Metalsmiths flex their steel, designs in Detroit
When it comes to commitment to his craft, Gabriel Craig of Detroit is wedded to his work as a metalsmith. He has three hammers tattooed on his right forearm to prove it.
The hammers, at the center of a tribal band that circles Craig’s arm, represent the tools of the trade for metalsmiths like Craig, co-owner of the up-and-coming Smith Shop in Detroit.
Featured in magazines across the country from Saveur to Dwell and finalists twice for Martha Stewart’s “American Made” awards, the Smith Shop — co-owned by Craig, his wife, Amy Weiks, and Adam Whitney, who also are metalsmiths — creates everything from handmade housewares and cheese knives to custom-made grates, hardware, balconies and doors made from brass, copper or steel.
Craig and Weiks started out making jewelry, but realized “we really wanted to make things for people that are functional,” and have been shifting more into handmade housewares.
The Smith Shop is one of a growing number of metalsmiths making furniture, housewares and architectural components in the Motor City, which isn’t surprising, given our love of metal and steel.
Richard Bennett of Detroit-based Richard Bennett & Associates is a self-taught metalsmith and sculptor who makes furniture, vessels, sculptures, doors, accessories and more. He got his start first in wood shop at Detroit’s Mumford High School and later as a welder for an aerospace company in Livonia.
“It’s been an evolution from there,” says Bennett, who describes his furniture as more contemporary and just had a sculpture installed in Royal Oak. “... I have a theme with flirting with gravity and angles and curves. I like to have movement.”
Even metalsmiths with Detroit-area connections are making a splash these days.
Vivian Beer, who got her graduate degree in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2004, recently won Ellen Degeneres’ “Ellen’s Design Challenge” on HGTV. Beer, who describes her work as “sexy industrial,” beat out seven other designers (including Detroit woodworker Kyle Huntoon) with her sleek metal designs to win $100,000.
Beer, now based in New Hampshire, works mostly with steel with an automotive finish. She says her work pulls disparate things and is “an understanding of how things interconnect.”
At the Smith Shop, started in 2012, meanwhile, it’s all about collaboration. Craig, Weiks and Whitney work with a variety of metals, including gold, silver, copper, brass and steel. And it’s no longer about one person’s artistic vision.
“We wanted to do something where we could take our egos out of the equation,” says Craig, who met Weiks at Western Michigan University and Whitney at Virginia Commonwealth University.
About six years ago when the couple moved to Detroit from Texas, Craig set up a blacksmithing shop in the couple’s garage and a jewelry studio in the basement.
“I had a forge and some hammers. It was really bare bones,” says Craig, who grew up in Oakland County and has been a metalsmith for 13 years.
After Weiks graduated from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, they decided to take their craft in another direction.
“When Amy finished school, we both had been working primarily in a way where we’d make art objects and try to get them into galleries and museums,” says Craig. “While we like that and there’s a lot of creative freedom in that, we really wanted to make things that people use that were functional. That was the genesis of Smith Shop.”
Craig says there are three primary ways to work with metals. Forging is when a metal’s mass is redistributed. Fabricating is taking two pieces and shaping them and putting them together. Forming takes steel and changes the shape so it has an interior volume.
In their studio — which has dozens, if not hundreds of hammers and tools, along with a massive 1894 Fairbanks mechanical powerhammer — Craig, Weiks and Whitney started making small hardware, architectural commissions, jewelry, belt buckles and more.
“We knew we had the skills to make a very broad range of things,” Craig says.
Now, they’re aiming to fill a very specific niche: handmade housewares.
“Our background is in jewelry-making, but we’re a little bit burned out. And there’s so much jewelry out there that it’s a tough market to compete in. But in terms of handmade housewares ... very few people are working in metals,” says Craig.
Their Signature Servingware Set is crafted from hand-forged steel and formed copper. It includes a copper or steel serving spoon, slotted spoon and ladle, along with a forged steel spatula and meat fork. It comes with a hanging bar and five “S” hooks. It retails for $1,800.
Craig acknowledges handmade housewares are a hard price point and take a lot of skill, but “that’s the niche we’re going for.”
Smith Shop — whose products are now available at stores in New York, Colorado and South Carolina and locally at Zieben-Mare, 32749 Franklin in Franklin, and Detroit Mercantile near Eastern Market, along with their website — also makes cheese knives from mild steel (or low carbon steel), bottle openers, steel trivets, copper sugar and creamer sets, even sterling silver flatware. Their Boolean Boxes, made of formed and fabricated copper, are used for “everything from tea and coffee to Grandpa’s ashes,” says Craig.
When creating a piece, they consider “the inherent characteristics of the metal,” says Craig. “The metal wants to do certain things. And certain metals do those things better than other metals. So we keep that in mind.”
As their business grows, Craig admits they’re running out of space. He wants to relocate as part of his newly created Center for Craft & Applied Arts. They already offer metalsmithing and other classes and, once they have a building, they’ll also offer rental space to other crafts people.
When it comes to their craft, Craig says there’s a lot of handwork that determines what each piece looks like.
“All of our designs we try to make them in a way that it would impossible to mass produce them,” he says.
The Smith Shop: 1401 Vermont, Detroit; (313) 559-2237. smithshopdetroit.com.
Richard Bennett & Associates: 470 Brainard, Detroit; (313) 831-4262. richardbennettdesigns.com