection, a line of handmade and hand-finished copper sinks that includes eight different styles of vanity sinks with an optional wall bracket, one freestanding pedestal, and one apron-front kitchen sink. Priced from $749 to $3,500, the sinks come in five colors and are top coated with a clear gloss or satin baked-on finish that prevents the copper from further oxidation.
All of the sinks are handspun from heavy-gauge copper, rather than stamped from sheets as many other manufacturers do. "The sinks are really hard to make," says White, a registered architect. "They involve about 20 steps and require a minimum of about five hours per sink." A staff of three craftsmen do all of the work in-house, except for the complex task of spinning the copper, which the company outsources to a third party. The handspinning is one of the most difficult things to do and requires a highly trained expert, White explains, adding that there are very few companies in the United States that can do it.
It was probably no surprise that White and Sours started manufacturing some kind of product. While studying at Virginia Tech, the two architects embraced art and, in particular, sculpture as a means of understanding architecture, and they naturally gravitated toward metal design and fabrication. "Our background was in the notion that if you needed something, you could just make it, like the master builders," White says. "We thought we would just make products, because we love working with metal anyway."
In addition to the sinks, the architects also run their practice, Inox Designs, and the copper sinks dovetail nicely with the architecture that the firm produces. "A lot of our clients want to find something unique, and they like the idea of something different," Sours says. "There are a lot of people out there who are looking for products that they won't find next door."
Walter Moberg worships at the altar of the traditional 18th-century fireplace. He says that these classic structures have fallen out of favor, in part because their lessons are often ignored.
"The home has changed in terms of aerodynamics from homes of the 18th century," Moberg notes, "but there also has been a progressive decline in the skill with which we build fireplaces. Hundreds of thousands--if not millions--of fireplaces in this country are dysfunctional and subject to backdrafting. This has allowed for the fireplace to become thought of as a cold place, filling the room with smoke."
Moberg, who designs custom fireplaces for high-end homes and manufactures pre-fab components, says fireplaces get that bum rap because of several common design flaws including:
* No Cover. "What other part of the construction industry allows a 16-inch hole to ingest rain into the building? Chimneys should be covered. I just visited a palace in Italy with 400 chimneys, and every one was covered."
* Poor Placement. "Fireplaces used to be at the center of the home, not an outside wall. That can work if you use insulated masonry, but otherwise touching that chimney is like sticking your hand into a refrigerator [when the weather outside is cold]."
* Wrong Chimney Size. "The Europeans used to use adequate chimney heights and double brick construction. There's a lot to be learned from history. A properly proportioned fireplace will have a vigorous fire with no smoke spillage."
Moberg acknowledges that open, wood-burning fireplaces won't work in every home because they demand so much replacement air to function safely. But he adds that, by adding a glass door and designing the unit to draw combustion air from outside, even small homes can handle a wood-burning hearth.
He also embraces other technology, provided it doesn't negatively impact the look of his classic designs. For example, he's a big fan of stainless steel chimney liners.
"The metal ones won't fall apart in five or 10 years, like people think," he says. "They're a very positive development. They should last the life of the building."
What would be the ideal chimney liner? "Ceramic glass. The finest flues in the world are made with ceramic glass, but only a few of my billionaire clients use them. They're incredibly expensive."
New technologies and materials have allowed Moberg to take his design skills into uncharted territory. For example, he recently installed a chimney that had to run underneath a swimming pool before reaching for the sky.
But technology never outstrips design in one of Moberg's fireplaces. If it doesn't have the proper proportion and style for its environs, he won't build it.
"We have to look back with respect to the 18th century, when form and function peaked. Our design philosophy is to provide functional specifications so you can really build it that way, with a good relationship to the house but also with classical proportions and function."
When Eric Rattan was a home builder in Santa Fe, N.M., he discovered that he could use custom mosaic tile work and handmade doors as a way to differentiate his adobe homes from those of other builders in the area. The tile work proved popular, so realizing an opportunity, Rattan launched his own design studio to offer custom mosaics on a full-time basis.
"For a long time, when you went into a tile store, you were getting mass-produced variations on white," Rattan says. "It wasn't terribly interesting stuff. That's one of the reasons I got into making my own tile."
Today, Rattan is the president of Madison, Wis.-based Santa Fe Design Studio, a small five-person outfit that does custom designed mosaics and reproduction arts and craft tiles that were popular from 1890 to 1940. Custom one-of-a kind mosaic commissions, which constitute 50 percent of the studio's business, are handmade from scratch in ceramic or stone for applications such as "carpets" (the tile pattern looks like a carpet), fireplace surrounds, and backsplashes. Rattan often does site work for complex phases of installations that require an expert, since "some projects involve things like multi-colored grouting, which most tradesmen are not willing to take on because of its complexity," he says. Stock reproduction clay floor tiles make up the other half of the 23-year-old studio's work.
Mosaics and reproduction tiles are sold direct from the company and cost anywhere from $28 to $400 per square foot depending on size, complexity, and type of material. The studio ships each mosaic product on a mesh backing with installation instructions and technical information, while reproduction tiles also are sold through 10 specialty showrooms across the country.
Installing custom mosaic tile work as a feature in a house was easy, says Rattan, who in his career apprenticed with an Italian stone mason in Boston and studied ceramics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But selling tiles by themselves proved difficult.
"When I took off my tool belt and started marketing tiles as architectural art, it was a whole different experience," he says. "Frankly, at the beginning it was a tough sell without using the home as a crutch. I really had to learn again what it means to market a product."
But, thanks to a booming construction market, business is good. "We are in a good place," Rattan says, adding that demand for his product is high because people are yearning for one-of-a-kind products. "It's the return to handmade custom pieces, which disappeared from our tile market for nearly 50 years," he explains. "Because there is a revival of arts and crafts in general, the handmade tile market is following a wider pattern of resurgence of handmade products."
Remember the scene in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," when Richard Dreyfuss builds a mountain out of mashed potatoes? Here's a guy with that same kind of obsession, but his inner voice is the persistent pinging sound of hammer meeting anvil. A born blacksmith.
Meet Jefferson Mack. Former rock 'n' roll techie for the B52s, former well-paid construction manager, former playboy banging around Morocco looking for fun, and a born artist. How can you tell? Because he passed the litmus test: He gave up the comfortable life most of us cling to in exchange for his art--to work at a sweaty, smoky job for $8 an hour at a blacksmith shop with a grumpy boss.
"That was when I was about 38," Mack recalls. "He was hard to work with, but I did a year there and saw the kind of stuff that could be done."
Later, in the midst of the dot-com boom, Mack moved to San Francisco, obtained a small business loan to purchase a building, and set up shop. His wife created a marketing blitz, hawking his custom metal work to the region's vast demographic of nouveau-riche homeowners.
Now his reputation has crossed the Pacific. "I just made a $100,000 bronze entry door and shipped it to Hong Kong," he boasts. "And we just finished a forged and cast railing for a $12 million house. Our part of that project cost $160,000."
Of course, Mack also creates a wide range of smaller items, from furniture to forged switchplates to antique tools, but it's clear that his passion as both an artisan and an entrepreneur is most stirred by one-of-a-kind pieces.
"I used to do free design consultations, but now I charge about $2,500. Before I started charging I used to sense five red flags in the first five minutes with the customer, but this really works as a way to screen them."
"I was a jewelry major in college," Mack adds. "I've just always wanted to do metalwork. My mother blames herself for buying me nuts and bolts to play with. Over the years, I was always trying to get the tools together for blacksmithing."
With that dream realized, Mack has reached the top of his mountain and is relishing the view.
By sheer coincidence, the lives of Olympia, Wash.-based craftsman V. Michael Ashford and famed Arts and Crafts pioneer Dirk van Erp have weird parallels.
Van Erp, who became famous for his copper lamps and small furniture, labored at a San Francisco shipyard when he began working with metal forms in the Arts and Crafts style; Ashford was a boat builder when he discovered the world of Arts and Crafts. Van Erp arrived at his handmade designs through a slow process of trial and error; Ashford is a self-taught copper smith who produced his first van Erp-style lamp after a slow process of trial and error. Van Erp established Dirk van Erp Studios in San Francisco in 1910 to produce lamps with hammered copper bases and mica shades; Ashford in 1988 set up Evergreen Studios as a one-man operation that produces pieces from hammered copper and translucent mica in the tradition of van Erp and noted Arts and Crafts furniture maker Gustav Stickley.
To be sure, Ashford was attracted to Arts and Crafts for the beauty and workmanship of the pieces. On a boat, he says, you can see the same beauty in the exposed joints of the beams and case work. Using his carpentry skills and a book he found on Stickley designs, Ashford felt confident that he could make the same furniture he had read about. "My first piece was a Stickley coffee table," he says. "Then I started building other pieces of furniture on a part-time basis." After four months, Ashford quit his job as an office supply salesman and began making furniture full time. Disappointed with the drawer pulls for his furniture, he started working in metal to make his own.
With his growing proficiency in metal work and his confidence in building things, Ashford turned his attention to the light fixtures and lamps he had seen in books. His first shade under his belt, Ashford graduated to the more complicated pieces such as a van Erp lamp and soon he was making sconces, lamps, and accessories.
Evergreen Studios is housed in a small 32-by-32-foot studio in Olympia. "Things are cozy, but I cannot grow any bigger unless I can get a bigger shop," he says. Ashford and his staff of three produce a stock line of made-to-order products from flat sheets of copper that go through various rounds of hammering, annealing, and cleaning before they are given a chestnut brown patina. The lines include 13 table and floor lamps, 27 ceiling fixtures and chandeliers, and 18 wall sconces, and may include amber mica, silver mica, frosted glass, or art glass shades. Some pieces include wood. About one-third of the requests are for custom pieces, and while most are in the Arts and Crafts tradition, some can be classified as art deco.
Today, highly prized van Erp lamps fetch a pretty penny in the antique market. In 1999, a copper-and-mica lamp sold at auction for $159,500. Against those prices, products from Evergreen Studios seem like a downright bargain at $275 for a hanging pendant to $11,000 for a 46-inch-diameter hanging fixture with nine lanterns. Though the studio's pieces can be found in select lighting showrooms, most are sold directly from the company.
A frightening, life-changing experience steered this former builder back toward his artistic center.
There's something exhilarating about talking to a man who lives every minute like it could be his last. In that rarified state, his choices hold special significance. Given the same prognosis, what would you do? Would you take a sledgehammer to the mundane aspects of your life to make way for the profound?
Ten years ago, while working as a home builder, Danny Smith did just that. When doctors told him he had a brain tumor and urged him to stop doing work that required bending over, he didn't panic. Instead, he returned to his passion for art and wood carving.
But for a perfectionist like Smith, that meant more than just picking up a chisel. He wanted the ability to replicate his creations and keep costs low enough so that he could bring some beauty even into homes of modest means.
"I had a background in art," Smith recalls. "And I wanted to do design work through the computer with CAD software, so I just started to investigate machinery and computers."
A decade later, he has successfully fused his art with science. In his new, 5000-square-foot shop in Paso Robles, Calif., Smith and one assistant carve intricate mantels, doors, family crests, and many other objects, then replicate the carvings using computerized numeric control, or CNC.
"Lately, we're also working on creating carvings from two-dimensional drawings," he adds. "The machine cuts out the basic form, then we go back in and do all of the undercuts by hand."
But Smith isn't out to build automated factories and create a wood carving empire. He's not about constant growth. He's about being here now and enjoying this life.
"I'd rather stay small and reintroduce artwork into the home," Smith explains. "What I'd love to do is open a woodshop and sell memberships like you would to a gym. Homeowners love to learn how to do things. Things are so rushed now, but you have to take time to resharpen tools. The Home Depot wants you to throw them away and buy new ones."
Smith's tumor, he says, remains with him, a constant reminder to appreciate life. "It's too bad it takes something like that," he says, "but what I try to do is not let the menial things bother me. I think my Granny is looking over my shoulder, because she always wanted me to be an artist, and now she's getting her wish."