“My job is to find artisans who accurately reproduce older historic designs, not to overproduce lesser-quality fixtures,” says Brass Light Gallery owner Steve Kaniewski, who founded his company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1974. Whether by plane, train, or Internet, he exudes the same excitement today searching for timeless designs that he did starting out more than 40 years ago.
“I enjoy going off the beaten path and discovering original castings from early 19th-century designers and manufacturers,” he says.
Born and raised in Milwaukee, Kaniewski is amazed at how many timeless treasures he continues to find just within a three-mile radius of his company’s headquarters. “We are very fortunate to be located in a region where some of the greatest architects and designers of the early 19th century designed some of their greatest creations,” he explains—Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Comfort Tiffany are two who worked here.
Additionally, German and Italian immigrants who specialized as skilled metal and marble craftsmen help craft the buildings in the city. “The area is just saturated with beautiful pieces to emulate or inspire our own designs,” Kaniewski says.
While pursuing a major in business administration, Kaniewski enrolled in a few elective courses in art history. “What started out as an easy way to get extra credits,” jokes Kaniewski, “quickly struck a chord deep within me.” That chord was further satiated when Kaniewski worked part-time as an usher at the Warner Theater in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Commissioned by the Warner Bros. Studio in 1929, and designed by Rapp & Rapp of Chicago, the theater was considered a foremost example of Art Deco of the early 1930s.
“I quickly fell in love with Art Deco and French Rococo designs,” recalls Kaniewski, who found himself spending more and more time polishing some of the theater’s tarnished fixtures than taking tickets. Polishing led to rewiring, which eventually gave way to buying and selling antique lighting. When Kaniewski couldn’t find replacement parts or pieces, he began making them himself. “I basically learned through observation,” he explains. “More importantly, I loved serving people’s needs through design and function.”
As the company grew by word of mouth, Kaniewski expanded by adding like-minded employees to help oversee his company’s growth. One such person integral to their current success is Margaret Howland, who joined 22 years ago as a regional salesperson and now serves as the company’s director of marketing. Also an art history major, Howland prides herself on product development.
“Today we offer over 1,600 designs for interior, exterior, and commercial lighting fixtures,” she says. “When you multiply those designs by 14 different finishes and unlimited ceiling cord heights, we have over 7 million product options! The best part of our designs is that they are reproduced from unique historical and vintage originals. All of our designs have the appropriate style, finish, and scale to help pair the space to the project.”
Also like the originals, both Kaniewski and Howland are adamant that all the materials used to re-create those millions of fixtures are of the highest quality. “We do a lot of in-house testing to ensure our products can withstand long-term exposure to severe weather, weight, and heat,” explains Howland. “Using pure brass, copper, and porcelain for internal components helps establish long-term use in the field.”
Another tenet of the company’s success is assuring that every one of their products is entirely built in the United States. That includes all the materials, all the pieces, and all of the construction. “By keeping everything supplied and made stateside, we are able to cut down on turnaround time on design and fabrication,” says Howland. “This results in a better-quality product delivered in a more timely fashion for our customers.”
“We have great craftsmen who take pride in what they do,” says Kaniewski. One such craftsperson is Larry Kazmierski, who has been with the company for 32 years. “Not only does he have a great eye for design,” Kaniewski says, “but an uncanny attention to detail nuances that effect both production and installation.” The result is clients who constantly reiterate how fabulous the work is—whether for historic landmark theaters and courthouses or period-specific residential homes.
With most of his current projects concentrated in the Midwest, New England, and Mid-Atlantic, Kaniewski envisions expansion out West. “What we’ve discovered is a growing contingent of customers who wish to improve what they own through preservation,” he says. “With new old houses, we try our best to remain true to period specifications. The main concerns are that the fixtures are appropriate for the project, but also that we have fun doing it.”
In the end, using quality people to build quality products with quality materials will always find a home with customers who enjoy timeless design.