Home & Design

Craft Art at Home

Ken and Julie Girardini achieve a perfect work/life balance creating and living among their one-of-a-kind and limited-edition metal arts

Craft Art at Home

The Girardinis have spent 13 years renovating and refining their contemporary home in Sykesville, Maryland.

The Girardinis didn’t build their own house. But like birds settled in their nests, they live in surroundings that have been shaped by their own hands and sculpted to suit their lifestyle. From its wide-open spaces to the hardware on cabinet doors, their home represents the successful partnership of two artists working together in metal and in life.

After 13 years of renovating and refining their home, Julie Girardini says with satisfaction, “We love it so much. It’s a crafted, handmade house, and it reflects us.”

Perched on a hillside in Sykesville, Maryland, the conventional contemporary seemed an unlikely choice for the couple’s first single-family home. It did not have the outbuilding they wanted for a studio. It did have overgrown shrubs, lots of dark paneling, a warren of little rooms and a short, narrow hallway ending abruptly at a back door.

Though the property was not what they had envisioned, Julie recalls, “We felt we could make it into what we love.” They liked the symmetrical shape of the house and its placement on a wooded four-acre site across from a protected dairy farm. If they knocked down walls on the first floor, big windows offered possibilities for light and panoramic views.

Ken’s background as a systems analyst at Goddard Space Flight Center and his lifelong interest in hands-on art, coupled with Julie’s experience growing up on an Iowa farm (where everything had to function), ensured that their dream house would remain uncluttered and true to their guiding principle: “We view design as successful if it’s beautiful and still works well,” she says. “You can have both.”

Entering the house today feels like walking into one of the couple’s large-scale sculptures. Metal surfaces glow with the incandescence of patinas and polish. Viewed across the space at a glance, a room divider, a fireplace surround, a door panel, tables, stools and chairs resemble abstract forms in a serene composition. All crafted by these self-taught metal artists, the pieces impart a surprising sense of warmth for cold finished steel.

A few paces from the front door stands the studio where the Girardinis work their wizardry. At 2,000 square feet, the freestanding facility is 10 percent larger than their house. An iconic fruit-bowl design, now discontinued, was a top seller that largely paid for the studio’s construction nine years ago. Here they transform sheets, bars and tubing of steel into functional or purely decorative objects using conventional metalworking tools, a range of chemicals—and their imaginations.

According to personal preference, Ken cuts and welds, Julie finishes. She grinds and polishes pieces using abrasives to achieve the desired surface texture, then seals them with protective lacquer. The couple designs jointly and independently, always consulting with each other. About a third of their work is custom, with fireplace surrounds and installations the most popular.

New pieces typically travel across the courtyard to their home, which often doubles as a gallery space for their latest work. “We transition so much in our work; we’re always doing new things. Why keep anything?” Ken asks rhetorically. Exceptions happen when pieces stay so long they become too difficult to part with, or one artist decides to buy a piece from the other.

Works by fellow craft artists, on permanent display, complement their own. “We have so much great art from our friends. A lot for entertaining, amazing dishes,” notes Julie, who is a gourmet chef. The couple enjoys inviting friends over almost every weekend.

Ken’s photo-transfer-on-patinated-steel wall “paintings” and Julie’s three-dimensional sculptures in metal and mixed media gleam beside objects such as Robert Briscoe’s oversized ceramic serving platter, a centerpiece on the dining table, or Charles Savoie’s Venetian-style goblets in the living area.

Like assembling pieces in a puzzle, the house took shape gradually over a period of 13 years. A sledgehammer got it all rolling. As the first order of business, Ken notes with a wry smile, “we had to destroy the country kitchen.” They proceeded to gut the whole first floor.

During deconstruction, Julie points out, “We never ceased to entertain, even if it wasn’t perfect.” She laughs about a Thanksgiving dinner they hosted during those early years. “We had some chairs that didn’t look good around the cherry table, so we went out and bought green plastic patio chairs. Our family asked, ‘What is this?’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry. The food will be terrific!’”

Limited time to work on the house and a tight budget slowed progress. But, Julie found, “It’s smarter to do it that way. As you go along, your taste is refined and you make smarter choices.”

Those choices required, as Ken put it, “treading that fine line between good design and making it affordable.” In the kitchen, for example, upper cabinets—reminiscent of an abstract jazz-age arrangement—create a lively focus on the first floor. The units were custom built of birds-eye-maple Formica Ligna by the Girardinis’ friend Jamie Jensen, a craftsman-turned-home remodeler. The lower cabinets—a compromise off-the-shelf solution—gain distinction with hardware that the Girardinis fashioned from lamp parts and a twist of stainless-steel aircraft cable.

By entirely gutting the first floor, they transformed the standard house into a light-filled space ideal for displaying their works of art. Their copper-and-steel clock stands like a sentry between a sculptural room divider and a dynamic new staircase made of metal parts and cherry wood treads.

Determined to take down a bearing wall in the front hall, they consulted an engineer but decided to tackle the job themselves with help from a construction crew. On installation day, they managed to maneuver the steel I-beam up the front stairs. Trying to position the horizontal member into place, they discovered the piece was a quarter-inch too tall. A few car jacks borrowed from the workmen were used to pump up the ceiling. The monumental support—which features a cutout pattern to lighten the industrial look—frames a 15-foot-wide opening to the living area and woods outside.

A cylindrical powder room also demonstrates their artful ingenuity. Once the original structure and its lemon-yellow fixtures were removed, the team was left with exposed floor-to-ceiling copper waste pipes. Now cleaned up and lacquered like one of their metal sculptures, the shiny pipes command pride of place in this Zen-like space, outfitted with other calming materials including a slate floor and polished river stones resting in the sink. The tiny room’s curved walls and steel-paneled door were also installed by Jensen.

The original owner of the house, who became a friend, has watched the transformation of her former home with interest. “If we knew we could have done this ourselves,” she told the Girardinis, “we never would have sold it!” Certainly she must realize that no one else could possibly have done it the Girardinis’ way.

Tina Coplan is a writer based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Photographer Anne Gummerson is based in Baltimore. Ken and Julie Girardinis’ work will be presented at the Washington Craft Show, November 30 to December 2, at the Washington Convention Center. For more information on Girardini Fine Art and Design, visit www.girardinidesign.com.

The fireplace forms an inviting presence at one end of the living room. Its metal panels are recessed as niches and bumped out to create a shelf for art display and seating. On the wall, Ken’s steel “paintings” reflect influences from his early travels as an exchange student in Japan.

Julie’s dimensional wall-panel triptych faces the room divider’s glass openings. A blown-glass-and-bronze sculpture by Charles Savoie is poised on a pedestal by the window.

Guests love to congregate on the cooking/dining side of the house, where the couple has created a feast of functional art. They designed the kitchen’s syncopated-style upper cabinets and concrete counter embedded with fossils as well as the dining table with a cherry top stained in India ink, the chandeliers and the open-back dining chairs in coordinated styles.

Surrounding an informal dining table, stools are made of swirled auger screws retrieved from Julie’s father’s farm in Iowa. Next to the curved powder room door, Aaron Kramer’s gourd-shaped sculpture is composed of steel tines from a street-sweeping brush.

Ken’s patinated steel wall pieces hang here and above the dining table; Robert Briscoe’s ceramic platter serves as a centerpiece.

The Girardinis designed and built the wood and steel cabinets in the master bathroom. Julie sculpted the torso in the clay class where she and Ken met 23 years ago. She later crafted the hand-thrown clay basins; one sits on a 400-pound river rock carried upstairs by Ken and three friends.

The couple collaborates in their studio. 

Ken and Julie worked together on the dramatic design of their bed, inspired by bridge architecture. 

Sheltered among trees, the deck features the Girardinis’ first furnishings for outdoor use. Their steel and steel-mesh dining table, matching serving trolley and votive candle holders are finished with two-toned powder-coating to provide industrial durability.

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