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Issue Date: October 2010 Issue


A Lust for Rust

It may be the most unlikely spot to unearth an international design trend, but three Cleveland artists and furniture-makers have discovered gold in the Midwest's industrial junkyards and scrap piles.

Rebecca Meiser
Seven Months Ago, Kevin Busta was sitting at the Architectural Digest Design Show in New York City surrounded by samples of his furniture.

He'd brought a tall, microphone-shaped boom light made of iron pieces he'd found at a scrap yard in Medina; a futuristic-looking sling lounger with a seat manufactured from a drying pan discovered in an old silk-screen factory in Michigan; and coffee tables sporting bright orange legs cut from old industrial bins and tabletops made out of galvanized steel.

Busta's booth was bustling with interior designers, furniture store owners and private collectors who were quickly making his cubicle-style space seem even smaller. The Cleveland boilermaker-turned-designer was cursing himself for not bringing more than a handful of items.

Just then, a deeply tanned man with sweeping silver hair stopped to chat. Dressed all England prepster in tapered jeans and a button-down shirt, he had an almost regal air as he studied Busta's boom lights and asked about their transportability. He smoothed his hand over the industrial bin tabletops and made a few notes in his notebook. Then he flashed an aging-icon smile and said he would be back.

But within minutes, another man in a close-fitting black, yellow and white striped polo stopped by Busta's booth. "My boss was really intrigued by your work," he said.

"Who's your boss?" Busta asked.

"Ralph Lauren," the man replied.

Busta felt his face whiten. How could he not have recognized the design legend?

Lauren's designers wanted his boom lights and tables to outfit their New York and Los Angeles stores. But it didn't end there. A few weeks later, actor Mark Wahlberg's representatives came calling, asking Busta to design the tables for the actor's new restaurant. Retailers in Holland wanted to buy out Busta's whole industrial bin set.

At the moment, the most popular movement in furniture design is not coming out of meccas like Paris or Milan. Instead, it is arising from the junkyards and scrap piles of industrial cities. Objects made of old conveyor belts, rusted factory steel and welding shovels are being sold for thousands of dollars throughout the world.

The look is being copied and sold en masse by big-box retail stores such as Restoration Hardware. Actors in LA are asking Cleveland-based post-industrial designers to furnish their entire apartments. The look, which involves recycled materials, also appeals to cosmopolitan trendsetters who see "green" as the new "black."

"There's still a lot of the elitist cool factor for participating in the green movement," says Jonathan Satayathum, a Cleveland-based interior designer and LEED-accredited sustainability consultant.

And then, of course, there's the past conjured in something new.

"The pieces these designers use in their work were constructed by brilliant industrial designers, who themselves had their own original design aesthetic," says Peter Levis, the owner of the Boston-area BG Galleries. "I think people are intrigued that something so modern looking could be made of something so old. There's a history and story behind every piece."

On a recent Saturday, Busta stands in his office pondering a stack of 300 vintage theater seats he's just picked up at an auction. The chairs are piled one on top of the other inside his converted Lakeshore Drive garage like rugby players in a scrum.

Birds on a Wire
Kevin Busta used locomotive blueprints he found in a trash bin outside a factory as his canvas and overlaid them with photographic images of black birds sitting on a wire. "These blueprints had been folded up and left in an old factory for years and years," he says. "The folds had oxidized and turned pink. You can't get that type of visual texture with new prints." The piece shows Busta's post-industrial aesthetic. Whereas the blueprints represent the complicated and sophisticated mechanics of a machine, there is nothing "simpler or more natural than birds on a telephone wire," Busta says. "They scream to me, 'still living.' "


Busta was originally intrigued by the chairs' curved, steel armrests. He envisioned sawing off the seats and using the arms as the base of a cast-iron bench. He's always thinking in these terms, looking at one object and seeing it as something else. Deconstruction and creation happen at the same moment in his mind.
 
"I like turning something raw and industrial into something with a modern, clean look," he says. "It's sort of oxymoronic."
 
That ability to see beauty in trash lifted him from his previous life as a Cleveland-area sheet metal worker and boilermaker.

After graduating from Medina High School, Busta worked at his dad's metal shop, where he'd take industrial-sized sheets of raw metal, shiny as diamond, then bend and hammer them into pocket-sized shapes for furnace ducts. "It was monotonous work," Busta says. But it allowed him to experiment with the weight, feel and cut of sheet metal and learn all about its form and malleability.

When the work dried up in 2005, Busta took a job as a union boilermaker, fixing and re-piping steam water boilers in Midwestern power plants. He worked in dark, musty back rooms and looked for cracked steel tubes that blocked valves from letting off steam. Like a surgeon, Busta fused and repaired the machine's circulatory system.

Busta's fascination with machines and factories led him to start collecting scraps of industry detritus. In his spare time, he began welding these pieces into durable, functional furniture, working old industrial steel bins into a set of drawers and molding coal shovels into the seats of chairs.

In the beginning, Busta worked out of his dad's warehouse, which had the space his Lakewood home lacked. "My dad was nice and never said anything, but I realized after a while that I'd taken over his entire office with my material," he says.

Sometimes, though, Busta — skinny as a cigarette, with a shock of staticky blond hair — set up a workshop on his front lawn. Using a table as a workbench, he'd chainsaw through layers of rough-cut sheet metal, sending sparks flying across the front lawn.

One day, a Lakewood couple strolling through the neighborhood spotted him. The couple, deeply entrenched in Cleveland's antiquities market, was impressed with Busta's craftsmanship. They told their friends. Unintentionally, Busta's front lawn had become his first storefront.

But the local market wasn't enough to sustain his business. So in 2008, Busta took his works to the East Coast antique and flea market circuit, hoping to get noticed.

Remarkably, he did. In a market overrun with contemporary, white wicker antiques or futuristic, Star Trek-like items, Busta's Rust Belt-inspired designs stood out for their stark, minimalist form and manly aesthetic. Interior designers from Boston to LA were intrigued.

"There's something very modern and sexy about his work," says Jody Harrington, the owner of Ion, an interior design firm in College Park, Pa., that is currently featuring Busta's work. "It's very utilitarian. His pieces say something about the 20th century ideals of man and machine."

At one of these antique fairs, Busta's work caught the eye of a New York Times reporter who featured Busta and another Cleveland industrial artist, Doug Meyer, in a story titled "Midwestern Industrial Chic in Manhattan."

The article was published on Busta's 30th birthday. Minutes after it appeared online, Busta's e-mail and mailbox started filling with order and information requests. "It was definitely the best birthday present I ever received," he says.
 
 
The headquarters of Cleveland Art, arguably the nation's largest brokerage house for recycled industrial art, is situated in an old, converted Tucker car dealership in the middle of Auburn Township.

Jason Wein, the boyish-looking, 40-year-old owner and founder of Cleveland Art, walks along the store's backyard, an acre-long scrap yard full of rusted bicycle frames, barbed wire, oxidized steel strips and old ladders.

"I bought this place in 1994 from a toothless hillbilly who used to burn tires for heat," Wein says. He has since rehabbed it into one of Cleveland's largest artist workshops and resale shops.

For 20 years, Wein has made a Rumpelstiltskin-like living turning Cleveland's industrial junk into gold. Steven Spielberg, Gwyneth Paltrow and Donald Trump all own furniture designed by Wein. Zach Braff just asked him to furnish his entire New York bachelor pad, which will soon be featured in a multipage spread in Architectural Digest.

Conveyor Lights
Jason Wein uses the movement of water as inspiration in his work. He even spent a few months in Alaska studying icebergs and streams. When he melds lamp shades or vases, Wein wants the hot glass to mimic the flow of water. The lights in this conveyor lamp also draw inspiration from the natural world. They are as colorless as water, but when reflected on walls, give off a curved shape that is its own work of art. The lamp shades, on the other hand, are made from the conveyor belts of old, heat-treating factory machines. It is this juxtaposition of industrial toughness and natural beauty that makes Wein's pieces so interesting. Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Steven Spielberg own lamps created by Wein.

Wein travels to Dubai and LA the way others travel to Pittsburgh and Columbus and complains when he is served less than five-star food. He favors expensive fitted T-shirts and designer aviator sunglasses. It's hard to believe, then, that the times the artist feels most at home is when he's surrounded by garbage.

"When I was 8 years old, I was constantly embarrassing my parents by pulling stuff out of trash cans on the sides of the road," he says. "My job is to buy junk and remake it into art."

It was an aesthetic developed, in part, by a childhood spent delving through his uncle's car junkyard in Parma and melding things that were not supposed to go together, such as seat belts and door handles.

"I was recycling before it was cool," Wein says.

But not everyone saw the value in Wein's constructions. At Kent State University, Wein's art professors thought the Shaker Heights native, who suffers from dyslexia, might have a much brighter future as a mechanic. They simply didn't understand Wein's brain patterns.

"While everyone else is thinking linearly, going from a to b to c, Jason thinks x, w, b," says Dave Taylor, a Cleveland-area artist. "He has this unique ability to see how a scrap of, say, a doorknob can be completely reframed into a leg support in a table, for instance."

Wein only lasted a few semesters at Kent State before deciding he'd be more successful forging his own path. For a while, Wein believed his passion lay primarily in glassmaking. For inspiration, he decided to spend a few months in Alaska, studying the movement of water. "Glass, when melted to 950 degrees, has the consistency of a liquid," Wein explains. He wanted this hot glass to mimic the flow of water as he melded it into a lamp shade or a vase.

Success came accidentally. After his stint in Alaska, Wein stationed himself in an abandoned, unheated warehouse on West 25th Street. He didn't have any money to buy furniture or work tables, so he created his own, using remnants of industrial parts he found in scrap yards. Sanded floorboards became tabletops; barbed wire formed the cage of a boom light.

Visitors to Wein's workshop suggested that industrial design was the artist's true calling. In a world of mass-produced, big-box aesthetics, Wein's work stood out for its originality and authenticity.

These designs, which Wein refuses to call industrial art ("I see myself as a minimalist, modern artist," he says), caught on big in New York. His stark, streamlined pieces looked natural in Manhattan's lofted spaces with exposed brick.

In 2005, he opened his second Cleveland Art location in New York City, followed quickly by others in LA and Palm Beach, Fla., where the store sits on the same block as Chanel and Tiffany's. His work can sell for upwards of $10,000.

"My work is timeless and classic," Wein explains. "It's constructed of material that was made to be indestructible and bulletproof."

And though Wein doesn't like to be typecast a Rust Belt artist, he has unintentionally adopted the Midwestern aesthetic of his forefathers: "I don't like to use materials that aren't American made," he says.
 
 
Chris Kious never intended to get into the furniture industry. As the former housing services manager for the St. Clair Superior Community Development Corporation, Kious wanted to help his neighbors who were frustrated by the numerous boarded up, foreclosed and abandoned homes on their street.

"It's the broken window theory," says Kious. "Once one house has been boarded up, the other houses become magnets for crimes."

These crumbling, disheveled homes were once the embodiment of success for German, Croatian and Slovenian immigrants. These squat, solid, two-bedroom homes were the first many families ever owned, Kious says.

But stripped of their paint, insulation and dignity, the houses now had the slouching, unkempt frame of a manic depressive — and they were bringing down the neighborhood.

The only way to cap the wreckage was to demolish the houses. But doing that would also destroy the stories and the histories embedded in the well-crafted floorings of these places.

There had to be a way to reuse these materials, Kious thought, a way to keep these storied pieces from ending up in the landfill alongside old diapers and uneaten pie crusts.

That's when Kious learned about deconstruction, taking a house scheduled for demolition and pulling it apart with intention. It's one of the rare instances when an object is worth more in pieces than it is whole. The goal is to preserve as much of a home's walls, floors and structure as possible for reuse. "It's sort of like major construction in reverse," Kious says. "You use a crane to help take apart big chunks of the house at one time."

Whiskey Island Table
When artist P.J. Dorian thinks of Whiskey Island, he thinks of steel bridges and old railroad tracks. "There was a certain Cleveland Midwestern raunchiness to it," Doran says. He tried to capture that tough, raw aesthetic in this table constructed from framing lumber and flooring from homes on the city's southeast side near Buckeye Road and Woodland Avenue that were built as affordable housing for workers who labored in the city's growing industrial core.

The wreckage can then be used to create new artistic and functional entities. Kious just needed people to create these pieces.

In 2007, Kious' sister introduced him to Cleveland-based artist P.J. Doran, whose medium, he proudly boasts, is garbage.

"I worked with things that already existed," Doran explains. "Whether that be materials from junk piles or scrap yards or the wing of a bird."

The idea of physically deconstructing a home and reusing its parts to create new art excited him on every level. Kious, Doran, furniture designer Ezra Taxel and Aaron Gogolin, a carpenter who worked in housing restoration, started the design company A Piece of Cleveland.

Their mission was to produce furniture and art from materials harvested from locally deconstructed homes and buildings. In the beginning, A Piece of Cleveland acted mostly like a Salvation Army depository. Most of its lumber and materials were donated from construction workers and builders.

"We opened up our doors and got phone calls throughout the day from people who had lumber they wanted us to pick up," Kious says.

News of the company's mission and art spread quickly. People loved the idea of owning a piece of Cleveland history, which was provided in a Rebirth Certificate given to every person who buys the product.

Lillian Kuri's kitchen island, for example, was constructed from the floor of the former Stanard School on East 55th Street and St. Clair Avenue. "Nobody is ever going to have an island like this," says Kuri, the Cleveland Foundation's director for architecture and sustainability. "The wood is unique and made out of an old growth lumber that you can't get anymore. People can't believe it was made from floor boards."

These days, A Piece of Cleveland relies on Kious' other business, Urban Lumberjacks of Cleveland, to harvest most of the materials it uses. In the past two years, it has helped deconstruct 25 homes, which created another challenge. Where do you store a whole house? But Kious has found an answer. This month, he'll help open a reusable lumberyard in an old warehouse at East 49th and St. Clair called CURLY (Cleveland Urban Reused Lumberyard).

There, consumers will be able to purchase anything from flooring to wood beams to refurnished pieces of art and furniture by A Piece of Cleveland. The money brought in will help raise funds to deconstruct more homes.

A Piece of Cleveland has been getting a lot of national attention for its unorthodox methods. City planners in surrounding urban areas have come calling, wanting their own piece of Buffalo or piece of Detroit.

But, for once, Kious and his partners are concentrating on the whole, overarching picture rather than its individual parts or outliers. "Before we look at any other options, we're going to get this model working perfectly in Cleveland," says Kious. 
 

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