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The Human Touch

In a world awash in mass-produced commodities, East Bay artisans keep alive handmade traditions and create phenomenal designs for your home


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Once upon a time, homeowners who needed a railing for their staircase or  new door knocker went to their local blacksmith. If they needed an entryway to define a garden, they consulted a guild of gate-building woodworkers.

These days, however, gates—and stair rails, door knockers, and virtually every other home component that was once individually handcrafted—are prefabricated by machines and sold in mass quantities at hardware and “big box” home improvement stores. Blacksmiths, glassblowers, and other species of architectural artists are nearly extinct. Nearly—but not entirely.

The East Bay, in fact, is home to an array of artisans who employ both contemporary techniques and age-old methods to turn materials such as concrete, glass, redwood, and stainless steel into countertops, shelves, walls, floors, doors, gates, railings, and even bathtubs. What these diverse artisans have in common is that they make architectural elements by hand; and their creations are decidedly distinctive, often high-priced, and definitely not available at Home Depot.

Here’s a look at the work of five of the East Bay’s best practitioners of practical arts.

The Glass Artist- Dorothy Lenehan

Dorothy Lenehan works on a scale ranging from massive to minute. By fusing and “slumping” glass—techniques that involve melting together pieces of glass or shaping them over a mold—and then painting, etching, and sandblasting the result, she produces everything from entire walls (such as a tribal-looking edifice she created for the Postrio restaurant in the Venetian in Las Vegas) to garden pavers.

For Macy’s in San Francisco’s Union Square, she fused, etched, and painted 500 square feet of glass to form a swirling, ochre art installation. Each night when the store closes, the panels swivel to function as a translucent gate around the escalators just inside the emporium’s Geary Street entrance. For private homes, Lenehan makes lovely—and small—bathroom shelves.
Lenehan, 54, migrated from Wyoming to the Bay Area in the early 1980s to study and work with the improbably named, internationally renowned glass artist Narcissus Quagliata. Lenehan says that despite the visibility of her large commercial projects, it’s the work she does for people’s homes—such as the kitchen counter made of thick, luminously white, kiln-cast glass that she created for a Piedmont family—that gives her the greatest satisfaction. “I like knowing that the work is touched and used on a daily basis by people who really enjoy it,” she says.
Lenehan Architectural Glass, Oakland, (510) 465-6095.

The Gate Builder- Julian Hodges

Julian Hodges draws his inspiration, materials, and methods from the past, but he never loses sight of the future. “My projects,” says the 68-year-old gate builder, “are built to age well. They will never rot, and they will never appear dated. The basic belief is always to make them look timeless.”
The British-born Hodges, who studied ceramics in London in the late 1960s, turned to woodworking after arriving in California in 1971. His designs draw on the Gothic tracery of his European ancestry and the Asian sensibility he developed while studying with a Japanese builder of teahouses and temples in the ’70s.

Hodges uses only two types of wood in his gates: old-growth redwood and cedar, both of which are increasingly difficult to get. He often incorporates beaten copper as a decorative element, and he designs his own hinges, handles, and even lights. The simpler hardware pieces he executes himself; the more complex bits are fabricated by his favorite blacksmith, Oakland’s Eric Clausen.

Ever mindful of the future, Hodges protects his creations by insisting that homeowners agree to an ongoing maintenance program. He sends an assistant out biannually to reoil gates’ wood surfaces and check their hardware. He also hopes to pass on the knowledge he’s accumulated over a quarter century of custom-crafting gates: He’s looking for an apprentice. All serious would-be artisans may apply.
Julian Hodges Gatebuilding and Architectural Milling, Oakland, (510) 206-2166.

Metal Men

The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America was founded by a group of 20 smiths shortly after they met in 1973 at a convention. In those days, blacksmithing in America was virtually a lost art, existing almost entirely within the context of costumed historical villages. These days, the association has thousands of members on five continents, and local chapters pepper every corner of the United States. One of the strongest—with the most active and numerous members—is in California. “This was the seat of the resurgence of blacksmithing,” says longtime Bay Area smith Michael Bondi. “The rebirth of the craft in this country was influenced by young people on the West Coast who were interested in creating unusual forms. There were a lot of motivated artists working in metal here, and it became a self-stimulating thing.”

As a result, the Bay Area is rich in metal artists, both blacksmiths (who shape red-hot metal by beating it) and fabricators (who drill, bolt, weld, and otherwise manipulate metal). Bondi, who at one time was on course to earn a Ph.D. in anatomy, became intrigued by blacksmithing in his twenties while visiting his brother, who was apprenticing at a forge in Italy. Bondi’s clients include Donald Trump and Disney, but he also creates elaborate hand-forged gates, stair rails, and fireplace screens for less-famous clients throughout the country.

Over the years, Bondi’s large shop has employed many of this area’s other top metal artists, including metal sculptor and fabricator Dennis Luedeman, who gave Melissa MacDonald (see page 71) her start. Luedeman originally trained as a jeweler, and his fabricated steel staircases demonstrate a delicate strength akin to that of fine hand-crafted silver earrings. Blacksmith Eric Clausen also began making jewelry but now focuses on creating iron architectural elements such as gates, chandeliers, and furniture. “Creating art in metal is both a physical and mental accomplishment,” he says. “It takes strength and clear thinking to direct every move when pulling steel from the fire and working with it.”
Michael Bondi
, Richmond, (510) 236-2607.Dennis Luedeman, Oakland, (510) 658-9435. Eric Clausen, Oakland, (510) 655-8428.

The Welder- Melissa MacDonald

Noted contemporary Bay Area architect Kava Massih describes Melissa MacDonald as “a wispy woman who welds like hell.” A one-time frustrated woodworker who switched media in the early ’90s after slicing several fingers off her left hand with an errant table saw, MacDonald found her bliss when she subsequently began apprenticing with local metalworker Dennis Luedeman.
“Wood always disappointed me,” MacDonald says. “The connections were awkward: They didn’t flow, and they weren’t permanent, because wood moves and wears away with time. But with metal, it’s so easy. You drill a hole, put a pin through it, weld it—and the connecting point disappears. It all goes together so smoothly and cleanly.”

Since opening her own shop in 2000, MacDonald has built a reputation for clean work, both in terms of the beauty of her welding and the clarity of her contemporary aesthetic. She works exclusively in stainless steel, creating household items ranging from towel racks and toilet paper rolls to gates and staircases and—for Massih’s own Berkeley backyard pool—a solid railing that creates a garden-tool storage area. MacDonald describes her work as “gourmet.” Homeowners come to her, she says, “when they want something special, something not from Ikea.” Every piece she makes is slightly different, so clients can rest assured they’re getting something unique.
Melissa MacDonald Metalwork, Berkeley, (510) 540-6003.

The Concrete Magician- Mark Rogero

If you eat or shop in the Bay Area, chances are you’ve run your hands over Mark Rogero’s work. His lightweight, highly refined cast concrete creations can be found in the countertops of every Pottery Barn Kids and Smith & Hawken store, and in the bars of restaurants ranging from Kokkari in San Francisco to Grasshopper on College Avenue in Oakland. You may have touched one of his deliciously smooth surfaces and mistaken it for granite or some other polished stone. Rogero, who works with a crew of 15 in his Oakland studio, has developed techniques that allow him to turn what is essentially a mixture of dirt and water into complex three-dimensional forms with elegant finishes. His oversized freestanding bathtubs, cantilevered fireplace hearths, and curvilinear chaise lounges look more like they were carved from marble than formed from the same humble material used in your average sidewalk.

Sixteen years after attempting his first concrete countertop in his own vacant Emeryville loft (a project he describes as “really bad, ugly, and rough”), Rogero says he’s “still excited by what’s possible with concrete. It’s unpredictable. We have yet to exhaust its applications.”
Concreteworks Studio, Oakland, (510) 534-7141.

The Multimedia Constructionist- Paco Prieto

When architects dream up designs that incorporate special materials, realizing those visions can be a challenge. The artisans that architects rely on to execute their concepts usually concentrate on just one medium. That’s why noted local modernists such as David Baker and Mark Mack, who love to mix materials, are particular fans of Paco Prieto. “Paco is fantastic,” Baker says. “He’s divine, to my mind. He’s wonderful to collaborate with because he’ll take what you do and make it better.” These out-of-the-ordinary projects include bars combining wood with zinc or concrete (such as those found in Berkeley’s Café Rouge and Oakland’s Caffé 817); vast, sculptural entry doors for public and private spaces made from wood, glass, and aluminum; and entire residential kitchens and baths that incorporate everything from copper to mahogany.

It’s no accident that the 45-year-old, Oakland-born Prieto loves synthesizing materials. His parents were ceramicists (his father ran the art department at Mills College throughout the ’50s and ’60s); his older brother is a professional glassblower; and another brother is a metalworker.
These days, Prieto is busy synthesizing his family life, as he and his wife and children split their time between Oakland and Auroville, a Utopian hamlet in Southern India. His bicontinental existence has helped fuel his enthusiasm for exploring new materials. While his two longtime partners manage the Oakland shop, Prieto is working with Indian artisans to create hand-chiseled basins out of “this beautiful black Indian granite. It’s a whole new area for us,” he reports with relish.
Pacassa Studios
, Oakland, (510) 465-4655.

 

 

 

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