The Iron Age

In this high-tech era, handmade metal objects rich in craftsmanship, history and design have particular allure

Focus on Home

February 07, 1999|By Jill Herbers | Jill Herbers,Universal Press Syndicate

Sometimes the most popular items in the home originate in the past and get reinvented for the present. The ironworks found everywhere today are a perfect example: An old art form is being updated in contemporary ways.

Several years ago, I saved from a turn-of-the-century New York building an enormous but delicate window grill that my father used as a garden gate. Today, however, finding an iron garden gate -- or a table, wall, mirror, bed, wine rack, pair of candlesticks, clock, chandelier or other such pieces -- is as easy as going to a home store, browsing through a catalog or choosing among the recent profusion of iron artists and companies.

"Ironwork is getting really big as people gain a respect for craft," says Bill Johnson, an interior and furniture designer in Washington. In a computer age, people want to have objects that are made by hand, that they are invited to touch -- and that possess a history and artistry. This desire is creating the demand for and huge availability of anything in iron.

The range of work is impressive. Charles P. Rogers Brass & Iron Beds, which has been making beds since 1855, shows the rich history of iron furniture. Plant stands from companies like IKEA reveal the art form's more modern side.

Stone County Ironworks of Mountain View, Ark., offers pieces that rely on the blacksmithing traditions of the surrounding Ozark Mountains but have contemporary forms -- such as a wine rack -- that attract people today. The pieces are handmade, as iron objects have always been.

"We heat it up and pound on it with a hammer," Stone County Ironworks' founder and president, David Matthews, says. After the iron is glowing red, it is put on an anvil to be hammered into shape and detailed. Then it is quenched in a vat of water to cool it and solidify the design.

The designs, however, are anything but traditional, with free-flowing twigs, leaves and vines that look as if they are growing up the objects or have been blown in by the wind. Hooks and pulls swirl and curl off walls, while hat racks, pie racks, kitchen islands and curtain rods resemble modern sculpture.

"It is our mission to build something magical," Matthews says, reflecting the viewpoint of artists and companies who design and forge the works themselves. These are people, after all, who speak of the influence of nature and God in their work. These forces are perhaps difficult to deny when one views the extreme delicacy and intricacy of curves and romantic forms that curl remarkably out of an indestructible material wrought from fire and heavy hammering.

"I want you to love it," says Johnson of his furniture and objects, which he calls "functional art." The designs, which he says are based on classicism so they will last to be passed down through generations, provide something new to see every time one looks at them, and are collected like fine art. Johnson even provides a certificate of authenticity to buyers, treating his work the way you might an antique.

Much of today's ironwork shows contemporary design sensibilities, but just as much of it looks backward to designs of the past. Many of Charles P. Rogers' beds are turn-of-the-century designs, and the company's Paris sleigh bed draws on a classic French idea.

Garden Park Antiques in Nashville, Tenn., goes even further into the past, collecting iron artifacts from Europe and America for people to incorporate into new designs. An 18th-century Paris balcony of interlaced roses became a table base; a section of a 19th-century bridge railing from Philadelphia now is a stairway railing; antique window grills have been turned into window boxes; and old decorative fencing was transformed into bed headboards.

Some pieces still have their crusty iron coating because they have aged beautifully, and others are refinished in a range of tones and colors. All of the more than 2,000 pieces are shown in color with descriptions on the company's Web site.

No matter what the age or design, ironwork can go with any kind of decor. Iron objects, with their own telling details, are waiting to be discovered by those who seek diversity and artistry in home accessories.

Sources

* Bill Johnson Studio, 4627 Ninth St. N.W., Washington D.C. 20011; 202-829-1059.

* Charles P. Rogers Brass & Iron Beds, 55 W. 17th St., New York, N.Y. 10011; 800-561-0467.

* Garden Park Antiques, 515 W. Thompson Lane, Nashville, Tenn. 37211; 615-254-1996 www.gardenpark.com/antiques.

* Stone County Ironworks, HC 73, Box 427, Mountain View, Ark. 72560; 800-223-4722.

Pub Date: 02/07/99

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