Artistry in Metal: Jeff Koenig Puts Modern Twist on Family Legacy
Jeff Koenig forges dramatic designs for the kitchen and home.
By Wynter Holden | Photography by Mark Lipczynski & Michael Woodall
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 most luxurious homes in the Valley.
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 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner. “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.”
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.”
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 fellow 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 are featured 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 Dellinger 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.
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 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.