If for most of us the Ben Franklin Bridge is virtually invisible through familiarity, for Warren Holzman—who says the span is “one of the greatest pieces of steelwork I’ve ever set eyes to”—it’s a constant source of inspiration.
“When you walk across it and really examine some of the more artistic details, they tell the story about not taking the cheapest, fastest path,” he says. “They tell the story about enhancing peoples’ experience—that aesthetics are on an equal footing with function.”
Holzman is one of a small cadre of local metal artisans who exist not only as a link to Philadelphia’s glorious industrial- craftsmanship past, but who are determined to add character and flair to an ever-evolving cityscape that seems to grow increasingly homogenized and dull.
The 40-year-old has certainly done his part to liven up our area for more than a decade. That’s his impressive steel canopy over Standard Tap’s rooftop deck, recently constructed with the same (now-archaic) hot riveting technique used to build the Ben Franklin Bridge. Holzman’s intricate and expressive gates, railings and doors adorn private residences all over town. He was hired for ongoing metalwork, following the old established style, at the magnificent Bryn Athyn Cathedral. And he’s been commissioned by the city to create numerous pieces of public art, from the eye-catching 12-foot arch at Port Richmond’s Campbell Square Park to his forthcoming Martin Luther King Jr.-inspired lectern-shaped sculpture slated for South Philly’s Hawthorne Park.
“We like to keep it kinda dirty and dark,” laughs the tall, lanky Holzman in the office of Iron Studio in Fishtown—which he and his small crew have inhabited since 2002—on a recent afternoon as he gestures with a knuckle-tattooed hand toward the sprawling shop. It’s an appealingly grungy maze of metal and machinery; projects sit in various stages of completion while modern tools share space with the anvils and hammers blacksmiths have used for millennia.
Born in Yonkers, N.Y., Holzman never built a thing until he arrived at Kutztown University, where he fell under the spell of one of his professors, renowned sculptor Phoebe Adams. After working with several artistic mediums, he discovered metalworking and was hooked. “This is gonna sound really strange, but when the piece of metal’s hot and I strike it with whatever tool and it seems to move just enough—never too much and never too little—it’s almost like I can taste that in my mouth,” he says. “There’s a satisfaction that’s almost on your palate.”
Holzman’s version of college experimentation included following the instructions in a 1950s issue of Popular Mechanics to build a forge out of a trash can, and teaching himself taxidermy using the frozen squirrels, mice and bats he scavenged around campus one winter. He combined animal and metal in attention-grabbing sculptures for his senior art project, which met with both acclaim and some outrage: “The vegans weren’t really into it.”
Following graduation, Holzman attended craft schools, but with the birth of his first child in 1996, he did the responsible thing and got a “real job”: Maintenance welder at a lead smelter near Reading. “It was the worst experience of my life,” he says. “It was unsafe, I worked for a drunk, and the other welder on the gang was a Pagan motorcycle guy who just got out of prison who was an angry dick and would threaten people.” Five months in, blood tests on his infant son came back with elevated lead levels, so Holzman bailed. At a new (and much better) welding job, his boss discovered Holzman’s artistic talent and let him use the shop after-hours for his own work.
For the next four years, Holzman built tables, railings and more for an expanding client base—including pal William Reed, who was getting ready to open Standard Tap—and reinvested his earnings in his own machinery. Holzman eventually migrated to Philly, settled into a Mt. Airy home with his wife and two kids, and opened his custom Iron Studio shop, where he subsidizes his more artistic, time-consuming projects for individual clients with steady work from museums and large corporate clients like Urban Outfitters. On this day, the shop’s main space is filled by huge pieces of rust-colored steel destined to be stairs at an Anthropologie store.
“I guess it is a compromise, but with everything we do there’s a creative intent,” says Holzman. “It’s hard for me to draw a line in the sand where ‘This is for money’ and ‘This is for personal fulfillment.’ I think I have a good balance.”
The recession hit Iron Studio hard, but Holzman bounced back strong. Last year, he says, was his most profitable to date. Still, there are challenges. Not competition from other independent metalshops or the steelworkers union, which has no interest in the kind of work Holzman does. Mostly, it’s the impact of America’s vanishing manufacturing and industrial economy. “When I first started, there was a lot more steel around, a lot more different kinds of steel, and the quality was better,” he says. “Now I call the steel yard up for a certain profile or shape common 10 years ago and they don’t make it anymore. It’s worrisome.”
There’s also the scourge of “value engineering”—a phrase Holzman hears frequently from clients with tight budgets who are looking to cut corners, which typically means sacrificing aesthetics for function. But he does his best to convince them that art matters, not only for his own soul but for work he hopes will last for many lifetimes.
“I bring part of myself and share it with people. I do what I can and try to do it well because it’s my legacy, it’s what I’ve got to contribute to our community. To this city.”