Seth Tyler hand-forges a new work at his Mequon shop, Tyler
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.
"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
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, 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.
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.
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.
last five years, I’ve sold over 400," says Krantz.
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
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.
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."
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
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 &
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
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
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.
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.
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.
urban wood in my work gives a tree a second life," says Sperber,
who primarily builds commissioned furniture and exhibition pieces.
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."
Muskego refers to itself as a design laboratory. The firm, started by
Ryan Tretow, dabbles in several areas, including architecture,
furniture, photography and graphics.
delivers thoughtful, creative and progressive design solutions,"
says Tretow, who graduated with a degree in architectural studies from
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.
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."
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."
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
signature sound sculptures are large, wooden horns carved from western
red cedar. Their shape and form are reminiscent of vintage gramophones
from the 1930s.
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 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.
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
creations look as if they have a story to tell," says McWilliam.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
windows are as meaningful as they are beautiful," says Phelps.
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.
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
Annual Fine Furnishings Show
Nearly 50 Midwest artists and craftsmen featuring American-made,
handcrafted furniture and accessories.
Garage at the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St.
4-6; 4-8 p.m. Fri, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sun
Adults $10 or $15 for any two days; children under 12 free