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Arts & Life

Artisans of Michigan: Forging ornamental iron

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Nieves Longordo, president of Diseños Ornamental Iron.

This week, Artisans of Michigan stops in southwest Detroit, at the Diseños Ornamental Iron company.

In the shop, people are welding fences, bending, hammering orange hot – you know, even hotter than red hot – lengths of steel into ornamental scrolls. Others are grinding down welds, smoothing it out to make it look good, and prepping the sculpted steel for powder coating.

Nieves Longordo is president of Diseños. She says the company was started in the mid-1970s by her step dad, Tony Martinez, and his brothers.

The recession hit Diseños hard, and Longordo says the business has had to make some adjustments.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
An ornamental fence being fabricated. It still needs finish work before being painted.

“We used to work a lot on residential projects that were very ornate – a lot of scroll work – and we’ve shifted a little bit,” she says. “We’ve expanded into more of a commercial, government jobs. And what I’ve noticed, the trends have changed with the interior designers too. They’re going to a more contemporary, cleaner look – less scroll.”

She says the company tries to keep up with what’s in style, which means the workers have to change too.

“Just yesterday one of the employees was expressing how he misses doing more of the intricate forging projects, so maybe we’ll pursue, to try to see if there’s any contractors specializing in that, and go back to that niche,” Longordo says. “But we’ve diversified a lot.”

Pedro Avilez is one of the long-time workers at Diseños. He does a lot of the forge work – he makes those ornamental scrolls.

In Spanish, he says his work makes him proud. He says it’s fulfilling to see work done with his own hands.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Until recently, Diseños used hand drawn designs and illustrations for its customers. Recently it's been using Computer Assisted Drafting (CAD).

Everyone at Diseños is pretty much an artisan at one level or another. You can’t get this sort of work at the big box hardware stores, or even from those fencing companies that use pre-manufactured, hollow-tube metal fencing.

Longordo says her customers know they’re getting something special.

“There’s people that really appreciate something that’s handmade, especially when they come into the shop and they see what it takes to put the work together – the sense of the ownership really changes,” she says. “You know, we encourage people to come in and take a look at the artisan work, and then they see the true involvement and time consumption that it takes to put the work together.”

“And it’ll not only make the house a lot more beautiful, in my opinion, but it’ll add a lot of value to the property as well.”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Artisans of Michigan is produced in partnership with the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes from the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs.

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