Ben Galata lucked out when he was an undeclared freshman at N.C. State University. His dorm mate, an architectural student in whats now the College of Design, had brought home an intriguing project.
It was some sort of model he was building, Galata, 40, recalled. It appealed to me because I always loved building things. In high school, metal, shop and wood classes were like gym to me all fun but I never imagined they could translate to college.
Eventually he was accepted into the industrial design program, which further fueled his desire to make things.
Most of design work is churning out ideas and renderings, he said. I quickly discovered that I enjoyed the building more than the drawing. I was trying to find a way to stay in the fabrication shop as much as possible it was like a candy store for me so I leaned toward furniture design.
During a two-week course in woodworking at Penland School of Crafts in western North Carolina during the summer before his senior year, Galata sat in on a blacksmithing demonstration.
The minute I saw the fire and people banging on anvils I thought, oh my God, this is it, he said.
Theres a primal draw to the process, theres the mastery of fire. The pieces Id done in wood were very constructed and cut and sanded and pieced together. To see people organically bending red-hot metal, it spurred my imagination to think of all the forms I could make. And theres the enduring quality of metal.
From there, Galata turned his attention to making metal furniture and sculptures and has never looked back. Other than a one-year apprenticeship at Vega Metals in Durham, hes worked on his own, first at Antfarm Studios and for the past dozen years in a Raleigh studio he shares with two custom woodworkers.
While he still sells furniture and sculptures through galleries, most of his work now is architectural, such as railings and gates. One of his early jobs and his first significant commission, in 1997, will be familiar to customers of the downtown restaurant Humble Pie Galata designed and created the decorative hand-forged security bars at its entrance.
Since then, the scope of his work has grown in size and budget, though he did take a break this winter to make a dozen eye-catching modernist birdbaths concave steel disks on concrete bases, his first foray into small-batch production work.
Occupying most of Galatas time are commissions from homeowners or designers and builders, like the project he recently completed for Raleigh couple Mina Levin and Ronald Schwarz. That job involved designing, building and installing railing for their front stairs and a gate-like panel for the landing.
Part of the balancing act with commission work, Galata said, is catering to customers desires while maintaining his aesthetic.
Its really about is my style going to work with your style? Ill tweak mine to their preferences, but it will come out best if its more genuinely my style.
After the couple discussed their needs, reviewed photographs of Galatas work and saw samples, they pointed out elements that appealed to them. The signature design element Galata created pieces of forged steel wrapped around various points along the railing like tendrils curled around a stalk pleased everyone. For the panel, he overlapped curved steel to resemble reeds, shaping each piece by heating metal rods and hammering them out, all the way down to their tapered points.
Levin and her husband not only loved the result, they appreciated the collaboration.
It really is a joint process, Levin said. Weve commissioned a few pieces in the past, and Ron and I think its very important, once something is functional, to have the craftsperson have as much say as possible because they have the artistic vision.
The back-and-forth design process took about six weeks and included Galata presenting small models of various components along the way.
That really helped because we were able to see how they felt in our hands, Levin said. We were absolutely thrilled with the finished project.
Much of Galatas work is tucked away behind lawns and fences, but a 2011 public-art commission is one he is particularly proud of a sculpture installation of three outcroppings of fiddleheads in the lush Mary Yarbrough Court at N.C. State, a gift to the school from the Park Scholars Class of 2011.
I recall taking the tour at State, before I decided where to go, and being captivated by how pretty that courtyard was, Galata said. Its one of the things that inspired me to go there, and its also adjacent to School of Design. So putting an installation on that part of campus 15 years later was very meaningful.
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