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Flights of Fancy

Metalworker Dennis Luedeman turns staircases into art


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Building a successful career usually isn’t a straight ascent—it’s more of a step-by-step progression. Just ask Dennis Luedeman.

The Oakland metalworker began his vocation making jewelry designed to be lifted with no more than a finger. He then moved on to larger hollowware pieces, such as metal goblets, that could be lifted with a hand or two. Bigger yet were the tables and chairs.

But nothing measures up to Luedeman’s staircases. Anchored in steel but lifted by abounding beauty and creativity into the realm of art, Luedeman’s stairs, which he designs collaboratively with noted Bay Area architects and then fabricates in his gritty West Oakland workshop, are indisputably "flights of fancy."

"I do some pretty big stuff now," says Luedeman, pointing to a large disassembled metal staircase lying in plastic-wrapped pieces on the floor of his workshop. "My limitation with size is that no single element of the piece can be any bigger than two people can pick up and move."

Once assembled, Luedeman’s pieces often weigh thousands of pounds.

"Stairs are the most interesting [to design]. There’s a lot of problem solving. How they start and stop is the trickiest part," Luedeman says, explaining that building codes require each stair rise (the vertical distance between steps) to be spaced equally down to the quarter inch. "You can’t just put them in there and sort of get it right."

It’s hard to appreciate the room for creative expression a flight of stairs offers until you see the myriad sculptural staircases Luedeman has fabricated for residential and commercial projects.

"Stairs are a big old thing you have to deal with," says Gerry Tierney, a principal architect at Kava Massih Architects in Berkeley, pointing out that stairways often take up a lot of square footage and can be seen as more of an annoyance to designers than an opportunity for architectural expression. "Why not create a sense of drama? If you make them dramatic and fun, people will want to use them."

Take, for example, the angle-spiraled stairs Tierney and Luedeman created as part of a commercial project in Emeryville (pictured on opposite page). The three-story staircase is wrapped in a shimmering stainless steel mesh curtain originally designed for use in the aerospace industry as a shrapnel catch net.

"You walk inside [the stairs], and it’s a little adventure," Tierney says.

The structural backbone of all of Luedeman’s stairs is a steel stringer (the structure that supports the treads), but that’s where the similarity among his staircases ends. His creations are mind-boggling.

For starters, stringers come in many forms and shapes. There are two-stringer stairs, one-stringer stairs, cantilevered stringers, and square and round tubular steel stringers, among other variations.

The treads (the part that is stepped on) can be metal; wooden; translucent, etched glass; polished black granite; or almost anything else you can imagine. The risers (the vertical portion between steps) also may be any material, including glass, or missing altogether for an open effect.

"I tend to like stairs, because you have to pay attention when you’re going up and down the stairs," says San Francisco architect Anne Fougeron. "It’s one time when people slow down, and you can really capture their attention. I find stairs a real opportunity for architectural interest."

Fougeron and Luedeman recently collaborated on a flight of stairs that features an unusual guardrail made of woven four-inch strips of acrylic.

"The owner creates paintings inspired by fabric, so we were interested in weaving and how that works," Fougeron says. "[My team] came up with the overall design concept, but then we really worked with Dennis on how to achieve that. It’s a complete partnership."

Luedeman, 52, who trained in jewelry and metal design and has a master’s degree in fine arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology, takes on three or four large stair projects annually; he fills in with other work running the gamut from the quotidian to the celestial. Everyday endeavors include fabricating fences, gates, railings, and other decorative metalwork; custom knobs and pulls; and occasionally, metal cabinetry and furniture prototypes. And he always makes time for his own metal sculptural work, which is for sale at the Braunstein/Quay Gallery in San Francisco and is sometimes shown in expositions.

Luedeman’s work is heavenly indeed when it comes to his collaborations with acclaimed stained glass artist Narcissus Quagliata of Mexico City. The most notable of their large projects is in Rome, where Luedeman fabricated the metal dome that holds the stained glass at the top of the Basilica of Santa Maria of the Angels, a building designed by Michelangelo on the ruins of the ancient Roman baths.

"That project is going to be there for hundreds of years," Luedeman says reflectively, as his puppy, Bob, weaves between his legs and begs to play with neighborhood dogs romping outside his workshop.

Over the years, Luedeman’s work has has been part of several award-winning projects and has caught the eye of many architects who admire his jeweler’s attention to detail, his technical finesse, and his understated and sophisticated style.

"He’s the best," Tierney says, echoing the sentiments of several of Luedeman’s architectural collaborators. "I really like his work, because his sense of aesthetic is very clean, very straightforward. I think he’s the best in the Bay Area—probably the best in California."

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