When Wendell Went Retail

Mar 3rd 2011

Own a copy of the Wendell August Book Seventy Five Years of Artistry in Metal As we retire the commemorative line Rising from the Ashes, a line signifying a new beginning for Wendell August Forge, we want to take a minute to look back to the true beginning of our company.  As many of you know Wendell August Forge’s roots were not in creating products for the retail sales, but alternatively in creating architectural elements such as gates, railings, and doors. However, one job for Alcoa’s Aluminum Research Laboratories changed that in a way that nobody expected. Below is an excerpt from the book Wendell August Forge – Seventy Five Years of Artistry in Metal that does a great job of detailing the beginning of our business. The story starts just after Wendell August has completed the gates surrounding the building and the elevator doors within it…enjoy! [caption id="attachment_188" align="alignleft" width="165" caption="A very old picture of the Alcoa Elevator doors built by Wendell August. With a close inspection of the picture you can see Alcoa hammered into the doors, and the thistle pattern which was the inspiration of our Thistle tray, given to Alcoa executives as gifts upon completion of the building."]Alcoa Elevator Doors[/caption]

When the doors were completed, Hornbostel [Pittsburgh Architect retained to design Alcoa’s Aluminum Research Laboratory] apparently requested that two trays, using some elements of the motif from the elevator doors, be made for presentation as mementos to Alcoa’s Chairman, Arthur V. Davis and President, Roy A. Hunt. According to Arthur Armour, “when the building was done, Henry Hornbostel wanted to have some mementos, to give to some of his friends, and for himself. So he asked to have parts of the elevator doors, in the research laboratory, made into trays.” The Alcoa executives were apparently quite taken with the beauty and uniqueness of the pieces and additional trays were requested. Alcoa executives, ever mindful of new product opportunities, ensured that the items were brought to the attention of Edgar Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department store magnate and patron of the arts, for whom Frank Lloyd Wright would design and build the renowned “Falling Water” retreat at Bear run in 1936.

Kaufmann seems to have commissioned the Forge to make a tray having a motif of his estate, and then suggested that the Forge’s aluminum repoussè process be implemented in the development of an elite line of art and gift items. The popularity of brass and copper for decorative accessories had been gaining impetus for several seasons, and Russ Wright’s Spun Aluminum had recently been introduced to popular acclaim. An influential trade journal would note “the present vogue for the use of metal in the home” claiming that “perhaps never before has there been such a general interest in decorative accessories made from such a varied assortment of metals,” and specifically drawing attention to “the newer white metals… chromium, nickel finish, aluminum.” Aluminum of course, being a relatively inexpensive metal, had a significant advantage over some of the other metals and metallic finishes, an advantage not to be scoffed at, as the weight of the Great Depression grew increasingly heavy.

As you see in this excerpt, it was the beauty of elevator doors, and the request of architect Hornbostel that led Wendell August to creating its first product appropriate for the home. A chance relationship between Alcoa and Kaufmann, owner and director of department store Kaufmann’s, sent Wendell August hurling down the path of retail, which has defined our business to this day.