Traditional Trades: Handcrafted Lighting

One couple’s down-to-earth lifestyle helps contribute to timeless designs of period lighting.

Michael Krauss, owner of Authentic Designs, makes a lantern in his Vermont workshop.

Photos: Eric Roth

“My dad’s idea of a family vacation was visiting historic communities like Deerfield and Sturbridge, Massachusetts, or Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia,” recalls Michael Krauss, owner of Authentic Designs, a family-run business that specializes in manufacturing colonial-era reproduction lighting fixtures. “He was always searching for design inspiration while renovating our 1820s farmhouse in Great Neck, Long Island.” Fifty years later, Michael—along with partner Maria Peragine—carries the same torch of persistence, but from the rural vistas of Rupert, Vermont, where they have settled since relocating from Manhattan in 1989.

“The metropolis is very different from the country in that people don’t have to care,” explains Michael. “But out here it’s like one big extended family where people help each other; where ‘paying it forward’ is very prevalent. This same attitude extends into our business as much as possible, where need is shared in a constructive, non-using way.”

Broad Perspective

It was Abe Flam, an accomplished metal artisan and Michael’s teacher, who instilled such axioms of wisdom during Michael’s five-year apprenticeship in back plating and sheet-metal work. “He left Vienna in 1939, before Hitler invaded Austria, eventually making his way to New York to start over with nothing but a positive attitude.” Michael’s father, Daniel Krauss, partnered with Flam in the 1970s and later decided to relocate the reproduction lighting business from Manhattan to an old toothpick mill in southwestern Vermont.

The lighting fixtures can be composed of up to 100 pieces.

By 1981, after two years of part-time renovations, Daniel had successfully transferred full-time operations. He carried on the tradition of creating meticulously handcrafted 17th- and 18th-century sconces, chandeliers, lamps, and lanterns, catering to established designers and decorators—not to mention their customers in the entertainment industry, like Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood and producer/director George Lucas. Today that list has grown to include others like executive producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who commissioned 60 period lights for his horse barn in Kentucky.

Local Influence

Despite the long list of elite clientele, Michael and Maria feel the company’s success is merely a reflection of the lighting’s integrity. “We make beautiful, quality products that sell themselves,” says Maria. “We build things that will last the rest of your life,” verifies Michael. “Mass production creates inferior products when compared to our items, which are built individually by hands-on craftsmen.”

Especially true when comparing the subtleties between late 17th-century sconces or mid-18th-century rod arms. Most of the designs come through museum research, restorations, or clients bringing in original pieces to replicate. “Original pieces would have been crafted in tin,” explains Michael. “Today we work with brass, copper, and terne-coated copper, which won’t rust like tin will.”

One chandelier could be composed of 100 pieces. The wire is also custom-produced exclusively for the company—made from nickel- and silver-plated copper, it’s thin and can fit into narrow spaces. “The wire is completely concealed in the fixture,” notes Michael.

Colonial-era reproduction chandeliers hang in the Authentic Designs showroom.

Time-honored skills are honed, shared, and then ultimately handed down. “We have three workers who occasionally bring their sons by the shop out of familiarity and comfort,” says Michael. “Vernon Heath brings his son, Carter (13), Ron Facine brings his son, Andrew (10), and Scott Sibley brings his son, Isaac (8).” Even Michael and Maria’s own two boys—Sam (20), who attends the University of Vermont, and Lucas (16), who is attending Long Trail High School—have grown up around the shop, participating in multiple facets of the business.

“The shop is only two miles from our house, so when the kids were younger, they could easily stop by on their bikes,” says Maria. “It really is a great lifestyle.” Fortunately, Vermont has worked hard to preserve the local landscape by curbing overdevelopment, despite the continued loss of tranquil dairy farms. “After taking a visit to Manhattan, I asked Sam which he liked better,” says Michael, “he said ‘Rupert,’ because ‘it’s pretty and nothing ever happens here’—he was five years old at the time.” Reflecting a moment, Michael says, “I guess small is beautiful.”

One of Krauss’s employees shows off his work under the saying “simple is sophisticated.”

Divisions of Labor

Like many other small businesses across the country, Michael and Maria are feeling the stress of a tightening economy— yet persevere by maintaining their focus and streamlining operations. Part of that process is actually achieved through cross-training each employee to become proficient in many tasks—something Michael and Maria learned early on. “When I first came up here to help my dad, I spent 8 years as shop foreman,” recalls Michael, “but I also held other part-time jobs like snow plowing, dairy farming, and tutoring teenagers and adults for the GED.” While running the office for a local developer, Maria also did some part-time painting. The resulting matrix of activity not only complemented their work, but also provided distractions as well.

“We grow a large garden behind the shop that provides all our produce,” says Michael. “We raise honeybees and have an apple orchard, which also provide a good break from the shop work.” Another quality distraction is heating a portion of the 10,000-square-foot building with firewood—all of which has to be cut and split by hand. “We realized collective perspectives lead to creative solutions,” says Michael. “By rotating between various indoor and outdoor tasks, our workers are more interested and engaged; their happiness ultimately leads to better quality work.”

Over Michael’s own workbench is a vent hood with the Zen-like tagline Simple Is Sophisticated written in chalk across the front. It serves as a daily reminder for everyone to focus on what is really important, a mantra to help create and manufacture the most authentic designs for years to come.

“What can you take away from a product that is extraneous, thus leaving an item more beautiful?” quizzes Michael. “Can you do more with less in an abstract kind of way?” he ponders. “The problem is determining which parts to remove that will allow greater focus or flow; determining the trade-off between simple and unadorned without being bleak.” Pausing for a moment to reflect, he then continues, “The answer lies in finding ways to make things beautiful like the originals of long ago. It starts with reducing interpretations.”

Back of the Porch

Turned pieces waiting for the next step in the handcrafted process.

Going forward, Michael’s focus for this year remains on maintaining a quality product. “I’m continually revisiting problems through different perspectives, constantly looking for new solutions.” He’s also intrigued with the current movement back to more traditional ways of doing things. “How ironic is it that as we enter the new millennium, everything old is being reinterpreted as good, better, or wholesome?” he says. “Here in the small southern Vermont town of Rupert, everything is as down to earth as it gets.”

Out the back window of the shop, there’s a brook where an occasional wild mink fishes for trout. Behind the brook are vast cornfields with cut stalks protruding through the freshly fallen snow. Beyond these open fields, mountains rise to kiss the low-hanging sun of winter, as local sap houses reveal their hidden locations via the steam dissipating above their chimneys. And although the view is quite vast, one can’t help agree that small is beautiful.

Tags: colonial Stephen T. Spewock Eric Roth NOH Spring/Summer 2011 New Old House Period Lighting

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