Homestyle Advice from an East Bay Ironworker
By Lou Fancher
A visit to Michael Bondi Metal Design’s studio on the outskirts of an industrial neighborhood in Richmond is eerily quiet. That is, until the boom, boom, bam of the rhythmic ram on a pneumatic forging hammer breaks the silence. Crushed with 340 pounds of force, a glowing metal bar heated in a 2,000-degree forge results in a steel wand. Iron may be the fourth most common element on Earth, but there’s nothing common about the architectural ironwork of Michael Bondi.
The metalworker’s spiraling steel railings, deco-esque mixed-metal doors, and classic Italian forged-metal entry gates grace residences in Alamo, Danville, Orinda, and other Bay Area suburbs. A-list clients in and out of the Bay Area include Sugar Ray Leonard, Rod Stewart, Donald Trump, the late Robin Williams, and a few celebs with enough clout to make their names unavailable. Bondi’s public installations can be found at Chez Panisse, UC Berkeley’s Botanical Garden, atop Oakland City Center Tower, and most recently, in the form of a sculpture to honor baseball legend Willie Stargell at the Alameda Landing.
Operating in their Richmond industrial warehouse complex since 1989, Bondi and his team of artisans have been in business for 39 years. Drawing upon artistic traditions established over centuries by Italian craftsmen or pioneered in America during architectural blacksmithing’s heyday in the 1920s and 1930s, Bondi’s work shows that age and beauty travel hand in hand.
“The youngest hammer in my shop is my age—65,” says Bondi, as he shows work samples ranging from fine door hardware easily held in one hand to majestic entry gates rising far above an adult’s head.
Bondi is most influenced by the aesthetic of his late brother, Stephen, who died in 2004. Stephen studied in Italy with blacksmith Simon Benetton and others, and his younger brother frequently joined him. Together, the brothers brought their Bondi style of blacksmithing to Americans.
“What drives my metalwork understanding comes from Stephen and Benetton,” says Bondi. “We were always interested in contemporary ironwork. Most clients request the classic work, but work I design on my own is more angular, with smooth and rough textures combined.”
Classic and contemporary ironwork involve the same process of heating the metal until it is the consistency of clay so it can be stretched and manipulated. But there the two styles diverge, with the former harkening back to ancient Italy and often expressed in flawless scrolls, which in art are S-shaped curlicues. Bondi calls the style “perfect contained alignment.”
Contemporary metalwork is free-form. “You want hammer marks and the process to be exhibited,” says Bondi. “The blows are part of the form.” Bondi allows edges to ripple like lasagna noodles or fracture into barklike shards. Mixing warm bronze with hard-edged steel—or combining the tone and color palette of side-by-side bronze, copper, and steel—the designs suggest Arts and Crafts or 1925 Paris Expo metalwork.
Perhaps the most unusual Bondi Metal creations are two items rarely seen: the Bay Bridge trolls designed to protect the bridges from earthquakes. “Ah, there’s a story there,” Bondi says. Just 18-inches tall, the first troll was secretly welded to the original bridge during the postquake reconstruction, and was later rescued from demolition, although its current whereabouts are unknown. Its design was inspired by a Norwegian tale, “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” about an ugly troll who lives under a bridge.
Credit for the troll is shared: Bill Roan, who was working with Bondi at the time, designed it; Bondi says the suggestion of a troll to protect the bridge was his; and all of the workers in the shop participated and made parts of it, putting the same care and craftsmanship into it as their large-scale work.
Years later, just before the new Bay Bridge was set to open, Bondi received an emergency call: “We were asked to make a troll replacement,” he says. “I was going to Europe, so the guys in my shop did it.”
While Bondi may be best known for his studio’s ornate metalwork, his pride in an ugly-cute troll reflects an emphasis on history preserved and work well-made—no matter how big or small the project.