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Monday | 16 May, 2011 | 7:54 am

Forging flights

By Nick Wright

May 2011 - Designed with computer models and laser-guided floor mapping but crafted with the timeless techniques of the first blacksmiths, the bespoke stair systems by Jefferson Mack Metal, San Francisco, are unifying floors with enduring metalwork.

"When I start to design for an existing project, I imagine what the original designer had in mind," says Jefferson Mack, CEO of the company. "If I'm successful in my design, my finished work will look like it was there from when the house was built and not done in the last year."

Bespoke stair systems are made to order. In fact, the word bespoke derives from the old English "to be spoken for," as in a custom fabrication for a select client. Most of Mack's clients for bespoke stairways are building large, custom homes. "When someone saw it in the craftsman's shop and asked if they could buy that one, he would answer, "It's been spoken for,' meaning someone already paid for it in advance," Mack says, regarding the term's origin.

Generally, wrought steel, also referred to as mild steel, and some silicon bronze comprise Mack's stairways. "Silicon bronze is forgeable and the MIG wire that is available is silicon bronze, so there is no discoloration at the weld joint in the finished product." Cost, of course, is often a deciding factor, as a client may choose steel instead of bronze to accommodate a working budget.

Traditional methods of metalworking, forging molten steel, and twisting and hammering it into shapes, seem something of an anachronism in the shadow of fabrication technology. (See video here of the shop in action: Jefferson Mack Metal.) Combined with the aplomb and accuracy of modern design techniques, the storied methods become more refined. "One tends to shy away from them because they seem complicated at first, but when you get into them, it's just a matter of geometry and mathematics," Mack adds.

The patterns behind Mack's bespoke stair systems, depending on the design, evoke a monolithic cascade that appears to grow organically from the job site. A recent exterior completion for a Palm Springs, Calif., home is adorned with serpentine square stems that unfurl from the railing, appropriated by the flora surrounding the property. For another build underway, being installed in San Diego, Mack created vertebrae-like steel risers, articulated along a sweeping stringer spine.

Step by step
Design, fabrication and installation are phases for Mack's framework. While each stair composition is singular to a project, the planning process provides a common foundation. "Many times we're working on a blank canvas, and in some cases where you're creating something that has never existed before, you can only start to identify by what it's not," he continues. Once clients commit, Mack shows them pictures of historical work to spark ideas. "Sometimes you only have character descriptions: 'cartoon-like,' 'moving energy across the space in a spiral fashion,' 'it wants to be flowing.'"

Once a definitive style emerges from the planning process, Mack must establish structural integrity. "Stairs are fairly well defined by the building code and have to have certain elements in a certain configuration," Mack says. Those guidelines are woven with the chosen style. From that point, a working design, production and price dictate the project's delivery. "It can take one to three months to build in the shop and another month to install," he says. "I've had some projects take almost a year to design and done some in as little as a month."

With floor mapping and laser-aligned plumbs, Mack measures the installation site meticulously, and the subsequent data is computer-mapped into a model. "We use this virtual model to help us imagine the stairway and build it back at the shop," Mack says, noting the model is only as good as the data collected. Errors at that step can throw off the installation. "It can give you some sleepless nights, wondering if you made all the right measurements and input them correctly."

As most of his installations are out of town, fabrication on-site isn't feasible. The original designs are engineered to allow disassembly and reassembly from his 2,500-square-foot-shop to the installation site, Mack says. The configurations of disassembly also incorporate shipping-whether it's a flatbed semi or shipping container. "We need to play out the entire shipping process in our minds to ensure that the worst-case scenario will not lose or damage any of the pieces," Mack says.

Potential shipping snafus aside, the resulting scenarios are dramatic interpretations on getting from one floor to the next, skills Mack picked up previously as a theater lighting designer. "The sense of showmanship, presentation and entertainment that I learned from theatre work is incorporated into my work." MM

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