Talking industrial style with American Pickers’ Mike Wolfe

Long before he was the star of cable television’s No. 1 new show, Mike Wolfe built a career scouring America’s forgotten cachés to fuel the industrial style movement. His company, Antique Archeology in sleepy Le Claire, Iowa, is the inspiration behind HISTORY’s American Pickers, a show chronicling the adventures of two dealers searching the back roads, junkyards, and filled-to-the-brim barns in America for “rusty gold.”

Over the years, he’s earned a reputation as one of the country’s foremost foragers and his clients include interior designers, art directors, photographers and collectors.
“[Industrial style] has been hot, it’s been hot for a while,” Wolfe told Antique Trader, “but now that you see it in these mainstream magazines, and it’s been in these mainstream magazines, all of a sudden it’s being reproduced so it will be interesting to see where things go from here.”

Wolfe’s sources for industrial style are as diverse as the pit stops he and his partner Frank Fritz make on the weekly show, whose second season debuts June 7 at 9 p.m. ET. Barns, defunct factories, salvage yards, hoarder/collectors. He never knows what he’s going to find or just how it’s going to fit into an industrial style

Read “Young collectors are drawn to urban industrial style”

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“With urban industrial style what I try to look for is any sources of lighting, that’s always important. It makes a nice accent in any room,” he said. “I’ve bought some nice foreman’s desks before, something that’s slanted on top and something someone can use for a computer table, something someone can use for a drawing table.

Wolfe says he can tell when a style is maturing when he sees reproductions popping up to satisfy demand.

“If you look at Restoration Hardware ( or 800-910-9836), I keep beating that home but the stuff that’s reproduced there, the tables, the industrial parts that were used through the factories of America, everybody’s using them as coffee tables now. I think what’s cool about some of this stuff is some of the materials being used.”

Materials matter, Wolfe said. Young urbanites want a variety of textures in their décor and industrial style offers that dimension. The most valuable pieces also offer functionality to satisfy design tastes and the desire to renew, reuse and recycle.

“What a lot of people like about the early industrial is, for one, you can still do painted pieces, and two, it’s the different materials. You’re looking at cast iron, you’re looking at wood, you’re looking at galvanized metal.

“And all this stuff, all these things that we’re talking about, they want it pockmarked, they want the grease, they want the hammered tops because it shows the life, it shows the history, and people can actually look at it and repurpose it.

“The people who started this trend were people in urban areas, the same people that were doing architectural-designed lofts and open spaces — they were doing those in warehouse spaces. Yeah, it’s cool to put a piece of modern furniture and you can a slap a Knoll, wrapped chair into a warehouse space but you’re really looking for something that looks like it existed there back then.

“And now the cream on the top of that cake is not only having something that looks good but having something you can use.”

For the design conscious, Wolfe and Fritz have a decidedly transportation-themed style.

“We seem to use anything transportation wise to hang on walls,” Wolfe said. “We use a motorcycle or bicycle or the front end of cars, because the front end of a car was the signature piece when it was coming down the road and when it’s coming out of your wall it’s large and in charge.

“We just picked up a really cool 10-foot-tall galvanized, faded, red paint arrow the other day that came off Highway 66. That thing almost looks like a rocket ship if you stand it straight up and if you hang it on the wall it’s got a nice look to it.”

The fact that industrial style devotees like more unusual pieces opens up a whole new way at looking at what constitutes a valuable antique. One of the more unusual industrial style items Wolfe has picked was featured on the show. 

“One of the pieces we picked up early in the show was the Shriners’ sign, remember the Shriners’ sign? We pulled that out of a warehouse and that actually went to a store in Chicago. A guy’s got a store … he says he wants his store to look like Ralph Lauren, Hunter S. Thompson and Steve McQueen had a yard sale.” ?

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