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ARTISANS: Spotlighting Makers of Hand-Crafted Goods : Banana Fish Productions: A New Look at Custom-Made Glass

September 01, 1990|KEITH TUBER | Keith Tuber is a regular contributor to Home Design

Banana Fish Productions is either:

A) A Hollywood-based avant-garde film company.

B) A trendy Newport Beach sushi restaurant.

C) Or a Santa Ana glazing contractor specializing in decorative glass.

The correct answer, surprisingly enough, is C. Those who guessed correctly are excused from viewing a self-indulgent art film or eating a meal of raw octopus.

The unusual name, taken from the title of a J.D. Salinger story, was chosen by partners Dan Iman and Jerry Smith when they went into business together a decade ago.

"We wanted to completely separate ourselves from the competition," Iman, 41, recalls. "Too many companies had generic names, like 'Tiffany this' or 'Stained that.' "

"And secondly," he continues, "we wanted a name that was difficult to forget. Many of our clients in the residential sector may only deal with us once every couple of years. We didn't want them to forget our name in case they lost our cards."

Forgetful clients are not as critical today as they were when the company opened its doors.

Ten years ago, up to 40% of the company's business was for homeowners. Now, only 10% is devoted to high-end residential customers, with the balance going to commercial enterprises such as restaurants, hotels and casinos.

In Las Vegas, Banana Fish-designed glass can be seen in two new hotel-casinos, the Excalibur and the Rio. Closer to home, the company has supplied decorative glass to the Sauces eatery in Mission Viejo, the Good Earth in Irvine and numerous Baker's Square, Norm's and Denny's outlets.

To date, the Santa Ana-based firm's most intricate design has been for the Island's restaurant chain. The etched glass features a jungle scene replete with lily pond, cockatoos, toucans and other exotic creatures.

However, it is in the residential area that the company does some of its most interesting work. Interior designers and commercial contractors bring in Banana Fish to make custom shower enclosures.

The process can take six weeks or longer to complete and cost anywhere between $2,500 and $6,000 or more.

The price is determined by the complexity of the carving or etching, the type of metal used for the fittings and whether bent glass is used.

Even if the home is still in the framing stage, the partners go over the blueprints at the job site to ascertain special needs. For instance, if the shower walls are made of marble and the client doesn't want any of the hardware to show, grooves or slots have to be added in the marble to support the glass.

Drawings of the etching are made, and a template, or mock-up, of the finished product is produced on paper, cardboard or wood. This allows the customer to see what the completed enclosure will look like.

Once everyone is satisfied and the price is agreed upon, Iman contacts a custom metal supplier in Gardena who provides the chrome, brass or stainless steel fittings. A full-size template is then sent to another vendor in Pennsylvania that bends and laminates glass. The glass is a half-inch thick to give it a greater presence and enable more pronounced etchings.

A full-size drawing, or cartoon, of the carving or etching that is to be reproduced on the glass is drawn. The cartoon is either approved or modified by the customer.

"The client may have changed what he had in mind by the time he sees the full-sized cartoon," Iman says. "This is the first time he's bought a $6,000 shower enclosure, so it's important he's satisfied with it."

The full-size cartoon is glued in place. Then the design is hand cut using an X-acto knife--the company goes through thousands of blades a week--through the paper drawing. The glass is then taken to the sandblasting booth.

There, aluminum oxide is used instead of sand.

"It's more consistent, even though it's more expensive," Iman says. "One hundred pounds of sand may cost $2, where the same amount of aluminum oxide will run $50. But the aluminum oxide is smooth and uniform in appearance, and the sand isn't. Aluminum oxide is made, rather than picked up."

The glass can be cut at multiple depths, creating a desirable effect. A bird, for example, can have each feather sandblasted at different depths, making it look three dimensional.

When the contractor is ready, the entire enclosure is installed.

If everything was handled perfectly, the entire project would have taken about six weeks. After a stint in the armed services, Iman graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a degree in business administration. His first job after graduation was as an assistant controller of a company that specialized in restaurant and hotel interiors. He eventually became general manager of the operation.

One of the vendors he used was a decorative glass company. Its owner was more of an artisan than a businessman, and he persuaded Iman to become his general manager.

The two eventually had a falling out, and Iman--together with the company's top artist, Jerry Smith--formed Banana Fish Productions.

Ironically, neither Iman nor Smith has much custom glasswork in his own home.

"I do have a window in the kitchen, but that's it," says Iman, who lives in Irvine. "We're so busy, neither of us have time to do anything for ourselves. My little window took my artisan 40 hours to do, and I'm sure that anything we'd want would be even more intricate and time-consuming."

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