Born from flame-belching furnaces and hammered into shape, Charleston’s architectural future is being forged from the past. A new generation is carrying on the ancient arts of blacksmithing, wood carving, and glassmaking.
The work of these artisans is not limited to museums and the personal enclaves of the wealthy. You may have eaten food that was prepped using Quintin Middleton’s custom cutlery or sipped cocktails on a bar made by blacksmiths Sean Ahern or Rick Avrett. Your meal may have been served in the fine-grained wooden bowls turned by Ashley Harwood, and you may have gazed at your date underneath custom lighting by Ann Yancy across a reclaimed table by Charleston Recycled that used to be a front door on the Battery. You may have grabbed happy-hour drinks at a bar decorated with glass sculptures by Austin Norvell. You may have leaned back in a custom-carved wooden chair by Mary May and admired the shelves forged by Carlton Simmons on the walls.
This week, we take an inside look at the shops where these artisans create their custom works for area restaurants. Enjoy.
We’d like to acknowledge the faculty and staff of the American College of Building Arts for their help with this project. They are one of the few colleges teach and award degrees in many of the trades shown here and are strong supporters of classic craftsmanship.
Ashley Harwood – Woodturner
Before Harwood learned to chop wood, she bent and twisted glass for neon installations and sculpture as a student at Carnegie Mellon University. Her move toward woodturning was influenced largely by a two-year apprenticeship she took with renowned woodworker Stuart Batty beginning in 2009. She teaches locally and at workshops nationally. You can find her woodwork at the Charleston Farmers Market, where she creates delicate ornaments made with sea urchins. Harwood’s bowls can be found at FIG and in a variety of private collections. More of her work can be seen on her website.
Ann Yancy Rogers – Lighting Designer
Rogers created her first lighting lines in New York City after graduating from the Portland School of Art in 1992 with a major in metalsmithing and jewelry. Since her early years in Manhattan, her work has been featured in magazines such as Metropolitan Home, House Beautiful, Veranda, and Charleston Home. In 1997, she relocated her lighting design firm to the Holy City to launch Ro Sham Beaux. Her work can be seen at O-Ku, Oak, Bambu, Fish, McCrady’s, and other restaurants in town. Rogers work can be seen on the Ro Sham Beaux website.
Charleston Recycled – Furniture Builders
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure for Charleston Recycled. Founded by Shelby Nelson and Charlie Luther, the duo scour the refuse containers of downtown renovations for historic and aging timbers and doors. In a yard behind their Blake Street property, they transform and repurpose these findings into desks, tables, and stools. The original paint finishes are preserved under layers of epoxy and polyurethane. They recently outfitted the Macintosh with a set of their distinctive tables, and they sell widely to private collectors. You can check out other work they’ve done at charlestonrecycled.com.
Austin Norvell – Glass Sculptor
After studying abroad for a two years at Richmond, the American International University in London, Norvell returned to Charleston and finished a BFA degree in sculpture at the College of Charleston. Soon after, he attended the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and spent over four years there learning the art of lost-wax casting. Now back in Charleston, Norvell has opened a shop in Park Circle. The glasswork can be seen around the bar and dining room at Fish, while Boeing has a variety of sculptural elements with airplane themes they use in their company store and for awards. You can see examples of that at austinnorvell.com.
Mary May – Stone and Wood Carver
Mary May got her start in Minneapolis, Minn., where she studied with master woodcarver Konstantinos Papadakis. After learning from him for three years, she took up studies in Greece, England, and Malaysia. Since 1998, May has called Charleston home and works mainly on private commissions. She is sought regionally by churches to reproduce and create architectural details. May also produces a variety of instructional DVDs and will soon offer online courses in wood and plaster work. Her creations can be seen at the French Huguenot Church, the Dock Street Theatre, and the Divine Redeemer Catholic Church in Hanahan. Her latest work can be seen on her blog.
Quintin Middleton – Bladesmith
Inspired by fantasy flicks Conan the Barbarian and Star Wars, Middleton knew from an early age that he wanted to make swords and knives. That childhood inspiration has paid off as Middleton has earned a regional reputation for making distinctive, high-quality cutlery. Working in high carbon and stainless steel, he fashions knives for some of Charleston’s most well-known chefs. He apprenticed with master knife-smith Jason Knight, which he called schooling by “tough love.” After making a variety of hunting knives for eight years, Middleton says he was divinely inspired to make chef’s knives. Early consultations with Cypress chef Craig Deihl led to a refinement in shape and technique that inform his designs to this day. He took the plunge and became a full-time knife-smith in October, and the demand for his knives continues to rise. Sean Brock and Guerrilla Cuisine’s jimihatt have both picked up some for their collections. See more of his custom cutlery on his website.
Sean Ahern – Blacksmith
A Charleston native, Sean Ahern went to school at the Atlanta College of Art and graduated in 1998 with an emphasis on sculpture. After that, he journeyed to Saint-etienne, France, to study at the renowned L’ecole des Beaux-Arts. Inspired by French metalwork there, he returned to the states and opened a shop in North Charleston in 2002 called Ahern’s Anvil. His custom metalwork is widely sought after in the region and can be found at Husk, Red Drum, and the Vendue Inn, as well as many private homes. He currently has sculpture on display outside of Barsa. Ahern’s metal work can be seen on his own website.
Rick Avrett – Blacksmith
Rick Avrett became interested in blacksmithing as a student at the University of South Carolina in the mid-’70s. He got hooked and moved to Charleston a few years later. His shop, the Ole Charleston Forge, has been going strong ever since. Avrett originally operated out of what is now the Royal American before moving to a much larger space near COAST Brewing in North Charleston. His custom metalwork can be seen in homes and business all around Charleston, and the Ole Charleston Forge even has a line of furniture they sell nationally. He recently collaborated with glass sculptor Austin Norvell for a glass and metal feature that stretches across the bar at Fish. You can see more of his work at charlestonblacksmith.com.
Carlton Simmons – Blacksmith
The nephew of the iconic Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons, Carlton Simmons has been working in the famed workshop for over four decades. He learned blacksmithing from his uncle and continues the tradition on a smaller scale. His angular plant holders and shelving can be bought at Simmons’ home, which houses the Simmons Foundation.