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Ironing Out the Details : To See the New Directions Being Forged in Metalwork, Look What This Laguna Designer Has Wrought

September 04, 1993|MARESA ARCHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Appreciated for its qualities of strength and grace, wrought iron is increasingly being used in home furnishings--showing up in everything from curtain rods and candlesticks to tables and chairs.

The new designs for wrought iron are far removed from two long-held images of the metal's use--sterile security bars and the ultra-ornate balconies of New Orleans' French Quarter.

Rather, the new styles favor graceful open curves and stylized accents.

Among those forging this new direction in wrought iron is designer Douglas Murray of Laguna Beach. Working with local blacksmiths, Murray has been creating wrought-iron furnishings for the past decade. His furniture is meant to be practical as well as visually stunning.

Among his distinctive touches is a signature twist found in many pieces.

"I consider my pieces works of art," Murray said. "At the same time I use it in a traditional fashion. It is durable; you don't have to be afraid to use one of my tables as a dining table or a desk."

Throughout Murray's home/studio in Laguna Canyon are examples of his furniture in everyday use, such as the granite-topped desk with an iron base he designed.

While Murray's pieces have simple lines, they require complex work.

His tables, for example, usually have subtle differences in the shape in each leg, yet the table is solid and doesn't rock because careful attention has been paid to the balance of the piece. "My concept is to use classic designs from the French and Picasso's line drawings," Murray said. "Alexander Calder was also a big influence.

"I went to a show of his when I was 18 or 19 and saw this wire furniture he had made for a child's dollhouse. The wire was bent into these marvelous shapes; I just flipped over it. I knew I'd eventually work with iron."

Today, Murray sells his pieces to interior design shops such as Blake House in Laguna Niguel and Mimi London at the Los Angeles Design Center.

A console or dining table can cost the consumer as much as $3,000. A two-foot candlestick retails for about $125.

The cost reflects the fact that each piece is custom designed and hand-forged.

The popularity of the wrought-iron look has brought less expensive, knockoff versions of designer pieces onto the market.

"The stuff you see created for the mass market is a thinner gauge and is just twisted into shape. It has not been hand-forged," said Murray, who has seen knockoff versions his work.

"I've seen a lot of that, but I don't worry about it. A friend told me it is the greatest form of flattery, and it forces you stay creative and move on to new designs," he said.

When Murray decided to turn his attention to wrought iron nearly a decade ago, others were not using it for home furnishings in quite the same way.

Not formally trained in design, Murray draws his creations on giant sheets of paper.

"The design is free-form, like a line drawing. I don't know much about scale, so I just draw with one inch equaling a foot," he said.

Because he was not well versed in the technicalities of drafting, Murray had to find blacksmiths who could create his furniture from simple sketches.

Enter Carl and Chris Ellesson, father and son blacksmiths who have worked with Murray since the beginning.

At first, Carl Ellesson was working at another shop, squeezing in Murray's orders when there was a lull in his regular work. Before long, Murray was placing enough orders for Carl to open his own shop with Chris as a partner.

"We wanted just a small father-and-son business," Carl Ellesson said. "I'm a craftsman, and I enjoy working with someone like Doug, where we can work together to make something beautiful."

Not long ago, Murray branched into architectural wrought iron, doing staircases, fences and gates. The Ellessons decided to stick with furniture-making and sold their Ellesson Iron Inc. business in Costa Mesa to fellow blacksmith Javier Navarro.

Now, Navarro does all the big wrought-iron orders for Murray, while the Ellessons concentrate on Murray's furniture at another Costa Mesa shop.

Because there are so many regulations governing an open forging oven, both shops use a stationary acetylene and oxygen torch to heat metal.

To make the signature twist in Murray's design takes several steps, including heating the metal twice. Special vises have to be used as well as a lot of brute strength to bend the metal.

A simple scroll not more than six inches in diameter must be heated, hammered, heated again and then smoothed. Each scroll can take four minutes or more to make. "If you've got 80 of them in a staircase, you're talking about a lot of time," Navarro said.

It is not easy to find blacksmiths that can do delicate work, Murray said.

"They are true craftsman, and their work rarely gets recognized. By the time the piece is sold, usually through an interior designer, my name can get lost as the designer, let alone the blacksmith's name."

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