In recent years, new urban living spaces have been created from buildings originally constructed as offices or factories. To compliment these interiors, vintage industrial elements are being reclaimed and reinvented to serve new purposes.
An appreciation for industrial design is part of an ongoing process, not a pitch from left field. Over the last 100 years, American antique dealers have expanded their inventory far beyond traditional furniture and decorative arts.
Folk art was an early addition to the world of formal sofas and fine porcelain. Pioneering collectors like Abby Aldrich Rockefeller were among the first to appreciate carved trade figures, inn signs, decorative farm tools, house fittings, and weather vanes.
The publication of “The Flowering of American Folk Art” by Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester and the accompanying 1974 exhibition merely affirmed the popularity of the genre. No Americana show or auction today would be viable without a healthy range of the diverse artifacts that fall under the heading “folk art.”
By the mid-20th century, dealers began to salvage architectural elements for reuse in period and modern settings. Warehouses filled up with molded finials, carved door frames, and terracotta revetments. While some buyers used them to restore houses of the same era, other enthusiasts placed them as art objects in contemporary interiors.
Exhibitors also began to offer collectors interior fittings from commercial enterprises — sales counters, show cases, and advertising displays. Case pieces with drawers and compartments were especially popular. Apothecaries, grain bins, and hardware storage often brought five-figure prices.
Henry Mercer (1856-1930) — archaeologist, collector, and craftsman — was one of the first serious scholars to appreciate industrial artifacts. He gave lectures on what he called the “Tools of the Nation Maker.” The Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pa., is filled with exhibits ranging from small hand tools to work benches to giant mill wheels.
Like folk art and architecturals, the best industrials combine functionality with elegant style. All are made for a purpose but the best examples have design elements which lift them out of the ordinary.
Items now seen at mainstream antiques shows include industrial wheels and gears, factory lighting, workmen’s chairs and benches, and equipment from commercial kitchens. While many pieces are altered or repurposed for use in private living spaces, other objects can be displayed on their own as sculpture.
Reworking these elements may or may not be a do-it-yourself project, depending on your ability as an electrician, carpenter, or blacksmith. The process can become a bit more involved than attaching grandma’s sewing machine legs to a wooden board. And it helps if you have a good eye for possibilities.
With a 25,000-square-foot showroom and workshop in Nashville, Keith Merry of Garden Park Antiques has all the necessary skills. His team of 21 employees includes three full-time blacksmiths.
“We’ve been doing this industrial thing for the last 10 years, and we’re just seeing it become a mainstream standard. We manufacture fine iron work,” he explains. “So I have the ability to create this look — I’ve really become a furniture designer.” The results can be seen on the firm’s website, www.gardenpark.com.
He continues, “I’m always looking for unusual pieces out of factories that I can convert. I bought a bunch of wooden patterns that came out of some old foundries down in Louisiana. The patterns were used to make industrial parts. They spent tons of time making these pieces because they knew they were going to use them over and over and over.”
“So many designers go and look for artwork for walls and they find the typical paintings or prints, but these are three-dimensional objects,” Merry says. “Because they’re made of wood, the patterns are lightweight and easy to display. We’re doing a lot of artwork for walls. I’ve done a collection of about five pieces that can be displayed like a collage.”
Merry’s workshop also adapts elements for new functions. Gears and grills become tables with custom-made tops and bases. Rows of factory lights are attached to bars and rewired. He says, “I do a lot of tables and kitchen islands and lighting. It’s amazing how many dealers I sell to.”
He has 5,000 designers around the country on his e-mailing list, and he has refined his website for maximum effect. Merry says, “For the first time, in the last year or two, the website is really working. We’ve cleaned it up and made it easier to use. I’m building up great relationships with interior designers and architects around the country. I’m able to crate and ship things to them.”
Each adaption is a unique design. Less is more, he feels: “I try to be real simple and gentle to the piece, so as not to compete with its design. It’s more to just enhance the look of the piece. I’ve got this really cool 6-foot diameter metal pulley wheel out of an old piece of machinery down on 2nd Street in Nashville. We’ve hung from the ceiling on this huge rope.”
In the last 10 years, Keith Merry has seen the style spread from trendy coastal enclaves into the South and Midwest. He even contributed images to Urban Country Style by Elizabeth Betts Hickman and Nancy Gent, a design book which took industrial into new territory.
“Everybody wants to furnish in that kind of look now — sleek, modern, clean urban style. What’s great is, there is a large resource of industrial salvage,” he points out. “There’s just so much out there you can get your hands on. Once this industrial style furniture started to catch hold, it opened up a brand new market for me.” ?
Karla Klein Albertson has written the Antiques column for the Home and Design section of The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1996. She also contributes regularly to the Maine Antique Digest, Early American Life, and other collecting publications and home magazines.
Eccentric Contraptions and amazing gizmos and thingamabobs, by Maurice Collins, 2004, David & Charles
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