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Chasing the Ideal: Hardware by P. E. Guerin
I recently had an opportunity to take a tour of P. E. Guerin's workroom in the West Village. It is remarkable to find a place that still casts brass and makes custom decorative hardware, let alone in the midst of Manhattan. The city today has become wall to wall apartments and office towers with little industry in between, but P. E. Guerin perseveres in the same spot on Jane Street that it moved into in the late 19th century and still thrives today.
I share some of my photos here. They reveal a great deal about what is unique about them.
The key to their success is that they are more than just a metal foundry surviving in an urban setting. They have a specially trained group of people working for them that possess the skills and eyes of sculptors. In the end, it is the hand of the finisher or "chasers" who gives their products their beauty. Chasers are the workers who use small chisels to work on each piece after they leave the mold to bring up detail and sharpen the lines and recesses of the surfaces. There is a sense from looking at their door knobs and specialty hardware that these are hand made objects made by accomplished artisans.
I have closely studied 18th-century gilt-bronze mounts against those made in the 19th century and noticed how those made in the later 19th century often look mechanical and less refined. Most likely this is because the concept of industrialization and standardization was taking hold and the factory approach was superseding the skilled craftsman. Yet Guerin, which began in 1857 in the midst of the Industrial Revolution in America, chose the more artistic course of producing individual handmade objects. This makes them even more rare and exceptional in this day.
Images from top: a chaser working on a cast elephant; workers pouring molten brass into molds; three cast knobs at different stages of chasing and finishing; a chaser at work on a plate; a storage room containing original prototypes and models; hardware removed from molds. All images by Thomas Jayne.