METAL design and fabrication studio opens near downtown Ann Arbor

All that glows is not gold, but it may well be metal. About 500 people attended the recent opening of METAL, an Ann Arbor-based design and fabrication shop run by a trio of artisans and found object devotees.

"I've been scraping my way though the bottom of plant baskets for metal and combing beaches as long as I can remember, so I have a love of a rusty object as well as one that's polished and pristine," co-owner Claudette Stern says.

Partners John Walters, Claudette Stern, and Don Billmaier occupy 5,000 square feet of space in a former petroleum and fuel oil distribution center near downtown at 220 Felch Street, just off Main. The brick building topped by a smoke stack sits near the  railroad. "I do like the train tracks. I've always lived by the train tracks," co-owner John Walters says. "Plus once we saw what the roof structure of this shop looked like I knew that it was the right place because it just has a wonderful antiquated first growth pine arched ceiling."

The shop dabbles in sculptural interpretations, mechanical parts, and useful things with one element in common: metal. Its showroom takes up a quarter of the space and is filled with repurposed antiquated objects and a vintage and industrial line of rust belt period furniture. The fabrication shop sits in an old garage bay. That's where the crafting of sculptures and architectural interior and exterior accent pieces, restoration (including old cars), and R&D (research and design) is done.

"Research and design is for people who are looking to make their ideas come to fruition, either within industry or in a more personal nature," Walters explains.

The company works with the University of Michigan's school of art and architecture on various projects. On the morning of our interview, Walters had just dropped off some dies for a CNC mandrel bender used in bending pipes. "Specifically we're working to provide support in the build and R&D of this mandrel bending apparatus for this seven-axis robot. It can cut stone, cut styrofoam with a heated wire, can cut logs at various complex angles with a saw apparatus. It's a shop platform which tries to have  one machine [the robot] do the functionality of many."

The partners are looking to start an apprenticeship program with students from local colleges and Eastern Michigan University and U-M. A summer intern will be starting in May. They also plan to offer classes in blacksmithing, CNC production, milling, fabrication, and the refurbishing and repurposing of outmoded objects.

Sources: Claudette Stern and John Walters, co-owners of METAL
Writer: Tanya Muzumdar

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