Home & Design July 30, 2008

Crafting the Valley

Meet the hands that garner calluses and broken nails to create the intimate touches in our environment, and get into the hearts that drive them.

Bob Wiederrick – Blacksmith

Robert “Bob” Wiederrick’s homemade forge looks like a pile of used bricks. But when he plugs it in, it turns into a pile of used bricks with blue flame flickering across the floor of its mouth like serpents’ tongues, and sounds like a jet engine. Beside the forge stands a 1930’s Hay-Budden anvil, built by a company in Brooklyn that’s long defunct. Hammers and tongs hang on both sides of the forge like iron icicles. A long tank of water lies beside it, waiting to quench the steel when the tall, deliberate blacksmith removes it from the forge and hammers it into the ropes, knots, vines, and the high relief or silhouetted animals and landscapes that characterize his work.

As a designer and fabricator of custom fire screens (and stair railings, furniture, and chandeliers), Wiederrick is one of the most collected local artists in the Wood River Valley. He’s built more than 1,800 screens; the work he turns out of his south Hailey workshop has been sent as far away as Germany and featured in two books.

Naomi Kobrin, owner of the Los Angeles-based firm Naomi Kobrin Architectural Design, discovered Wiederrick several years ago when she saw photos of his work in the glass advertising cases in front of Atkinsons’ Market in Ketchum. “It looked like very, very good quality work,” she recalls. She called him when it came time to do the fire screens for a client’s Sun Valley home. “This particular client loves the best that I can bring to them.”

Wiederrick’s signature pieces include scenes from nature that complement the grand lodge architecture of the Rocky Mountains. His subject matter is not a contrivance, but stems from a deep love of the wilderness and being out in it. He’s an avid hunter and fisherman; three quivers filled with arrows hang in his office, along with many bows and a shotgun. “Tomorrow is opening day of deer season,” he says happily, “and I’ll be up at 4:30 in the morning.”

The 42-year-old artist didn’t realize he wanted to pursue blacksmithing until after he graduated from Idaho State University in Pocatello, although he’d been drawn to metalwork “from the first time I was introduced to it in grade school. We did some copper foil project,” he explains. “I did an underwater scene, complete with a little treasure chest, in high relief. I still have it.” An Air Force brat who completed high school in Salmon, Idaho, when his father retired, he went to college to study pre-architecture, but found he was enjoying his art classes more than his engineering classes and majored in metals and jewelry making. “I’m not sure my parents thought that was a real good deal,” he says. He enjoyed working in gold—in fact, he forged wedding rings for himself and his wife, Michelle. But there were a lot of goldsmiths out there, and he needed to make a living.

When he and Michelle arrived in the Wood River Valley in 1988, the novice metalworker got a job at Triumph Metalworks. “I learned a lot,” he says. After a year, he was the senior employee, and felt ready to forge a path of his own. He identified a niche crafting fine metal home accessories and focused on more intricate design. “I wanted to apply to my metalwork the design and attention to detail that I learned doing jewelry.”

Although he owns a power hammer, he hammers all his materials by hand. Kobrin admires the undaunted, old-fashioned integrity Wiederrick applies to his craft. “There’s the rest of the world’s pace, and then there’s Bob pace,” she says, laughing affectionately. “He doesn’t take any shortcuts. I think that’s how he makes such fine work.” Wiederrick seems to enjoy the company of his medieval-looking tools, which squat or tower around the studio like benign guests at a Halloween party. He points out a treadle hammer nearly as tall as he is, topped by a 60-pound lead weight that can be dropped onto hot steel to shape it. “I picked all the lead up off the shooting range in the springtime,” he says, pleased with himself. He finds tongs at antique stores. “Other people are hanging them on the wall,” he says. “But I’m using them!”

Blacksmithing is a noisy trade: if you call the shop, you can hear the rhythmic ringing of metal on metal in the background. Wiederrick’s wardrobe includes a set of AM/FM headphones to protect his ears. He grins slyly as he claims that’s not the real reason he wears them: “My helper likes to crank the stereo all day—so I need to wear them just to save myself from that.” And it’s probably no louder than home: he and Michelle, who runs the “business end of the business,” are raising two children, Joe, 12, and Ana, 7.

In spite of the antiquity of many of his tools and techniques, Wiederrick constantly experiments with materials and methods and defends his modernity. “I was at a comedy show in Sun Valley,” says Wiederrick, and when I told the comic I was a blacksmith, he said ‘Wow, that’s kind of archaic.’ But I don’t use a coal forge,” he points out in a mischievous tone. “That’s the really traditional way.” >>>


Visit www.custom-firescreens.com to see more of Wiederrik’s work



Laura Higdon – Furniture Designer

She used to commute to work on a plane from Sun Valley to New York, but these days, Laura Higdon just steers her bedroom slippers a few steps from her house to her remodeled garage, headquarters of Lilipad Studio. Once there, she sets to work hand painting a line of children’s tables, chairs, and footstools that she’s designed and had built to her specifications by a local woodworker. The process is painstaking: each leg, seat and table top requires a different color of paint. Last summer, when her 13-year-old daughter Kyra wanted an iPod, she earned it not by mowing lawns but by laying down base paints. Afterwards, Higdon applies patterns using dozens of rubber stamps, most of which she’s designed herself. The final result is magical: it’s like William Morris meets the Ottoman Empire meets the stained glass windows of Chartres cathedral meets a happy kid. It’s not a coincidence: The articulate, vibrant, 39-year-old artist draws inspiration from textiles and architectural details from around the world, discovering patterns and color combinations and intermingling them to transcend individual cultures. “It’s a mishmash,” she says offhandedly. No longer Indian, Turkish, Chinese or Greek, her motifs startle into life like exotically plumed birds who follow you home and settle into your living room as comfortably as the family dog. Haileyite Liz Schwerdtle bought a set for her 5-year-old daughter. “There’s a magical quality about it,” she says “Something spiritual, something tied to the past and the future at the same time.”

Launched in July of 2006, Lilipad Studio furnishings were quickly picked up by New York City’s Vivavi, the country’s largest green showroom; by wholesale design showrooms in Los Angeles, boutiques throughout the country, and many online stores; and featured in House and Garden and Natural Home Magazine. While Higdon’s collection may appear to be the wunderkind of the home furnishing world, and Higdon a prodigy, Lilipad Studio is a result of two decades of hard work. Higdon studied illustration at The Arts Center in Pasadena, before moving to Portland as a freelance illustrator. She arrived in the Wood River Valley in 1989; her first job was as a layout designer for The Idaho Mountain Express. When her mock-up boards were replaced by computers, she quit, preferring to pursue the hands-on, although potentially unsteady, career of a freelance artist. She supported herself as an interior designer and color consultant, sold hand-painted furniture through Lonestar Interior Design, and did a variety of decorative painting in people’s homes, including designing wall murals and kids’ rooms. One job led to a penthouse project in New York City. For two years she flew between Sun Valley and New York almost constantly, which took her away from her husband Eric and kids, Kyra and 11-year-old Everett. Higdon realized that she needed to be doing something closer to home—both geographically and spiritually. “My daughter is 13, and my house now tends to be a social hub. Working from home made sense.”

Higdon’s studio, which she shares with Eric, a longtime professional sculptor, thrums with the same comforting colors and rhythm of her products. Dozens of orderly paint cans climb high shelves; a mosaic of black and white stamp designs dances across one wall; another wall holds a patchwork of cutouts from catalogs, which help her keep current with hot design trends. Books line the shelves: Japanese Style; Provence—the Art of Living. Higdon buys the books on her travels—not surprisingly, she’s an inveterate traveler. In her 20s, she explored Nepal, India, and Thailand by mountain bike. Here in Idaho, she travels the backcountry on skis. She and her husband have taken the kids to Mexico and Greece and enjoy traveling on a low budget, teaching the kids that they “can navigate in the world. One of our hosts grew olive trees and made goat cheese from his own goats. His wife taught my son to needlepoint,” she says, loving the exchange that crossed culture, gender and time. She herself brought home from the trip an antique silk bedcover intricately embroidered in jewel-toned floral motifs. She smoothes a hand across its shimmering surface and says, “I could do a whole table top just from one pattern on this.”

Higdon’s vision is forward-looking not only aesthetically, but ecologically: the furniture is “totally green,” built from FSC-certified, responsibly forested wood, and painted with nontoxic no-VOC paints. Her kaleidoscopic palette and whimsical designs mark a unique departure from green furnishing’s traditional aesthetic of monochromatic minimalism. “I want to create pieces that are visually rich with warm, strong colors that stimulate imagination and creative play of children and their families. It is functional art they want to place in the center of their homes, rather than tuck away in the nursery,” she explains. “Furniture that people will fall in love with, that’s also healthy for humans and for our planet.” Surprisingly, building green adds less than five percent to the retail price of her work. The price, according to Schwerdtle, is well worth it. “These will pass from generation to generation. Everyone using them looks like they belong there.” Which is quite something to ask of anyplace, or anything. That’s a powerful magic. >>>




Nate Scales – Woodworker

Nate Scales is trying to figure out how to build new slides that feel like old slides out of old wood that’s been newly reclaimed. They’re for a drawer in a table he’s crafting from siding from a barn built in 1740. Almost 270 years later, Scales is giving it new life as a hand-built coffee table for a client in Ketchum. Looking at the weathered maple planks he’s planed clean and joined seamlessly with pegs is enough to make you believe in reincarnation—if you’re as fortunate as this wood, you’ll come back in another life better than what you were in this one. “These planks,” says Scales, his soft voice full of wonder, “started out old and grayed. But look, the grain is just magnificent. It’s a real privilege to take that and turn it into something that’ll be appreciated for another hundred years.”

Scales is just 34 and has been designing custom furnishings for only three years, but he learned the craft of woodworking at his grandfather’s side. “He was old school, where you did everything,” explains Scales, who spent summers with his grandparents in Chocolate Gulch, north of Ketchum. He was 13 when his grandfather handed him some tools. “When I was learning everything, it was awful. But it’s great now. I’m a one-man show. I do everything.” He specializes in furniture and home remodels, but his favorite challenge is a custom entertainment center, “because they have so many parts, and have to work with today’s electronics . . . and because people stare at them all day long!”

George and Linda Giroux have been remodeling their mid-Valley home on and off for several years, and rave about the unique contemporary corner cabinet that Giroux, an industrial model maker, designed, and Scales engineered and fabricated. “Whenever we talk about doing our kitchen, we talk about having it done while we’re in New Zealand,” says Linda. “You can trust Nate. To meet someone who’s like, ‘Here’s the keys to the house, we’ll be back in a week’ says a lot.”

“Everyone loves Nate,” adds George.

Scales does most of his design work himself. He fills filing cabinets with drawings, fabricating each piece first in his head and then on paper, before he ever picks up a saw. He augments the woodworking skills learned in boyhood through constant reading, and approaches each project according to its unique limitations and possibilities. The coffee table won’t be complete until he’s fashioned legs from a 1740s beam that once held up bales of hay. He has saved all the nails, and the last step will be replacing them decoratively in the wood’s surface. “My inspiration comes from knowing that people have been doing this forever, without all the tools that I have. The puzzle’s been solved thousands of times, but it’s always there.”

Scales’ desire to build beauty that lasts is evident in his own home, which he built—yes, by himself, with the help of his mom, Ann, and wife, Lisa. Closet doors in the entryway feature small, inset fabric-covered panels that can be easily removed and recovered as the family’s taste and décor change. “The goal,” Scales points out, “is to make this last a long time.”

Doing everything, as he puts it, suits a man who values his solitude as much as Scales does. On days off, chances are he’s 9,000 feet above the Sawtooth Wilderness hanging from a nylon wing. He’s among the Valley’s most devoted paragliders; a 126-mile flight from the top of Bald Mountain to Dubois is all in a day’s play. Enjoyment has always driven the gentle, soft-spoken woodworker: a prime example is his college resumé. He first attended the University of Montana in Bozeman for the good skiing, proceeded to the University of Washington to kayak, then to the University of Utah to fly paragliders, and Northern Arizona University to fly hang-gliders. After five years, he graduated from Bozeman “because the skiing was good. I’m a college expert,” he says with a happy laugh.

George Giroux admires his favorite woodworker’s happy-go-lucky manner. “He just lands in someone’s field, and they meet him with a shotgun, and he talks his way out of that, and puts his thumb out.”

People tend to feel about Scales the way that he feels about them: “We’re so lucky here (in the Wood River Valley),” he says, “because people are so nice.” In an encouraging display of karma, his confidence in the human race—along with his fine craftsmanship—has come back at him, and Scales is booked almost for the next year, ensuring that he won’t have to worry too much about supporting Lisa and their 18-month-old daughter, Ripley Buttercup. He can sail and ride and paddle without worry.

Where is he taking this? “Nowhere!” he exclaims, and then adds with conviction, “Right here. It drives my parents and grandparents crazy. But I’m happy right where I am.”


This article appears in the Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.