December 1, 2012
An industrial shop in Philadelphia, with roots in nineteenth-century manufacturing, remakes itself for a new era.
It’s a brawny yet delicate thing, the three-level central staircase inside the new REI store in Soho’s Puck building. The treads are heavy planks of reddish oak, each of which were at one time joists and beams in the 127-year-old structure. The boards were left rough, their ends exposed to reveal the rings of the trees cut down long ago to make them. The steps appear to float because they’re cantilevered off a single center iron support; they’re topped by banisters of glowing brass tubes, and flanked by walls of thick, etched glass. This found-materials theme continues throughout the store, where blond wood on the floors, ceilings, and walls accompanies the original cast-iron columns. It’s all intended to express the personality of REI, an outdoor clothing and sporting-goods retailer making its first foray into the urban confines of New York City.
The team responsible for building, refining, and installing this signature staircase is Amuneal, a fabri-cating company whose work is seen in stores and other environments throughout New York City and the rest of the country. This Philadelphia-based company’s success in the last decade exemplifies one path to profitably making things again. Similar to many manufacturers in Germany, the Amuneal story is about high skill, high wages, hands-on craftsmanship, advanced engineering—and good design.
The firm occupies three buildings in Frankford, a neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. Its headquarters, a solid brick building with a high roof and long cathedral-style windows, was originally a thread factory in the 1860s. Now, teams of architects and designers work in the front of the house, while in the back an assortment of twenty-first-century craftsmen stand over mammoth welding tables and hammer, saw, weld, and patinate. The shop employs a combination of skilled metalworkers along with sculptors, artists, and artisans. It’s the kind of place where a welder with 20 years of experience might work next to a recent graduate in furniture-making.
Amuneal’s leader is 42-year-old Adam Kamens. He joined the firm after graduating from college in the early 1990s, a few years after the death of his father, who founded the company in 1965 with Adam’s mother. Initially, Kamens kept the firm in magnetic shielding, a specialized type of industrial work, as Adam (on the side) ran his own glassblowing studio in Philadelphia.
But as the use of cathode ray tubes in televisions and computer terminals began to dwindle—diminishing the need for magnetic shielding—he sought to diversify the firm’s business. At first he successfully sought more specialized magnetic shielding jobs. But he also opted to explore new work that would blend his two worlds of industry and art. “Sometimes I’d bring my glass customers here to the factory, and they would see these industrial machines and look at them not as machines, but as objects,” Kamens said. “I began to see them through their eyes,” he remembers, and the idea of repositioning the company began taking shape.
He began with a line of custom furniture; business was slow until the products were noticed at the 1999 International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York City. That led to a contract designing a custom metal display rack for bikinis at Barneys New York. Thirteen years later, the firm’s $20 million in annual revenue is roughly split between magnetic shielding and custom fabrication. The two halves of the business operate side by side. The shielding work is remarkably high-tech, involving machines like hydrogen furnaces, where metal is dipped into liquid hydrogen at extremely high temp-eratures to scrub it free of impurities and increase its shielding properties. Both architectural fabrication and magnetic shielding end with skilled workers twisting, bending, and shaping metal. “John is in a punk rock band,” Kamens says, pointing to an impressively tattooed man leaning over a huge welding table.
With its emphasis on things done by hand and aided by technology, Kamens believes the firm is reconnecting with America’s industrial past and tradition of craftsmanship. To remind everyone of this, he has sprinkled a variety of vintage products around the factory. Some are displayed on shelves in the boardroom, while others are tucked in nooks by the factory floor: old paint brushes with leather trim held by brass fasteners, polished wooden shoe trees, brass and steel scissors, a case of glasses used by optometrists for measuring eye strength. “We see how they made things 100 years ago, the care and attention to detail,” Kamens says, as we look at spools of thread made by Clark Thread, the first occupants of the building a century and a half ago. “This inspires us. It also lets our customers know that we have a point of view.”
This connection with the industrial past runs deep with Kamens. When I mention how nineteenth-century drawings showcase a set of skills now largely lost, his eyes brighten and he opens a steel cabinet and begins pulling out dozens of lush hand drawings, some dating back to the 1700s. “Look at this one, it’s from 1836,” he says. It’s a political cartoon showing two men—one fat, the other thin—symbolizing prosperity and want. Another treasure is a black notebook from an engineering student a century ago, containing pages of hand-drawn illustrations depicting machinery, along with notes made in flowing script. “This is all about a time,” Kamens says, “when doing something well by hand was routine.”
The firm’s three buildings are located in a neighborhood with its fair share of dilapidated buildings in a city that, like nearby Baltimore, includes thousands of abandoned homes and a fragile tax base. But Kamens has no big complaints.
The low hip-quotient of Frankford means large empty industrial buildings are available for a song. And the city has always been easy to work with. “What I say about Philadelphia is, you can do what you want to do here,” Kamens says. “I never felt any restrictions.”
Although it can be difficult to move objects between com-pact old buildings on small lots, Kamens says he won’t move to a spacious suburban warehouse, despite plenty of offers. “There’s a certain amount of grit we need to do what we do,” he says. “People come to us for authenticity. Moving would kill a wonderful part of who we are.” The company’s varied contracts include 40,000 defibrillator panels for Zoll Medical, and magnetic shielding for the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.
Amuneal has been particularly active in New York City, working on custom fabrications with a series of retailers, hotels, restaurants, architects, and artists. Its manufacturing facilities are close enough so that teams can travel back and forth easily, and the company has an office in Union Square. If you travel around Manhattan, you’re likely to see a lot of the firm’s work. Amuneal designed and constructed the custom lobby and guest suite furniture for the Royalton Hotel as well as the small light fixtures outside the guest rooms at the Ace Hotel. The company fabricated a piece of public art by Sarah Sze on the High Line, and created the sandbox with a pulley system for the David Rockwell-designed Imagination Playground at the South Street Seaport.
For retail spaces, Amuneal creates backdrops or frames for merchandise: The team made the custom fitting rooms and doors for the men’s department at Bergdorf Goodman, and the jewelry display case built into a wall for Ippolita at Saks Fifth Avenue. At the REI store, shoppers are wrapped in a cocoon of warm wood, punctuated by found materials from the building’s industrial past, including the cast-iron columns and two enormous flywheels taken from the building’s one-time printing presses. The staircase occupies a center space that was carved between the three floors of the store, two of them belowground, a move that liberated materials to be used elsewhere in the store. “Normally you might have one or two firms involved in a project; here we had five or six,” says David Curtis of Callison, the architects responsible for the design.
Amuneal handled the signature staircase, finalizing the details, fabricating many of its parts, and then building and installing it. It was an iterative process, according to Yosuke Kawai, Callison’s lead architect on the staircase, with the architects and fabricators passing drawings and 3-D models back and forth to tweak and perfect the design. “The nice thing about working with Amuneal is that they have this finesse,” Kawai says.
Indeed, the fabricator’s on-site team possessed that left-brain/right-brain sensibility typical of Amuneal: Curt Brinkman, a former aerospace engineer, acted as project manager, and his colleague, Joe DiGiuseppe, a sculptor by training, installed the brass handrails, welding most of them on site. “Amuneal brought it all together,” says Elizabeth Dowd, director of store design and visual merchandise for REI. “They were the team that worked on it all the way through.”
For Kamens, projects like the REI staircase hit the sweet spot between aesthetic and technical challenges. Although he wants to keep the firm at the present size so that it can maintain its focus on quality, he is aware that no company can stand still. “When I was young I remember my father saying, ‘There’s no such thing as a nice small business,’” Kamens says. “You have to constantly reinvent yourself.”