The Genuine Article
January 4, 2013
Text by Robert Kiener
Wearing a battered brown Borsalino fedora and flashing a thousand-watt smile, Michael Krauss escorts a visitor through the converted toothpick mill that now houses Authentic Designs, the reproduction lighting fixture company that he and his wife, Maria Peragine, own and operate in southwestern Vermont.
Pointing to the elegant lighting fixtures that adorn almost every square inch of the showroom’s ceiling, walls and tabletops, Krauss explains, “They are all hand-made. We are all about quality, not quantity.”
And, as his company’s name suggests, each of these designs is also authentic. Many are faithful reproductions of classic early American and European lighting fixtures, electrified (and UL approved) by means of artfully concealed wires. Others are inspired by customers’ design suggestions. Pointing to a large lantern of coated copper and glass, Krauss explains, “A designer found the original of this 1850s lamp in a train station in France. He asked us to reproduce and modify it. That’s a challenge we love, creating a new lamp that is inspired by a timeless classic.”
Krauss and his staff of five craftspeople make each chandelier, sconce, lantern and table lamp by hand. There’s no computer-controlled machinery in sight. In the rambling workshop behind the showroom, Krauss points out almost museum-quality shop tools, from battered wood-and-metal 1930s lathes to handmade dies, forms and bending jigs to a 130-year-old wagon-wheel-rim roller that would not look out of place in the Smithsonian. “We use that to shape tubing for our bigger chandeliers and fixtures,” says Krauss. “Working by hand with these time-tested tools almost forces us to slow down and seek perfection. And it gives the fixtures a better look. We make things that will last a lifetime.”
Watching Krauss and his team at work, each of them bent over a worktable and deep in concentration, it’s obvious that meticulous attention to detail goes into each of their creations. A typical commission, such as a chandelier, can take anywhere from four to six weeks to make and may include as many as 100 individual pieces. “We do just about everything here,” says Krauss. “That includes designing, cutting, shaping, soldering, wood turning, wiring, painting, glazing, finishing, antiquing. The list goes on and on.”
Details matter to Krauss. Concealing wiring in a reproduction piece is a challenge. Dissatisfied with the thickness of most wiring, Krauss located a Massachusetts-based manufacturer who created a wire thin enough to fit inside the 3/16-inch brass tubing Authentic Designs often uses. The tubing, Kraus says, “gives our work an elegance and a delicacy that can’t be matched by mass-produced pieces that feature thicker tubing.” The company also offers candle-lit versions of most of its designs.
To ensure a traditional look, Krauss pays special attention to finishes. Brass pieces are hand burnished. In its own plating room, the firm uses a unique pewter formula and plating technique to achieve a classic, timeless, aged appearance. Customers can also choose to leave the piece unfinished to acquire a natural patina.
Krauss admits to making one modification from earlier lighting fixtures. Instead of using the traditional material of tin, which rusts, he uses brass, copper or terne metal, a lead-coated copper that won’t rust. He also often uses seeded restoration glass, distressed ripple glass and other varieties.
Clients of Authentic Designs range from such luminaries as Clint Eastwood and George Lucas to historic properties like Washington, D.C.’s Blair House and Colonial Williamsburg to designers and homeowners who want to reproduce or restore an antique lighting fixture. “That’s why we love this business,” says Peragine. “We never know what we will be asked to do next.”
Krauss smiles as he remembers a client who brought in a rare, costly eighteenth-century antique lamp and asked him to “rewire this.” Krauss refused. “There was no way to wire it without destroying the integrity of the original design,” he says. “It would have been like stripping and polyurethaning a Chippendale. It would dishonor the piece and its maker.”
The customer was at first flustered but then understood. Says Peragine, “He kept the original, we made him a copy and all of us ended up very happy.”
Spoken like a truly authentic designer.