In the heart of Beth Van Auken’s Shawnee home is a large piece of polished, rectangular wood perched on slanted metal legs. It occupies the space between her living room and kitchen.
“I smile at it every day,” Van Auken said one recent morning.
Several of her four children wander through this space with their friends, the house already bustling with people on a mission. The table’s creator, Kevin Jarvis of Brass Tacks, circles the room and surveys his work. Occasionally he runs his hand along its surface.
“I like to see these pieces again. I spend so much time with them, it’s hard sometimes to let them go,” Jarvis said.
The table has become a conversation piece in this home. Van Auken discovered Jarvis’ work at the Greater Kansas City Home and Garden Show last March. She saw one of his tables, featuring a similar style of polished wood paired with a cold-rolled steel base, and swooned.
“I was in love.” She sang the last word of this sentence. “We have (friends) over a lot, and we have kids, so people are always rotating through. I really wanted a bigger table so we can all gather.”
Roughly one month after she commissioned Jarvis to design, locally source and craft the table, it was delivered. It took three men to carry it inside.
“I was speechless. I love it more every day,” Van Auken said. “I know we wrote a check for this table, but we feel like it was gifted to us.”
Although the Van Auken home features traditionally styled furniture and accent pieces, the table — made from urban-sourced walnut and supported by seamless steel, angled legs with limited screws and bracketry — is what Jarvis calls a “rustic industrial” style: clean, modern lines with elements that play well together. Pairing the smooth wood with rough metal accents makes this table versatile.
“You could put that table in a loft building or put it in a cabin. It will work anywhere,” Jarvis said.
And because of its high-quality construction and solid materials, the table will be around for a long time. In fact, Van Auken’s youngest son has already asked for it to be left to him one day.
Metalwork has long offered homeowners an idea of permanence that is often as exciting as the history of blacksmithing itself.
“Ironwork is one of the few mediums where you can impart your own personality in a way that will outlive us and future generations. … If I make something out of bronze, you won’t have to do anything to it for 500 years,” said Steve Austin of Austin’s Iron Works in Claycomo.
He stands in the middle of his shop, surrounded by metal hooks, railings and raw pieces of all shapes and sizes.
Austin has fired up his forge for 43 years. His work has enhanced the homes of prominent Kansas Citians such as Julia Irene Kauffman, as well as skyscrapers and public spaces all around the city, including furniture in Rozzelle Court at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
“In the olden days, the blacksmith primarily worked at night, when it was cooler around the fire and the shop was a pantheon of shadows. He made the weapons and the tools,” Austin said over the noise of the forge and hammers. “He was the only one who could manipulate the medium (that the villagers) were interested in getting. They thought, ‘If you can control the four elements — earth, wind, fire and water — you were attributed with some degree of magic.’ ”
Austin jokes that he, too, has magical powers, and to see him hammer a straight piece of metal against his anvil until it curves into a smooth railing of angles and edges, one could see why the blacksmith got such a reputation.
“At times it’s an art form, but I have to be realistic. We still do a lot of ma-and-pa porch rail stuff,” he said. “But occasionally we’ll get a job that requires quite a bit more than most other blacksmiths can even conceive.”
Such projects include a Merlin-inspired railing in a modern-day castle at Weatherby Lake; hand-forged balustrades for a $98 million, 28,000-square-foot mansion in Pebble Beach, Calif.; or a spiral staircase in his own Claycomo home. Tucked into its rails are horizontal prisms that cast rainbows on the walls that move with the day and the season, turning the room into a sundial.
The test of time
The contrast between the way Austin and Jarvis use metal to create distinctive pieces shows the allure of an element so versatile, so timeless and enduring, it can be turned into anything with a solid vision and the right blacksmith or metal fabricator to hammer it out.
“Metal is so easy to form into different shapes that, with the right technology and machinery, you can make custom pieces that are more or less nonporous, seamless. If you can come up with an idea, any fabricator in this city can make it,” said Joe Hirleman, general manager of Red Devil Metal Fabrication.
His company produced a steel fireplace that Jarvis designed for his own Overland Park home.
“We liked the color of it, the raw blue of the steel. It ties the room together with the concrete counters, and the dark tone with the stark white plays well together,” Jarvis said.
His wife, Molly, looks on as their children toddle in and out of the airy living space very much inspired by Scandinavian design.
The result is a salvaged feel with a polished spin, and the fireplace itself is touchable and lovely in the full morning light coming through the windows. The husband-and-wife design team — they are launching an interior design aspect of Brass Tacks — incorporated lighter-toned butcher block, wood floors and leather furniture to soften the metalwork that is the room’s feature piece.
“It’s all about making everything really appealing and comforting. You can do that with steel. You just have to do it right.”
Because if you do, there’s a good chance the result will quite literally stand the test of time.
“This will be standing here until they tear the house down.”
Soften metal with natural textures
With an infinite number of ways to introduce iron, steel, copper and bronze into any living space, knowing how to help these rough elements play well with their environment is key. Molly Jarvis designs retail displays at Anthropologie in Leawood and works with her husband as creative director for Brass Tacks. When designing their own home, she kept the following in mind to make the space appealing and comforting while working around the large metal fireplace that Kevin designed.
▪ Pair metal tones with other natural, softer elements, like leather chair accents in colors lighter than the metalwork.
▪ Balance the room with other textures and neutral colors. Jarvis chose a dark wood-stained floor to pair with Scandinavian-inspired white walls, a charcoal gray concrete counter and a light butcher block. An animal-hide rug brings the “rustic” to the rustic-industrial style the couple love so much.
▪ Introduce fresh flowers and plant life to add a splash of color and life and make things feel more feminine.