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Craftsmen among us
Meet the artisans whose work elevates design, inspires imaginations and personalizes every space

By JOE HART and REBECCA KONYA

October 2013

Metalist Seth Tyler hand-forges a new work at his Mequon shop, Tyler Studios Limited.

Like it or not, ours is an assembly-line age. Virtually everything we own, from our cradles to our coffins, is manufactured en masse. And for good reason — by keeping costs low, mass production allows all of us to afford a higher standard of living.

Still, the age of hand-crafted objects is far from over. If anything, the dominance of the factory only highlights the skill of the craftsman. We can treasure even more the special merits of the built-by-hand: timeless quality and one-of-a-kind design.

We surveyed the local landscape and discovered a vital and diverse group of craftsmen quietly producing objets d’art in the Milwaukee area. Here are some of the highlights of our hunt.

Seth Tyler 

If "metal-smith" calls to mind a medieval armorist pounding out complex creations over a smoking-hot forge, then you’re not so far off the mark when it comes to the work of Seth Tyler. His finest work is almost mind-boggling in its application of traditional forge work. Few indeed are the hand-forge artisans who can successfully pull off, for example, a complicated Celtic knot.

Tyler, who began his art career as a jewelry-maker, calls metalworking a "plastic" art. "Metal is actually a very soft and gooey material — at certain temperatures. I manipulate it as one would clay, only my tools do what a ceramicist would do with the fingers." In part because of this approach, Tyler often models his complex creations in clay before taking to the forge.

His work at his Mequon shop, Tyler Studios Limited, is an interesting blend of old and new. Some of his sculptures reflect a distinctively contemporary sensibility. But the craftsmanship is, without a doubt, old-world in its mastery.

 

 




Todd Burton 

Most metal incorporated into structures is strictly functional. In Todd Burton’s work, however, the functional meets the artistic. You’d be hard-pressed to find a metalworker with more experience than Milwaukee’s Burton at New House Arts. For more than 20 years, he’s served the city with both sculptural and functional works. Much of his work is delicate and fluid, often incorporating the organic shapes of plants. "As a custom designer, I get a lot of requests that really run the gamut, from intricate, forged sculptures to large functional pieces like pergolas," Burton says.

 

 

 

Bob Krantz

Bob Krantz, a professional furniture maker, has been designing and building commission furniture and cabinetry for nearly 30 years. The Delafield resident started Krantz Design in 1985 and also has a line of proprietary furnishings he sells through a limited number of retailers, as well as art fairs and furniture shows.

Krantz recalls his first major commission — 200 custom pieces for Quad Marketing, a former subsidiary of Quad/Graphics. He designed and built furnishings for the group’s executive offices, board room and reception area. "The company was eventually bought by Rupert Murdock, so now from time to time he sits at a conference table I made," Krantz says.

All of Krantz’s designs are original with a special emphasis on mission and craftsman styles. He’s also comfortable making deco and contemporary pieces.

Krantz’s best-selling piece is a folding tray table he calls the Nomadic Table. The tabletops are inlaid with wood veneers ranging from radical redwood burl to bird’s-eye maple.

"In the last five years, I’ve sold over 400," says Krantz.

Bruce Erdman 

Ever notice that most furniture is square? That’s because it’s much harder to craft circles and ovals into functional and sturdy cabinetry. So it says something about Bruce Erdman’s mastery of his craft that the woodworker specializes in ovals and tambours (the jointed wood strips of a roll-top desk). His signature creation combines both forms in a seemingly magical oval-shaped jewelry case with a tambour cover.

It’s a rare woodworker who’s skilled and ambitious enough to tackle such a project. Erdman is up to the task. He got his start in the 1970s; he says his approach rejected the minimalism then in vogue. Instead, he studied the work of craftsmen from the previous century for inspiration.

Ironically enough, he made a second career in computers after his woodworking business became so successful that he had to begin mass producing his work to keep up with the orders. (Erdman didn’t want to compromise the quality of his creations with factory methods.) Now in semi-retirement, Greendale’s Erdman has returned to the craft.



Jared Kramer 

"There’s a story to organic materials that machines can’t reproduce," says artist Jared Kramer of Jared Kramer Studios in Shorewood, and it’s an aesthetic he’s embraced in his wildly eclectic artworks. While some of his work could be called traditional sculpture, his most interesting pieces are functional. Most recently, he’s been forging knives, using steel he’s reclaimed from old truck springs and other sources. Other pieces include jewelry made from old bicycle parts and letter-openers fabricated from discarded butter knives. "Art doesn’t just have to sit in a museum to visit once a year," he says. "It can be as accessible as that folding knife in your pocket you use at work to open boxes all day long."

 

Matthew Mabee 

Matthew Mabee trained at UW-Milwaukee as an architect, and his furniture has a distinctive, architectural quality that sets it apart. Through his Cedarburg-based company, Fabitecture, he favors simple, geometric forms with a modernist sensibility, "Functional Modern" he calls it. "I really love the clean lines of modern minimalist architecture combined with an industrial look," Mabee says.

His process is to allow the materials to speak to him while he works; as a result, the wood and metal he prefers takes the foreground in his finished pieces.

 

 






Jesse Meyer

After 12 years as co-owner of Flux Design, Jesse Meyer recently sold his share of the business to pursue a full-time career as a sculptor. "My experience at Flux has allowed me to pursue my passion," says Meyer, who studied sculpture at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

The one-time aspiring special effects artist still maintains studio space at Flux where he hammers bronze, steel and stainless steel sheet metal into organic shapes. Once the pieces are cut, hammered and polished, Meyer layers them onto the sculpture. "It’s a fairly unique process," says Meyer, who has been largely experimenting with figurative forms.

Meyer also creates ornamental garden fish for landscapes. The simple metal forms are designed with the slightest curve to suggest they’re swimming or schooling among plants and shrubs.

Meyer says he starts most of his projects with a loose idea that he let’s take shape while he’s sculpting. "I like to allow things to happen spontaneously."

 

 

 

 



Dwayne Sperber

Dwayne Sperber has been quietly building solid-wood furniture in his Delafield studio called Wudeward for more than 15 years. "I enjoy the solitude of a one-man shop," says Sperber, who studied under renowned furniture makers at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine.

Crafting his custom furniture exclusively from urban wood, Sperber defines his style as simple, yet refined. "Creating furniture with respect for nature is central to my craft," he explains.

Sperber’s passion for urban wood — typically defined as trees in cities or suburban areas cut down because of disease or injury — developed early in his woodworking career when he learned the abundant natural resource was literally ending up in community landfills.

"Using urban wood in my work gives a tree a second life," says Sperber, who primarily builds commissioned furniture and exhibition pieces.

Sperber draws inspiration from each piece of wood he works with. More often than not, he says, the wood takes him where it wants to go. "I’m never truly in control. We just come to terms."



Ryan Tretow

Studio529 in Muskego refers to itself as a design laboratory. The firm, started by Ryan Tretow, dabbles in several areas, including architecture, furniture, photography and graphics.

"Studio529 delivers thoughtful, creative and progressive design solutions," says Tretow, who graduated with a degree in architectural studies from UW-Milwaukee.

While still in school, Tretow began photographing deserted warehouses and vacant industrial spaces around Milwaukee. Over the summer, he showed the images as part of a photography exhibit, "UrbExtinct: America’s Disappearing Decay," at Milwaukee’s Rogues Gallery.

"These places are literally around the corner from where we live and work — they’re not part of an urban wasteland," says Tretow. "I like the idea of being able to uncover that for people."

Among Tretow’s latest projects is his Misfit Collection, furniture made from oriented strand board, an inexpensive building material used in new home construction industry. Tretow’s work is as much a social commentary as it is practical. "I initially conceptualized the collection as a response to the waste of suburban sprawl."



Jordan Waraksa

A lifelong interest in fine art and music led Milwaukee native Jordan Waraksa to pursue degrees in both fields. Today, Waraksa combines his love of both mediums to create unique sound sculptures. "My work deals with the correspondence between shape and sound," explains Waraksa, who has a studio in the Prtizlaff Building in Milwaukee’s Third Ward.

Among his signature sound sculptures are large, wooden horns carved from western red cedar. Their shape and form are reminiscent of vintage gramophones from the 1930s.

Waraksa’s kinetic installations can also be seen at the Ale House in Grafton. The Milwaukee Brewing Co. commissioned him to create artwork for the restaurant in 2008. The series of kinetic sculptures that grace the restaurant took shape from a stockpile of rusty gears, sprockets, flanges, piping and sight glasses — much of which came from the old Pabst Brewery. "Turning historic brewery salvage into a functional kinetic sculpture is an ode to Milwaukee’s rich brewing history," Waraksa says.



David Fode

David Fode has a deceptively simple mission. "My artistic philosophy," he says, "is based around the idea of keeping a lost art alive." That lost art is stained glass — a notoriously painstaking medium that had its heyday some 200 years ago.

Not surprisingly, Fode, whose background is in illustration, earns his bread and butter with commissioned work from churches across the country. But he’s also built a reputation as a serious glass-work artist through his personal studio in Waukesha called Haeuser Heil Studios. His subject matter includes children’s book illustrations, scenes of fantasy and abstract floral forms.

"I love the idea that painting on glass is so different from traditional painting," he says. "You begin with all shadow and add the light."

 

Gonen Liberman

Iron has always been Gonen Liberman’s metal of choice. A native of Israel, Liberman moved to Milwaukee in 1999 and soon after opened Iron Creations, a design studio that specializes in custom-made iron creations such as gates, railings, fireplace screens and furniture. "I love the strength of the iron," says Liberman. "The fact that you can take an ‘unbreakable’ natural element and carve it into an amazing decorative item truly blows my mind."

Liberman’s love of all things wrought iron dates back to his childhood when he worked for his family’s blacksmithing business in Israel. "It’s something that’s literally and figuratively is in my blood."

Liberman draws much of his inspiration from Cyril Colnick, a 19th century Milwaukee blacksmith whose wrought iron artistry can be found throughout Milwaukee. Since 1999, Liberman’s work has been installed in private homes, restaurants and hotels around the United States. Although his creations sometimes take up to three months to complete, customers find the resulting metal masterpieces well worth the wait.



John McWilliam

The mirrored glass and upscale furnishings and decorative hardware made from reclaimed industrial materials Scátháin produces are anything but cookie-cutter. "Our work often combines reclaimed pieces with new materials treated with patinas and other finishes," says John McWilliam, the man behind the successful custom furniture and design collective.

Scátháin — the Gaelic word for mirror — is an alliance of artists who draw upon modern and traditional techniques to bring out the beauty of the glass, metal and wood they work with. Many of the group’s mirrored pieces are made using a proprietary hand-silvering process.

"Our creations look as if they have a story to tell," says McWilliam.

Since its inception five years ago, Scátháin has developed relationships with interior designers and building contractors seeking original pieces for clients. The group’s work also is prominently displayed at The Iron Horse Hotel, including cabinets, signs, metal frames, patio tables and other furniture. "We consider every piece we do a work of art," says McWilliam.

 

 

Jim Vogt

Seldom does a business name so perfectly capture an aesthetic as Jim Vogt’s Rustic Elegance. Picture huge walnut slabs tied together with dainty inlays and combined with glass and steel and you’ll get some sense of Vogt’s mix-and-match approach to furniture.

Vogt got started when he bought a portable sawmill to cut the lumber for his up-north getaway cabin. That adventure quickly turned into a passion for transforming old logs — many of them unusable for other purposes — into rustic, yet elegant hand-crafted furniture.

Most of his pieces are one-of-a-kind constructions that follow directly from the particular chunk of wood he’s working with. Others mimic traditional forms, like the classic Adirondack. In Vogt’s case, however, these chairs are constructed from cedar salvaged from the untreated portion of old utility poles for a unique, weathered look.

 

Jeremy Shamrowicz

Founded by two former Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design students in 2000, Flux Design bills itself as a custom design/build firm providing contemporary solutions for commercial and residential clients.

Current owner Jeremy Shamrowicz, along with a team of artists and designers, works with a variety of materials including steel, concrete, plastic, wood and glass to create one-of-a-kind projects. In the firm’s early days, designers often used found lumber and scrap metal to create "organic" furniture.

After finding initial success designing the interior of the downtown nightclub Eve, Flux went on to do other notable projects for commercial clients like Laughlin-Constable, the Terrace Bar and Vivo Urban Grill. Last winter, the firm was featured on several episodes of "Made in Milwaukee" a TV series on the DIY Network.

Shamrowicz considers Flux’s design principles both timeless and modern. "We study the human factor of the space," he says. "We want to evoke some sort of emotional response."

 



Paul Phelps

Oakbrook Esser Studios in Oconomowoc is in the stained glass business. The studio, led by Paul Phelps, has been creating and restoring stained glass windows for more than 30 years.

"Our windows are as meaningful as they are beautiful," says Phelps.

Located in Oconomowoc, the present day Oakbrook Esser Studios grew out of Oakbrook Studios’ acquisition of the Milwaukee-based Esser Stained Glass in 1986. At the time, Esser had a nearly century-old background in traditional European religious glass.

A year later, the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation selected Oakbrook Esser to reproduce art glass windows in Wright-commissioned properties. In 2011, the Haggerty Museum of Art on the Marquette campus featured a collection of stained-glass pieces created by the renowned studio.

Most recently, Oakbrook Esser has been involved in recreating dozens of windows for the Darwin Martin House in Buffalo, N.Y. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986, the house is considered to be one of Wright’s finest achievements. "It’s the most significant restoration we’ll ever do," says Phelps. m

Meet More Craftsmen

What: 8th Annual Fine Furnishings Show

Who: Nearly 50 Midwest artists and craftsmen featuring American-made, handcrafted furniture and accessories.

Where: The Garage at the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St.

When: Oct. 4-6; 4-8 p.m. Fri, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun

Tickets: Adults $10 or $15 for any two days; children under 12 free

Website: www.FineFurnishingsShows.com


This story ran in the October 2013 issue of: