Style of Steel
The nation's hottest design trend couldn't be more at home here.
Photo by Chuck Beard
Some folks contact Kevin Ryan because they’re searching for a battered wooden scrub brush to hang in their kitchen. Others are seeking the perfect rusty metal box to decorate their living room or a card catalog from the days of the Dewey Decimal System to use as a dining room sideboard.
These may seem like odd requests. But as the concept of “industrial design” continues to grow in popularity throughout the nation, these discarded bits of America’s industrial past suddenly have become hot décor items.
Ryan runs Urge Studio, an online Etsy shop. He lives in Shadyside and sells to customers locally, but he also ships items of all shapes and sizes to homeowners from California to Oregon to Texas — and especially to New York. Everyone from Park Avenue socialites to Brooklyn loft-dwellers seems to be hungry to add a touch of industrial edge and all-American authenticity to their homes, he says.
Maybe it’s because we’ve come to appreciate the beauty in old workmanship — the curve of a workshop table’s legs, the detailed patterns etched into the metal surface of an aging sign, the subtle glow of a whisper-thin filament inside an Edison-style light bulb. Maybe, after decades spent surrounded by disposable goods made from landfill-choking plastic, there’s a growing desire for items crafted from steel and wood and glass that have stood the test of time — or at least appear as though they have.
Or perhaps it’s about the stories. There’s something uniquely comforting about filling your home with items that have a history behind them, whether or not you can find out where they originally were used or whose lives they might have touched before you acquired them.
As this decorating trend burns red-hot around the nation, it’s also being embraced in Pittsburgh.
Strip District resident Justin Knecht says he loves the industrial details that make his ground-floor Cork Factory apartment distinct, including a huge garage door that appears to have once served as an entrance to a loading dock.
On summer evenings, he is “able to throw open the door, removing one of my walls, revealing clear views across the Strip to the Pittsburgh skyline reaching up into the night sky,” he says.
“How many people have a removable wall with a view of the city?”
Knecht also treasures the real history that’s embedded in the walls of his home.
“Historic buildings have character and are of the place because they were always part of the place, and that history inhabits them,” Knecht says. “Living here makes me feel more part of a place as well. I feel connected to the city and the neighborhood.”
The design experts at local firm Concrete Zen are working nonstop to create custom concrete floors, countertops and more for homeowners throughout the Pittsburgh area. These people want something raw and elemental — the polar opposite of polished Formica and gleaming hardwood or laminate.
Despite its size, the sprawling Construction Junction warehouse off of Penn Avenue in Point Breeze can get a bit crowded on a Saturday afternoon, as people of all ages and budgets hunt for everything from quirky vintage light fixtures and old doorknobs to doors salvaged from a building that once housed the city morgue.
And at buildings such as the Cork Factory and Lot 24 in the Strip, Knecht isn’t alone in appreciating the modern amenities and proximity to downtown as well as the exposed brick walls and steel beams.
“I love the fact that the history of this building wasn’t demolished to quickly construct a new building that wouldn’t have a fraction of the character or charm,” says Cork Factory resident Rebecca Rozic.
Photo by Chuck Beard
“This may seem silly, but this building continues to give,” Rozic says. “It once gave people a source of income, allowing for them to provide for their families. And now it gives people a source of happiness, allowing for us [who] live here to have a place we can proudly call home.”
The generations-old stains that have seeped through the ceilings at these industrial-style apartment buildings actually are a selling point rather than something to be fixed. They forever echo some long-forgotten moment when a factory worker spilled a can of oil on a floor and continued on with his day.
“I never thought I would describe concrete and exposed brick as a warm and comfortable living space,” Rozic says, “but I do.”
That’s the thing about this trend and our city: Pittsburghers weren’t simply spectators to this country’s industrial past — it unfolded here. We have a long, complicated relationship with the rise and fall of industry in the 20th century. It may have taken a few generations of growth and change for us to accept the
elegance in a rusting piece of machinery or see the potential homes that lie within a dormant, crumbling factory building, but we have begun celebrating these relics’ physical beauty and historical value. And we’re doing it with a knowledge and understanding that’s born from generations of real experience.
“Pittsburghers love their history and are proud of it,” says Derek Stoltz, general manager at Construction Junction. “This city was booming during the industrial era with both glass and steel. Designing with these materials just fits and feels like home.”
How Pittsburghers are Using Industrial Style
Filling a Room with Filaments. Edison-style filament bulbs may not shine as brightly as compact fluorescents, but nothing says vintage industrial like the warm, golden glow from these fragile glass bulbs. Stop by Industry Public House in Lawrenceville to see them used to perfection (above), grouped together to create inviting pools of light and hung in delicate contrast to the rough texture of exposed brick walls.
Bringing the Concrete Inside. The design experts at Concrete Zen do plenty of exterior projects such as backyard patios. They also have a growing list of clients who want to use durable, industrial concrete inside as well as out. Concrete floors add an urban-loft vibe to even the most classic suburban home, while concrete countertops are incredibly durable once they’ve been fully sealed to create a nonporous surface.
Keeping it Raw. Kevin Ryan has clients at his Etsy shop who want industrial items with the grit still on them. This approach surely isn’t for everyone. But consider adding a few items to your home that haven’t been fully rehabbed or rebuilt. Great “as-is” flea market finds for decorating include old notebooks, instruction manuals, recipe pamphlets and roadmaps.
Going Faux. Look for objects that echo the look of early 20th-century industry but were created from new materials. Restoration Hardware in the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon has bathroom mirrors and cabinetry that look as though they were lifted from Mr. Gower’s drugstore in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” as well as leather chairs that appear to be wrapped in metal that once served as a fighter-jet fuselage.
Small-space Solution. A wall of steel and glass mailboxes salvaged from an apartment building might not fit into your budget or your physical space. Still, you can bring the feeling of huge industrial relics into your space. Ryan offers photographs of big items for those who can’t buy the actual item. “Not everybody,” he says, “can afford a 500-pound piece of furniture.”
5 Reasons We've Fallen in Love with Industrial Design
So much room for creativity.
There are no rules for how you display an old typewriter or a ticket-stub box from a former movie theater. And there isn’t just one way to turn an old front door into a great table. Maybe you give it four typical legs, or maybe you stack a bunch of vintage suitcases, glue them together and place them underneath the door as pedestals. Stoltz, of Construction Junction, sees how much satisfaction Pittsburghers derive from finding items they can use for their own designs. “There is just something unique about creating something out of salvaged materials,” he says. “You can make something that is common in function but unique in form.”
Good things are going but definitely not gone yet.
If the hunger for this stuff continues, it won’t be too many more years before attics and basements are tapped out of cool, old treasures. For now, though, there still are plenty of awesome items out there at yard sales and flea markets — much of it available at low prices, Ryan says.
Uncovering is way more fun (and less expensive) than re-covering.
It takes elbow grease to strip layers of plaster from brick walls or remove an old drop ceiling to expose the ductwork above, but it’s work you can do yourself, says Daniell Walker, one of the co-owners of Industry Public House. She and her partners spent the better part of a year stripping the Lawrenceville storefront that became their restaurant. Customers praise the raw, unfinished feeling of the space. “Everything that for decades people have tried to conceal — we’re all just really excited about it,” Walker says.
Industrial mixes beautifully with other decorating styles.
Some people choose to go entirely industrial, but this style also works brilliantly when sprinkled into other décor. An elaborate old metal typewriter provides great contrast in an otherwise sleek, mid-century modern room. A set of vintage glassware picked up for a bargain price at a local estate sale adds unexpected style to a simple china cabinet (and costs far less than new crystal).
The environment will thank you.
Assuming you go with real old items instead of new, faux-vintage décor, you’ll be doing Mother Nature a very welcome favor.
Do It Yourself This Weekend
Industrial shelving units are built to hold heavy loads and last for decades. But a vintage piece that’s the right size isn’t always easy to find, and ordering custom-made items can be expensive. The solution? Spend a Saturday making your own from planks of wood and plumbing parts. No furniture-making experience necessary.
- Wood planks: Reclaimed wood is a great choice but can be hard to find. To get this project done in a weekend, visit a home-improvement store to have wood cut to size. Choose deep planks — 2 inches by 12 inches by 12 feet is deep enough to comfortably display books or other items. For a 3-foot-wide bookshelf with four levels, have that 2-by-12-by-12 plank cut in four equal pieces.
- Steel pipes (also called nipples) and floor flanges: Available in gray or black steel, pipes of a given thickness (1/2-inch, 3/4-inch or 1-inch) can be attached to flanges of the same thickness. Thicker pipes will give a more industrial look, but thinner pipes result in a slightly more delicate piece. These will be the most expensive components of your project, with each costing several dollars. (You can also get creative and vary the thicknesses of the pipes on each level.) For a four-level bookshelf, buy 12 pipes (either 10 or 12 inches long) so you’ll have four between each level. Then buy 24 flanges in the corresponding size.
- Wood screws: Use flat-head Phillips screws. Size depends on the size of the holes in the flanges you’ve chosen.
- Wood stain or paint, and/or a layer of clear polyurethane to seal the wood
- Adhesive furniture pads and wall straps: Optional, but the pads may help to make the finished bookcase perfectly level. Also, the straps can securely attach your finished piece to a wall if it’s tall and you’re concerned about it tipping.
➊ Sand each wood shelf to smooth and round the edges. Then paint or stain as you wish, making sure each piece fully dries before you apply the next coat. Finish with a clear coat to protect the wood, and then let dry fully. While the wood is drying, clean each pipe and flange with soap and water.
➋ Spread a drop cloth out to protect your floor, and then put down the wood plank that will be the bottom shelf. Place one flange on top of each corner of the plank, approximately a half-inch from the edge of the wood. If you’re making a wide piece (more than 3 or 4 feet), you may want to put an extra set of flanges and pipes in the center for support, for a total of six pipes supporting each level rather than four. (Or you may do this simply because you like the look of the extra pipes.)
➌ Holding each flange in place, drill into the wood about a half-inch through each flange’s four holes. Then secure a screw in each hole. Once all of the flanges on that level are solidly secured, screw a pipe fully into each one and then screw another flange to the top of each pipe.
➍ Place the wood that will form your second shelf upside down on the drop cloth, and place the bottom shelf upside down on top of that second shelf. (It’s easier to drill down rather than up, which is why you flip the piece here.) Carefully drill holes and secure the flanges to what will be the underside of the second shelf. You now will have two shelves securely attached to each other. Set this piece aside.
➎ Repeat this process with the other two pieces of wood so that you have two sets of shelves secured. Now it’s time to connect them.
➏ Place the bottom section on your drop cloth and arrange flanges along the surface. Before drilling and screwing the flanges to the wood, make sure the holes for the top flanges don’t match up exactly with the holes for the flanges already secured underneath that shelf. (If necessary, adjust the top layer of flanges so the screws from one layer of flanges won’t hit the screws from the layer below them.) Then drill and screw in these flanges.
➐ Screw pipes into the flanges on top of the second shelf, and then screw the final layer of flanges into the top of these pipes. With help from another person, lift the assembled top two shelves and place them on top of the pipes and flanges that are extending above the second shelf. Now you’ll need to drill upward, unless your piece is small enough that you can flip it over entirely. Before drilling holes, again check that this final layer of flanges does not have its holes matching up directly to the holes in the layer above. If necessary, twist the flanges just slightly to avoid having the two sets of screws bump into each other inside the wood. Then drill the holes and screw those flanges to the shelf above.
➑ Because planks sold at home improvement stores are not always perfectly level, you may find that your bookcase is slightly uneven on the bottom. If necessary, use the small adhesive furniture pads on one or several corners to make the piece level. You also may wish to buy a safety tether to attach the bookcase to a wall.