Rustic Creations isn't even three years old, but work from the Channelside metal shop is attracting the attention of designers, business owners and even HGTV.
By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
Published September 3, 2004
CHANNEL DISTRICT - You can't miss Dominique Martinez' 6,000-square-foot warehouse along 12th Street in downtown Tampa. His business, Rustic Steel Creations, stands knee-deep in glorious urban grit, part of a neighborhood that once housed the gears of a working port city.
Inside the cavernous purple and yellow warehouse, a cadre of youthful employees make poetic, curlicue railings and gates, chandeliers fit for medieval castles and cocktail tables so modern they await the perfect Charles Eames chairs.
Outside, Martinez' mascot practically roars with energy. The 10-foot-long, 1,500-pound steel dragon wears a skin of green computer motor boards, peers from eyes made of red trailer lights and clutches bouquets of Spanish moss in its bony steel claws.
"I never thought I'd be here," said Martinez, 47, a former venture capitalist who grew up in France, the son of a Cordon Bleu trained chef.
"I had always worked in corporate America," he said. "Loved the money, hated the work."
In 1996 when he bought the dilapidated warehouse, friends thought he was crazy. And when he opened his custom-steel business on the site shortly after 9/11, they minced no words.
"They said I was going to starve," Martinez recalled.
Now, developers, builders and interior designers seek him out.
Opening a custom-steel business may have been a far-fetched dream for someone with a business background and little experience with a welding torch. As it turns out, Martinez had been tooling around in a friend's metal shop, mulling the idea that he might someday open a business that made steel products.
The problem was getting from A to B. He was artistic, but lacked training: "All the art I ever had was in high school," Martinez said with a laugh. But he saw a niche in a business that he says had never been "professionalized." Steel artisans typically made a small selection of goods but couldn't go beyond that. So he set out to learn from friends in the trade.
"I took the cotton out of my ears and put it in my mouth," he said. "I learned metal work the hard way, a little at a time. I learned the tools, the materials, city codes."
Then, he said, he started using his imagination and applying it to metal. First came his funky, functional mirrors, then some tables, wine racks and chandeliers. The rest soon followed. His small creations like fish-handle door knobs and woven steel wall sconces are just as impressive as his large-scale fences and railings.
Employees like Drew Danecki, a 27-year-old artist and fabricator, help create the one-of-a-kind designs. He hires lots of 20-somethings as apprentices for their energy and ideas. Seth Garber, the 23-year-old operations manager with a background in international business, says the company is developing based on a friendly "relationship" system with contractors and clients who often walk in looking for help on a project.
"We do what people want us to do, within their budgets," said Garber. Martinez says his shop differs from other custom steel businesses because of the product selection.
"Customers get exactly what they want, whether it's a door handle, furniture or just standard stuff," he said. "We're not an ordinary fabrication shop, we don't just bend, fold and assemble. We do so much more."
Martinez, whose friends jokingly call him "the man of steel," is known to comb nearby salvage yards looking for discarded treasures that can be recycled and incorporated into his work. Over the years he has unearthed lids from industrial vacuum cleaners, old electric fans and scraps of throwaway metal as beautiful as broken seashells.
He lives in an adjoining, ultracontemporary loft ("no commute here," he jokes) in a space as eclectic as his artwork. His cocktail table is one of his own creations, a baggage cart from the old Tampa train station topped with a sheet of heavy glass. He spent more than 40 hours grinding rust from the base, taking apart wheels and lubricating them, greasing ball bearings and clear-coating the finished product. The table mixes effortlessly into a decor that blends textural furnishings and modern art, including a cabinet made with 300-year-old wooden tiles and an authentic Picasso print that hangs on the living room wall.
In the small galley kitchen, Martinez, whose hobby is cooking, creates country French leg of lamb, beef Wellington, bouillabaisse and vichyssoise.
It's no wonder HGTV and the Discovery Channel have come calling with the idea of featuring his home and business on upcoming shows.
FishHawk Ranch recently commissioned him for custom railings; Beck Construction, the contractor for Victory Lofts, also commissioned work, as have the Tampa Port Authority and numerous local home builders. As of now, Martinez has 13 projects in the Channel District alone. To make room for his expanding business, he took over his entire warehouse space, once partially occupied by rental tenants. He'll be at the Tampa Home Show Sept. 3-6 with three booths displaying samples of his furniture, gates, railings and home accessories.
Rustic Steel is open for walk-in business, too. Visitors are met first by his three-year-old black lab, Jake, a big, gentle watch dog who checks out strangers with a wagging tail.
"Everybody in the neighborhood knows Jake," Martinez says. "He's a great dog."
From his loading dock one morning last week, Martinez and Jake watched the progress of the Victory Lofts across the street. The $28 million, 89-unit residential project takes shape in a 1925 building that once housed Model T Fords. Next door to Martinez' warehouse, a hip, New Orleans-inspired custom furniture store just moved in, prompting him to design the door handle and railing that looks like Rapunzle-ish strands of spun steel.
Down the street, the swanky fins of cruise ships peek from the channel.
The neighborhood whirs.
Martinez just smiles.
"I knew that real estate could only stay dormant for so long."