Saturday, August 7, 2010

Dallas Business Journal: Ideas in Action

Ideas in Action: Potter Art Metal Studio grows 90-year family business

Dallas Business Journal - August 6-12, 2010


Iron Man


Showers of sparks, the clank of hammer against anvil, the whir of a high-speed circular saw. These are some of the sights and sounds in Richard Potter’s Potter Art Metal Studio, a 90-year-old family enterprise. The high-end metal shop, started by Potter’s grandfather Henry in 1920, has developed a reputation for quality and artistry.

Evidence for this can be found on the bustling work floor: soaring stair railings that appear to be entwined by flaring pine cones, driveway gates that close to form the branches of an oak tree, a chandelier that looks as if it was spirited away from a hobbit’s hole.

“The quality and detail that I put into a thing,” says owner Richard Potter, a fourth-generation metalworker, “is, I think, fairly reflected in the price.” 
The focus on high-end work has allowed the shop to grow despite prevailing economic pressures. “Plus, people are coming directly to the manufacturer, so they’re not dealing with a retail store markup.” Potter sells directly from the shop to customers nationwide.

The Metalwork – a typical fan/chandelier installation can run up to $10,000 – has helped Potter Metal withstand the recession.  Lean times were met with shared sacrifices as costs were cut.
A rebuilt website, new advertising initiatives and positive press concerning recent high-profile projects – such as an 11-foot tall chandelier built for the council chambers in University Park and a strikingly original fireplace built for longtime friend Trammell Crow – also are helping the studio get Potter’s name out.  “More and more contacts are from out of town and out of state,” Potter says.
Potter grew up in the shop, once located on Knox-Henderson at Central Expressway.

“When I was a kid, we didn’t have computers, barely any TV.  The fun thing for me was coming down here and spending time in the back, watching the guys making different things,” he says.

Potter took over the shop in the 1970s, continuing a business his father, grandfather and great-grandfather worked in.  Three years ago, Potter moved the shop to a larger location off of Interstate 35.
The addition of creative director Izabela Wojcik in 2005 shaped a new direction for the studio, although Potter points out that many of their techniques his crew uses would be recognizable to his grandfather.

Founder Henry Potter began the business after meeting a salesman for Sanger-Harris (now Foley’s), who ordered 100 light fixtures after seeing Potter building lights for his house.  The business quickly grew, and some of the original work done by Henry Potter can still be found around Dallas, such as lighting fixtures that dot Fair Park.

World War II brought a new focus for the business, which shifted production to building aircraft parts.  The company’s payroll swelled to hundreds of employees, and the good times continued into the post-war boom, as the Potter studios left its mark on large churches, country clubs and homes throughout the ‘50s.
The family legacy continues today, says Richard Potter.  His three children – triplets – spend their summers in the shop, learning the family craft.  It’s a point of pride for Potter.

“I’m not here (working) as a hobby,” he says.  “I’m putting out the best product, made in the most efficient way.”

Customers at Potter Metal tend to come back, time and time again.  “We get clients that are around for years,” says Wojcik.

“They definitely do stand out,” says Kathy Hatcher, an interior designer wo has worked closely with Potter for a number of years.  “Their metalwork is unsurpassed.”  Hatcher praises the metal studio’s versatility and ability to work in styles and materilals as varied as art deco, Spanish and alabaster.

“Every last bit of what they do is hand-forged, and it’s made to last for centuries, and for generations,” she says.

Potter is proud of his shop’s legacy and of its ability to custom-build products to specification.

“The only thing that I won’t do is drop my quality,” Potter says.  “I’ve had some places that I as doing fixtures for, and they asked if we could do some cheaper pieces.  I said no.  Look, I am constantly on top of my guys to build things the best way possible.  The last thing I’m going to tell them to do is to go do the opposite.”