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hed: He Turns Yesterday's Junk Into Today's Treasures

Furniture maker transforms castoff pieces from architectural salvage yards into works of art.

May 18, 2000|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a pile of rusted, beat-up junk, Fred Balak can always find a diamond.

He reaches into a cardboard box filled with rust-encrusted wrought-iron scrolls and pulls one out, looking at it thoughtfully. He passes it back and forth between his hands, his fingers familiar with the rough texture.

"You could combine a few of these and form a border around a cabinet," he says. "Or you could just attach one on top, and it becomes an ornament. I love these things just as they are, as sculpture pieces. There are so many different kinds and shapes."

What most people would throw out this furniture maker sees as outstanding pieces of decorative history waiting to be reborn.

Through his eyes, architectural salvage yards are treasure troves of inspiration. Here, among cracked, dusty radiators, orphaned windows and stray bits of molding, Balak, 61, can barely contain his enthusiasm.

He decides the fate of such noble refuse. Balak's forte is taking materials such as leaded windows, shutters, table legs, rusty nails, chewed-up cabinets and battered doors and turning them into sturdy buffets, cupboards, cabinets, benches, armoires, candleholders, tables and chests.

His furniture may start with one element--an old cupboard door with a window and original hardware. Balak then builds a cabinet around it from old wood. The end result is a seamless fusing of disparate pieces.

Or he might start with a decrepit oil-soaked factory workbench, gut it, refinish the redwood top, whitewash the pine tongue-and-groove front and sides, and transform it into a country buffet. He works his alchemy for clients who covet custom items, charging $150 to $6,000, depending on the piece and the work involved.

"I enjoy the process of putting things together, of taking a door and building a cabinet around it," he says. "There is so much satisfaction and fulfillment in doing that, especially when you know that it was something that somebody discarded that has been transcended."

Balak came to full-time furniture design only recently. A former sales manager for a dental insurance company in Los Angeles, he left that three years ago, traded a Westside home for a downtown loft and set up an extensive workshop downstairs.

There, an old rabbit hutch rests on a dolly, waiting for its next incarnation. His current project is a custom cabinet incorporating molding from a 60-year-old fireplace mantel, old banister spindles and a section cut from a chair railing.

Balak learned woodworking from his father, who did it as a hobby, and from an aunt, who was a contractor.

"I devoured books and learned by experience," Balak says, "but even to this day when I have a question about something, I'll call my aunt."

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He first made pieces for himself, then friends would come over and ask him for something similar. Word of mouth spread, and his client roster grew. After several years it was time to make a decision--insurance or furniture. He offers this understatement: "It was nice to step out of the corporate world."

Architectural Detail in Pasadena is one of Balak's favorite salvage yard haunts. He's a regular, visiting monthly to peruse the stock. On a recent day he stopped by with wife JoAnne, an artist, and within minutes had mentally transformed a number of items.

"Now this," he says, gesturing toward a large rectangular leaded-glass window, "can be turned horizontally and made into a headboard for a bed. That would be absolutely incredible. And this," he points to a tall, hefty wooden post, "could be cut in half, and it could be the side pieces for the bed. It's beginning to take shape already."

He sees a filigree radiator cover as a door on a cabinet, Victorian ceiling tins as the top of a coffee table, table legs as candleholders or appliqued ornaments on a cabinet, a rusted gate hinge as a coatrack, and a reception desk as a dining room buffet. Prices here range from $20 for a claw foot from an antique bathtub to $250 for a small, weathered cabinet to $500 for a desk.

Scant few things are turned down. But Balak won't even look at anything made with particle board--it must be solid wood. And the wood must be sound, not rotted or termite-infested. Odd chips or splits don't bother him. They might be left as is, replaced or covered up.

Rust, flakes of old paint and chipped wood are often untouched. Like gray hair and laugh lines they have been earned and should be celebrated.

"What makes me so crazy," Balak says, "is there is so much. You can be on overload when you come in here. My wife and I will leave here sometimes and be so exhausted. There is no end to the possibilities."

The possibilities become crystal clear after a trip to the Balaks' downtown loft. In some 2,600 square feet they've created a cozy nest that is a testament to the power of redemption.

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