Cuttlefish casting workshop with metal artist Barbara Mannmore
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Strike a Balance
Run your eyes over the clean steel curves of Marc Maiorana's andiron. Its sleek, contemporary shape may seem to whisper "urban," but it was born in a small smithy in Cedar Bluff, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where Maiorana lives and works.
The blacksmith seems to make a practice of defying easy categorization. Since 2008, he's been running Iron Design Company - specializing in modern, hand-formed steel housewares - alongside Marc Maiorana Studios, the brand for his custom sculptural and architectural commissions, such as sweeping staircase railings.
"They are two different beasts," Maiorana says. "To make 100 of something is very different from making one custom something." Some might call that juggling two jobs; Maiorana calls it a source of balance. Commissions allow him to dive deep into the client-maker relationship, into the challenges of a custom design. But coming out of a mammoth project, it's great to "launch into an order of bottle openers," he says.
But don't think for a second that those bottle openers aren't thoroughly thought through. "Charles Eames was spot-on when he said when you ‘design deeply' for yourself, you design for others," Maiorana says. IDC products flow from an elegant practice: Maiorana identifies a need, then ponders how he could apply steel. He'll move forward only if a design honors the material's defining characteristics: strength and malleability.
Maiorana grew up in New Jersey, near the Delaware River, and his introduction to blacksmithing was through his father, a one-time farrier who left horseshoeing to train as an ornamental smith. He set aside that work while his son was growing up, until "I came home from school one day, and suddenly our single-car garage was a blacksmith shop," Maiorana says. His father gave him a strong background in the fundamentals. "When you're not in a tricked-out shop, you learn to use what you have."
Maiorana enrolled at Alfred University, still finding his way, and completed a year of broad-ranging art coursework. "Each project I would turn in a little bit more metal," he says. After finishing his sophomore year, he transferred to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to focus on the material that, apparently, was in his blood all along. In 2001 he earned his BFA in metalsmithing.
In 2002, Maiorana began a three-year residency at Penland School of Crafts. It was there that he first made what would become IDC objects - clever candlesticks, minimalist bottle openers. He produced them in response to the foot traffic passing through his studio, never dreaming he'd continue after his stay was over.
But even after relocating post-Penland to Cedar Bluff, where his girlfriend had a job opportunity, "the requests kept coming in," he says. Did he still sell those bottle openers? Could he make another pair of those candlesticks? Maiorana officially opened Iron Design Company in 2008.
It's been a lesson in cross-categorization. "I'm almost too crafty for the design world, too design-y for the craft world," he says. From a craft perspective, the simplicity of his forms can obscure the significant handwork involved. And the design world, in turn, doesn't always recognize that his prices, ranging from a $15 bottle opener to a $2,400 andiron, reflect that handwork. "Luckily I'm straddling those worlds enough that now I'm getting respect from both," he says.
His work has attracted mainstream press attention, such as Dwell, Gourmet, and the New York Times. Then there are the design blogs. "We're getting tumbled around on the Internet," he says. Thanks to a burst of coverage from European bloggers, he sold his most recent run of wine racks to customers in Italy and the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, the studio craft contingent continues to approve. Maiorana's work has been included in numerous exhibitions, including the traveling show "Iron: Twenty Ten." This summer he had a solo show at Memphis' Metal Museum, where he debuted a special gate, which he made for the Renwick Gallery's "40 Under 40" exhibition (Jul. 20, 2012 - Feb. 3, 2013). To be in the company of Albert Paley, from whom the gallery commissioned its Portal Gates (1974), is no small compliment.
Asked what's next, he's full of plans: Upcoming commissions, a sculpture to install, a redesign for IDC's website, a separate website for the custom business. "In typical Marc Maiorana fashion, it's sort of all over the place," he says. And yet, together, it all balances out.
Julie K. Hanus is American Craft's senior editor.
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