Kaleidoscoping Copper: Alan and Andy Tolley
Alan Tolley never set out to become an entrepreneur or an artist. As he puts it, in his carefully metered southern twang, “As a youthful man, I was not a long-term planner.”
Alan’s body of work is made up of 100% copper ranging of both useful and beautiful forms—often simultaneously. As owner of Piedmont Metal for the past seven years, Alan has had a hand in everything from chimney caps and countertops to stylized faux-brick backsplashes and HVAC vents. But he has also designed custom furniture and, most recently, his first decorative sculpture. His work is known and adored for the hand-coloring process he uses to produce brilliant red, purple and blue hues—and most importantly, the secret chemical mixture he applies to the copper after it has been heated to retain the coloring.
“We sort of accidentally stumbled into copper,” Alan explains, noting that his twin brother Andy is a close partner in his artistic endeavors. Though the twins have lived more than 2,000 miles apart since they parted as teenagers, their business brings them together on a daily basis. Alan is the owner of Piedmont Metal—which designs and manufactures—and Andy lives in Texas and owns MarbleizedCopper.com—a website that sells products Piedmont Metal produces. Though they have their disagreements as close siblings do, every day that they work together, says Alan, “is a joy, a complete joy.”
A migratory family throughout their childhoods (their father, a civil engineer, moved the family often for his job), Alan and Andy Tolley were born in Virginia and grew up together. Upon graduation from high school both of the Tolley boys continued to travel, Alan recalling that they ended up “on other ends of the universe” from each other. While Andy flew in the Air Force stationed in Alaska, Alan took up ropes with the Navy in Jacksonville, Florida. During the six years that he remained in the service, Alan held positions as both an officer and engineer.
Alan eventually settled in North Carolina, which was largely a result of the Chicago cold and his wife’s opportunities as an educational consultant in Charlotte. He credits it as a great place to live and though Alan doesn’t feel it necessarily inspires his art work or professional life, the climate, he says, had a pretty large effect on him getting there. He jokes that the cold drove him south: “I woke up one year on June 1st in Chicago---It was 32 degrees outside.” He urged his wife, Eleanor, to take a job she’d been offered in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is where they started a family and began working with copper.
Though Piedmont Metal has been around since 1988, it was primarily a manufacturer for HVAC ducting when Alan bought it in 2002. “The core business has been, and remains, HVAC ducting,” says Alan. “But the business for construction is cyclical. There’s ups and there’s downs.” When the financial situation got tight, Alan was forced to make a choice: scrounge up a source of money or fire one of his friends.
He leaped at the opportunity to solve his problem when one client asked Alan to make a custom copper chimney cap. In order to piece it together during construction Alan had to solder the copper seams—which led to a discovery that changed his entire outlook on the beauty and potential of the copper he’d been working with for years.
“In the course of [making the chimney cap] we heated up the copper—and we started to see all these brilliant colors coming out of it.” He was delighted to have this additional element to apply to his work, and colored the chimney cap like a kaleidoscope.
Once he had reached the greatest satisfaction with their first creation through the heating of the copper element, Alan coated it with a clear layer of protective lacquer—which he imagined would only intensify the natural brilliance. Unfortunately, and to his dismay, all the colors he had cultivated during the heating process disappeared.
“The first piece I ever did, I ruined,” Alan laments his copper chimney cap. “And I was just distraught. I mean, it was still pretty, but now it’s got this lacquer on it and none of my bright colors stayed. It was really frustrating.”
All he has learned about his copper work he gleaned from persistent trial and error. His first failure with the chimney cap invited a challenge, and the question became how to intensify and keep the colors in future projects. Alan, his brother Andy, and his buddies James and Jaime experimented with the processes of heating the copper and attempted dozens of techniques to keep the rich red, purple and blue hues before they finally found one that worked.
The formula is kept a secret, Alan explains, because it is vital to keeping the brilliant colors as a final product after he and his fellow artisans draw them out of copper during the heating process.
“Each color in the copper represents a different level of heat that the copper has seen. To get purple, the copper has had to get to say, 550 degrees. For it to turn orange, it has to get to 200. As you progress through the different colors, you don’t get those colors back.”
The owner of Piedmont Metal, Alan thinks of himself as an entrepreneur, first and foremost.
“We come here to earn a living, provide for our families, and make a profit,” he says. “That being said, we recognize that the marketplace expects high-quality craftsmanship—not run-of-the-mill items they can buy at Target.”
It is this belief in creating truly one-of-a-kind pieces that has made Piedmont Metal a hit at home design shows, most recently last year’s International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Show at the World Market Center in Las Vegas.
With an entrepreneurial mindset, Alan is willing to sneak in his artistic creativity wherever he can. His greatest day-to-day challenge in a custom piece of art is to understand his client’s vision and translate it to reality.
“At the end of the day, the person that’s right—if you’re an entrepreneur—is the client,” he says. “If you’re an artist, the guy who’s right at the end of the day—it’s you.”
The design, the shape, the height—all of these features are determined by his client, and it can be a constant struggle to reach a common aesthetic, especially with his clients all over the United States and only available to meet by phone. “You have to make sure your concept is in line with the other person’s thinking and you have to draw sketches to make sure that what you think you’re hearing is what the client is saying,” he adds.
Alan has proven he knows how to ask the right questions to reach his client’s demands. A recently created commission for a man in Columbus, Ohio is a five-foot-tall sculpture of a lighthouse (pictured at a pool side). It’s constructed out of 48 ounces of 110 copper, some of the pieces looking like torn and ragged siding stripped from decades of standing guard on a seaside bluff. Lengthwise there are small pieces of twisted copper linking each stylized piece to the other along the vertical length of the entire sculpture, reinforcing its form. Peeking into the exposed insides of what one imagines is a long-abandoned lighthouse, one can notice a spiraling staircase leading all the way up to the catwalk, which has a hand-crafted railing. At the time of this writing, the client had just seen the first photos of the semi-finished product, which requires on-site installation and a construction of a stone base mimicking the massive concrete foundations of existing lighthouses. With the stone base, the completed sculpture will weigh up to 500 pounds, and stand at least six feet tall. A solar-powered light has been installed, allowing the lighthouse to shine all night long.
Alan enjoys the beauty of his copper creations and gets satisfaction out of his expertise. But, as a true entrepreneur, he is always thinking about where the future will lead him. He’s currently involved in a study involving the germ-killing properties of copper. He sees it as a potentially revolutionary discovery for the future of the copper industry as a whole, not to mention a catalyst for a boom in copper countertops. The CDA has written briefly about copper’s ability to inhibit the growth of microbes, noting that copper provides “a measure of protection against harmful germs and bacteria in many environments.” Alan believes that this discovery could drastically change the way copper is valued and used in the United States.
Other future plans for Piedmont Metal include the possibility of incorporating new designers and metals—particularly steel—into the copper products and artistry. The twin brothers Andy and Alan also hint at the desire to combine their two businesses into one someday and to work together to foster their guiding principle: providing products produced, manufactured and “made in the U.S.A.” Alan shares his concern the skilled artisans and producers are failing to pass on the tradition of building and producing in the U.S. He warns, “If we’re not careful, we’re not going to be making anything in the U.S.A. anymore. It’s not that the skilled people who know how to make things are leaving; they’re dying.”
Alan is dedicated to making sure his staff is compensated with a livable wage and hopes that he has the opportunity to continue evolving in the marketplace.
“When you bring these products into their homes, people think they are just stunningly beautiful,” he adds. “You’ve done something good for them. And at the same time, you’ve done something good for you. It will be made right, it will be made right the first time, and we will have fun making it.”
Also in this Issue:
- Kaleidoscoping Copper: Alan and Andy Tolley
- Fit for a King's Dog: Collier Leeds
- Mountain Metalsmiths: Reflecting Nature's Beauty with Copper
- Copper Arts Museum to Open in Clarkdale
- George Segal on View at the Nasher Sculpture Center