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Artistry in Metal

Author: Wynter Holden
Issue: March, 2017, Page 140
Photography by Mark Lipczynski and Michael Woodall

Koenig uses a small orbital sander to buff out marks and add a handcrafted finish to a zinc range hood that he’s creating in his studio.
Jeff Koenig Forges Dramatic Designs for the Kitchen and Home

In his one-room workshop, industrial designer and metalsmith Jeff Koenig bends and shapes massive sheets of zinc, copper, stainless steel and pewter. Cornices are hammered for texture. Molten metal is poured into molds to form clavos and curved details. Here, in Black Canyon City, about an hour north of Phoenix, Koenig is continuing his family legacy, with a modern twist, fashioning an array of eye-catching countertops, range hoods, fireplace mantels and doors that decorate some of the Valley’s most luxurious homes.

Metalsmith Jeff Koenig worked closely with the interior designer of this home to create a chunky zinc range hood that complements the clay-bodied tile backsplash and rustic-yet-refined charm.
Koenig’s grandfather was a small-town blacksmith who passed down his turn-of-the-century forge and rough iron tools. “That’s where my working with metal came from,” says the artisan. “As a kid I was looking up at this stuff like it was the coolest thing ever. I remember machines in the ceiling and things smashing and burning.” While Koenig chooses to use more modern machinery, like his grandfather he handcrafts any tools he can’t find.

The metalsmith’s affinity for working with his hands grew as he matured. One of his first major projects was reconstructing a snowmobile that an unlucky friend had accidentally plowed into a culvert. It wasn’t exactly the creative design outlet he was craving, but Koenig completed the project as a favor. “My friends called me ‘Gearhead,” so I thought I’d be working with vehicles,” he quips. After relocating to Arizona from South Dakota, the unsuspecting Koenig encountered another man who would  guide his career path. 

It was a cool afternoon in Sedona, and Koenig, who at the time was in the roofing business—in his earlier days, he helped build the copper roof on Bob Hope’s famed UFO mansion in Palm Springs, California—had driven to a local house that was under construction. There, an elderly artisan was working on the home’s fascia, the vertical metal band that hangs just below a roof’s edge. “I’ll never forget it. He had cut models of every single piece out of galvanized sheet metal before he ever made them out of copper, so everything fit perfectly,” Koenig says. “I had never even met the guy, but he was the one who got my creative juices flowing.”

Photos - From left: Koenig worked directly with the homeowners to create this matching zinc range hood and island countertop. “They were looking for some continuity within the kitchen, and they loved the idea that we manipulate the metal and make it look handmade and not machine-finished,”
says the artisan.

According to the craftsman, the owner of this hand-hammered pewter countertop says its shiny surface reminds her of looking at water because of the way it reflects light.
Inspired by the man’s skill at fitting intricate pieces, Koenig began accepting side projects crafting bars and countertops. The work was less grueling than roofing, and, as he says, gives his clients something they can “look at with a smile every day.” Although he didn’t leave the roofing business until 2007 when he opened his own studio, nearly two decades after that day on the banks of Oak Creek, Koenig still employs the double-fabrication process when crafting complex kitchen projects.

Touring his studio, it’s apparent how much the artisan’s work has influenced his life. And vice-versa. Koenig’s conversations about career and family are so intertwined that it’s difficult to mentally pry the two apart. His company’s moniker, Grayleaf, is a melding of his sons’ names, Tyler Gray and Leaf. Proudly boasting about the former’s talent with sales presentations, Koenig stops to point out one of his other “progeny”—a section of the patchwork door separating his tiny office from the larger workshop.

The shiny zinc rectangle punctuated by a shady, blue-tinged circle was reclaimed from a recent project. “That’s what a drink ring looks like. When all those rings start to meld and age, they look like marble. It’s amazing,” says Koenig. “Counters in commercial spaces get the most interesting looks because when people rub up against the edge, the metal gets really shiny.”

In his studio, Koenig measures the height on a piece of base molding for a range hood that’s under construction.
One of Koenig’s first commercial projects was crafting the curvaceous, art deco bar countertop for Scottsdale’s Zinc Bistro. Shortly afterward, interior designer and Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner Donna Vallone hired him to create a zinc bar for the Stone House at Silverleaf. “I had learned about zinc counters from the French; so when I heard about Jeff, I knew that we had to bring him on board,” she says.

Much of Koenig’s business comes largely from word of mouth, and it is these public pieces that help bring his work to the attention of stylish homeowners, interior designers and builders across the country. His creations feature prominently in the private residences of everyone from sports stars to business owners to families looking for beautiful yet durable focal points in their kitchens.

Interior designer Isabel Candelaria commissioned the artisan for clients who were enamored with the look of the bar at Zinc Bistro. “It was so easy,” she says of her collaboration with Koenig. “He took the templates and thoroughly explained the process. There were no hiccups; just a beautiful, finished job.” She was so impressed by Koenig’s artistry and attention to detail that her design company plans to work with him on several upcoming projects. Vallone concurs. “He’s always had talent, and he’s really fine-tuned his product,” she says.

This historical photo shows the blacksmith shop in South Dakota that belonged to the craftsman’s grandfather.

A mix of materials comes together to create a one-of-a-kind home bar. The clean-lined bar top and counters are zinc, while the 0.5-inch-thick glass shelves are supported by turned copper posts. “We’re not a one-stop shop. We use a lot of different elements.”
A zinc hearth adds a touch of industrial elegance to  a casita’s fireplace.

Asked if there’s one particular dream project he’d like to tackle, Koenig’s response is instantaneous: “I want to do Randy Johnson’s front door in zinc. A huge, thick entry door system, all zinc and pewter with cast plates so it has lots of scrollwork,” he says, only half-joking. “When that big wooden door he has now starts to weather and crack…” His sentence trails off in the noise and bustle of the shop, but the implication lingers. If Johnson’s current door ever warps or breaks, Koenig will be there, ready to build a slicker, stronger metal door worthy of The Big Unit. Just as he is there for all of his clients.

2017 Masters of the Southwest Award Winner

Turn on any home design show, and you would think that the only suitable surface materials for use in kitchens are granite and stainless steel, for countertops and range hoods, respectively. Then meet artisan metalsmith Jeff Koenig, and he’ll open up a whole new world of custom finishes  made from such eye-catching elements as zinc, copper and pewter.

Jeff’s work has been featured numerous times on the pages of Phoenix Home & Garden. If you see a metal countertop or custom range hood, chances are it came from his workshop, Grayleaf Studio. “I’m sure there’s other artisans out there who make these types of products, but they definitely don’t do it with as much diversity as we do,” he says. Nor do they do it with as much skill. “We make sure every item is as perfect as we can get it for a handmade product before it goes out the door.”

Jeff’s meticulous approach to his work—from fabricating complex pieces twice to ensure a perfect fit to crafting edge details before they’re attached to the countertop, which allows for greater intricacy—is just one of the reasons the Valley’s top designers and builders flock to him for customs projects, while the lasting beauty of his metal creations wins over even the most discriminating homeowners. And they’re all reasons why we at Phoenix Home & Garden have named him a Masters of the Southwest award winner. Congratulations, Jeff.

 -The Editors
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