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Etched metal tabletops explode onto design scene

It was May and my first chance to leave Los Angeles since my serendipitous meeting with a nice young Belgian man who had appeared in my showroom several months earlier. The plane landed in Brussels and before long I was checked into my hotel room, unpacked and on my way to our scheduled meeting at his “atelier.” I prayed that I would be able to follow the concierge’s directions.

Giving thanks for the beautiful spring weather and the cloudless blue sky, I quickly realized that the street names were posted on the sides of buildings and not on street signs. Suddenly, I came face-to-face not with my destination, but with Brussels’ greatest city treasure — the Mannekin Pis, a world-famous statue of a boy peeing — which turned out to be a mere 2 feet high! I said a quick prayer that the table designs I had seen that day in Los Angeles wouldn’t be as disappointing. They weren’t.

The polished-brass tabletops were dazzling and shone right through the plate-glass windows of the showroom. This had to be the place.

Upon entering, I was literally overcome by the dazzling beauty that lay before my eyes. I’m sure I was grinning from ear to ear as the young man approached from a back office. The usual pleasantries were exchanged and then I got right down to business.

I told him that I thought his product was too beautiful for words and that I had to have these tables for my shop. Up close I was able to see that the substrates of the tabletops were covered with sheets of polished brass that had somehow been etched with designs that he proudly referred to as the “explosion” and “sunburst” patterns. Of course there were others as well, but these two were certainly my favorites — sort of love at first sight.

I remember thinking that maybe I could take them home with me on the plane. I instinctively knew that I would make a big splash with these tables in Los Angeles — and I did.

By early fall, the tables were prominently featured in my showroom. There were dining-conference tables with inset etched panels on lacquered bases and awesome coffee tables supported by stone bases of travertine and black marble. They were indeed unique and hand-designed by a gifted young artist named Christian, who later moved permanently to America. He was able to transform ordinary functional forms into works truly inspired with originality and beauty. What a combination, and what a talent. And what luck for me that I was able to present his work to the design community.

Christian explained to me that the art of etching on metal went all the way back to the Middle Ages in Europe, and perhaps even further to ancient times. Etching then was done by goldsmiths and other metalworkers in order to decorate such items as guns, armor and even cups and plates.

I never really did learn just how Christian produced his tabletops, but I have a feeling he used some time-honored methods combined with techniques that he had developed because his metal had the most wonderful texture to it. The lines that formed the pattern were raised, creating a surface that was incredibly practical as the metal would never appear scratched through normal use. The tables were further protected by a coat of clear metal lacquer.

I combined the custom etched brass or chrome tabletops (chrome requiring some additional steps in the manufacturing process) with nonetched metals and metal laminates. There seemed to be countless ways in which to produce these tables, and all with unbridled success. Proof again that design aficionados are always on the lookout for something new and wonderful.

In fact, an older couple in the process of redoing their home were so intrigued by what they saw that they placed an order for a large dining table with an explosion top in brass and a black granite base along with a buffet featuring the same granite on top, etched brass doors and lacquered cabinet.

The line was later expanded to offer a limited series of elevator doors, murals, residence doors, fireplaces and sculptures, all done in a variety of styles: traditional, art deco and contemporary. I collaborated with architects and interior designers always trying to adapt to a client’s budget and specifications, though being custom and hand-wrought the finished product was never inexpensive.

For those of us who love the look and feel of metal furniture (whether etched or not) and don’t have the budget for Christian’s artistry, today’s marketplace offers some wonderful alternatives in the form of metal laminates. Offered by companies such as Chemetal and Wilsonart International, these are ingenious materials in a host of finishes from polished to satin, and any number of etched designs at price points that will “etch” a smile on the face of even the most discerning shopper.

Stephen Leon is president of Soleil Design International and has been designing and manufacturing custom furniture and cabinetry for more than 25 years. He is on the board of directors of the Central California/Nevada Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Questions can be sent to soleildesign@cox.net.

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