The Metal Shop, just inside a set of industrial, pull-down doors, is where Plaster makes one-of-a-kind metal furniture and art. He's been doing it for four years and loves every minute.
"I have to force myself to go to sleep at night because I just want to stay up and make more furniture," Plaster says. "I want to make furniture that people flip out over."
Plaster creates functional handcrafted metal work for commercial and private use. He makes everything from mirrors and bar stools to railings and bed frames for places like the West End Wine Bar and Pantana Bob's in Chapel Hill and Sizl Gallery in Carrboro.
When he began creating metal furniture and art, Plaster dreamed of being able to do it for a living. Four years later, that dream has become a reality as he prepares to open his own gallery space in November.
Though furniture-making is his passion, it took Plaster some time to discover it. After graduating from high school in Greensboro, he worked at a number of jobs, eventually moving to Chapel Hill in 1993. He started a food delivery business, which is now Tarheel Takeout Express, and owned the Standard skateboarding store in Carrboro.
In 1999, Plaster sold his store and was searching for new furniture for his apartment. He visited a local gallery and bought some pieces of metal furniture. Plaster got to know the artist, Erik Stern, who offered to teach him how to make his own coffee table.
"I told him, man, I've always wanted to weld," Plaster says. He got interested in welding in high school through his other passion, mountain biking, because bicycle frames can be repaired and manipulated by welding. On the way home, Plaster saw a friend who noticed his newly created table in the back of his truck. He asked how much Plaster would sell it for.
"Then he asked me if I could make two tables to match it," Plaster said. Plaster soon began creating more metal pieces, mostly to sell to friends. When an opportunity arose to buy Stern's business that same year, Plaster took all of his savings and dove in.
"He has an amazingly creative mind," said Jared Resnick, one of Plaster's friends and first customers. "He needed to be doing something." At that time, Resnick was getting ready to open Elaine's restaurant in Chapel Hill with Bret Jennings. The restaurant needed metalwork, and Resnick hired Plaster to do the job.
"He really stepped up and got things done," Resnick said. Since then, Resnick has hired Plaster to create furniture and art for his home, and for the West End Wine Bar in Chapel Hill and the Cellar in Raleigh, both of which he owns.
What started out as a business mostly for friends began to grow as word of Plaster's innovative and affordable designs spread. Plaster finds that many of his customers come back for more of his designs after their first purchase.
"It's rare that somebody can pick up an art and just do it really well," says Karen Shelton, owner of Sizl Gallery in Carrboro.
Plaster had no artistic training and said it took a while to discover his own style. He had to learn how to make his work look different from Stern's, who taught him the basics of welding. Plaster also said he had to get comfortable with sometimes ignoring his measuring tape and abandoning the pursuit for perfect lines.
"The day that I realized what my look really was, was the day it all came together," Plaster says. Now, Plaster seems completely at home as he moves around his workshop, holding up works in progress and pulling out a piece of scrap metal to demonstrate his distinctive techniques. He works mostly with steel and likes to highlight the imperfections, the mottled colors, and nicks a piece of steel as it's being worked with.
"I tell every client that comes here that he has just got the best energy," says Shelton, whose gallery contains several of Plaster's pieces. She said that his spontaneous and unpretentious style appeals to many people. "It's contemporary, and it is simple and straightforward."
Work like Plaster's is popular because people are looking for clean lines and less ornamental detail, Shelton says. "It's something that appeals to most everybody."
Plaster tests each piece of furniture for comfort and won't let his desire for a certain look get in the way of making something practical.
"The stuff he's done for us is not only functional but also extremely artistic," Resnick says. Even with his 15-month-old child, Resnick says Plaster's furniture works in his home because it is made to be usable.
While he paints some outdoor objects, most of his other pieces feature raw steel. He's always willing, however, to try something different. In a side yard outside of his shop, Plaster has been working to create a perfect coat of rust on a canopy bed frame and a curtain rod. They've been outside for over a week, with applications of salt water speeding the process.
Not satisfied with the traditional tools of a metalworker, Plaster makes many of his own. He uses a gap beneath his worktable as a tool to create a series of languid curves in a piece of steel. A rod curled against two round metal pieces Plaster found and bolted to a table emerges with just the right shape. If anything looks too perfect or too symmetrical, Plaster finds himself adding a twist or hammering the metal just a bit more. The result is a modern, industrial style with a few quirks.
"It's like Tim Burton times 10," Plaster says of his style. "It's like Beetlejuice."
Shelton says Plaster does great work with clients who are looking for something specific.
Resnick agrees. "He really works with his customers," he said. "He really tries to get it exactly right, exactly what they're looking for."
Even though his work is unique and often made to fit certain specifications, Plaster strives to keep his furniture and art affordable. Gesturing around his workshop, he names the price for each piece: a $275 barstool, a $350 chair, a $475 bookcase and a $1,200 bed frame.
When Plaster opened up his workshop for the Orange County Open Studio Tour three years ago, he sold every piece on display. Another show he held individually attracted five times as many visitors as he expected. The success of these shows convinced Plaster to look into opening a permanent gallery space.
When the lease for the space next door became available, Plaster took it over to use as a gallery. He's just gotten the key and right now it doesn't look very different from his workshop in the bay next door. But Plaster is already making renovations in his head. He gestures around the room, indicating the changes he'll make with the sweep of his hand. Only a fraction of the new space will be used as a gallery, featuring Plaster's work and paintings from other artists. The rest will be for finishing and working on projects. Plaster wants the tools he uses and works-in-progress to be out in the open during gallery openings.
"I want to be constantly thinking one step ahead about my art," he says.
For more information about Plaster's work, visit his Web site at www.brianplaster.com or e-mail him at email@example.com. He can be reached at The Metal Shop at 969-0031 Monday through Friday at 109-D Brewer Lane in Carrboro. See Plaster's work at the Orange County Open Studio Tour, Nov. 1-2 and Nov. 8-9. More information and complete guide at www.openstudiotour.com.
Riley Foster creates recycled metal sculpture and furniture from old farm equipment, auto parts and discarded metal tools. Some pieces move with the wind and some are on springs and move when touched. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carroll Lassiter creates oil paintings and sculpture in metal and wood, often featuring tools and fishing as themes. E-mail: email@example.com.
Mike Roig is a Carrboro artist who uses recycled materials, primarily steel, to create sculpture. He created the fountain at Weaver Street Market in Carrboro and the sculpture, "Promethean Honor Guard," at Chapel Hill's Firehouse No. 5. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Callie Warner creates functional metalwork for the home and garden, often incorporating fused glass and tiles. She also creates sculpture and painting on glass. For information, e-mail her at email@example.com, or go to www.customsteelfurniture.com.
Jim Alexander makes custom metal work ranging from handrails and curtain rods to chairs. Contact: 302-1401.
Andrew Preiss creates custom metalwork for residential and commercial customers in a variety of styles. Contact: 682-7307.
Vega Metals is a group of artists who make forged iron creations for homes or businesses. Contact: 688-8267.
Ben Galata is a contemporary blacksmith who works in forged and fabricated steel, producing commissioned furnishings and architectural details and sculpture. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 829-0903.