Meet Arizona’s Iron Man
Sparks fly and creativity abounds at the high-activity headquarters of Arizona Iron Patio Furniture.
By Marilyn Hawkes | Photography by Mark Lipczynski
As a child, Ryan Roberts was fascinated with the automotive assembly plant his uncle managed in Detroit. He often shadowed him at work and watched machines stamp out car parts in the metal shop. “It instilled a seed that maybe one day I would own a manufacturing facility,” he says.
Today, he can be found overseeing production in a 100-year-old building that once housed a thriving auto body shop. But there are no vehicles to be found here. Amid the whirring saws cutting through rigid steel and the rat-a-tat of welding torches throwing sparks, artisans are instead crafting custom wrought iron furniture that, when finished, will grace the backyards, patios and ramadas of homes throughout the Valley.
The factory is a maze of rooms, each area buzzing with a different activity. Pieces of unfinished iron furniture decorate every corner of the roomy building. A tangle of chairs awaits welding, while rows of tables line up for polishing.
After moving to Phoenix in 2001, Roberts, who had no background in furniture design, worked for several home-based products companies, manufacturing steel doors, gates and barbecue islands. In 2008, he attended a local home show where he “fell in love” with outdoor furnishings. That same year, he founded Arizona Iron Patio Furniture.
Most of the pieces Roberts and his team create are for residential clients, from poolside loungers to outdoor dining sets, and even lavish canopy beds. But local sports fans might be familiar with his work, too. He has also outfitted the pool suite at Chase Field and the suite-level terraces at Gila River Arena.
Carefree-based interior designer Lauren Greer-Taffe enjoys collaborating with Roberts on projects for the home. “Ryan thinks of every detail, from the design of the frame all the way down to the thread used in the cushions,” she says.
Greer-Taffe recently commissioned Roberts to help furnish a backyard with a three-tiered pool that cozies up to Black Mountain in North Scottsdale. She chose chairs and chaise
longues in muted desert tones that blend in with the landscape’s oversized boulders. Red umbrellas and pillows lend a pop of color to the resortlike setting. “The curvature of the metal complements Mother Nature’s art and the flow of the pool,” explains the designer. “The oversized pieces force you put your feet up and relax with a cool drink in hand in the warm Arizona sun.”
Back in the factory, head welder and manufacturing manager Jose Banuelos cuts slats of steel to fabricate a slotted dining table. Once the pieces are the correct length, they will be welded to the frame and legs will be attached. Wearing a protective helmetlike hood, leather apron and gloves, Banuelos inspects his work closely to make sure everything is crafted properly before the table moves down the line. “I like building something with my own hands and seeing it come to life,” he says.
In another area, a worker thrusts a bar of steel into a fiery forge. When the metal emerges red-hot and pliable, the artisan hand-hammers it, bending it into a tight jellyroll that will eventually become a chair arm. “These are in-house designs,” Roberts says. “We go for classic, simple, clean and timeless.”
Once a piece of furniture has been fabricated, it is finish-welded to fill in any gaps, and then it heads to the grinding area where it is sanded with rough pads (think heavy sandpaper) to smooth any irregular edges. Bobby Greene, who heads up this step in the process, crouches down to hone the welded edges of a couch back. In his hands, the whining power tool glides back and forth effortlessly while sparks soar into the air. “We go around the whole piece and make it seamless and smooth,” he explains.
After being sanded and polished, the metal frames are sent to a local powder-coat facility, the only step Roberts outsources. There, the furniture is sandblasted and receives an electrostatic application of paint, which clings to the steel. Then it’s baked in an oven for 20 to 25 minutes at 350 to 400 degrees, according to Roberts. “That creates these really cool effects from flat to hammered to veined finishes,” he says.
Colorful, plush cushions add the finishing touch. In the sewing room, bolts of Sunbrella fabrics in a multitude of sunny hues and cheerful patterns—more than 800 choices in all, from vibrant cobalt blue stripes to solid burnt orange and vivid lime green—line floor-to-ceiling shelves. A seamstress unfolds a cream-colored textile with aqua accents that will soon decorate a custom bench. She stitches the material with military-grade
thread, made from an ultradurable synthetic fluoropolymer, ensuring that every element of the finished product can withstand the harsh glare of the desert sun.
“We’re a little old-school,” says Roberts. “But what I’m most proud of is the fact that the biggest percentage of our customer base is repeat and referral. It doesn’t cost us anything but doing it right.”