The chandelier will someday be a gleaming arrangement of delicate glass tubing and warm, patina-ed metal. It will retail for several thousand dollars.
For now, though, it’s just a few sketches and a pile of paper-wrapped drinking straws from Chipotle.
Claire and Eleanor Niermann, the daughters of the founder of the luxury lighting and furniture brand Niermann Weeks, are building a prototype for their newest light fixture. It’s based on a 1960s Swedish pendant, only instead of a silk fringe dripping from the brass base, as in the inspiration piece, the sisters will use narrow glass tubing. Or, for now, straws.
Claire recalls how the cashier at the burrito joint gave her the stink eye as she grabbed a handful of them on her way out the door. “They’re the exact same size,” she says, holding up the plastic alongside the pricier glass. “So why waste the material?”
This is how the elegant, high-end pieces that will grace Manhattan penthouses and McLean mansions are made - not in impersonal overseas factories, but by humans, in an unassuming strip-mall-turned-office-park off Interstate 97 in Millersville, Maryland, near Annapolis.
There, the Niermann sisters, along with the company’s president, Justin Binnix (whom they call their unofficial brother), oversee an operation of 22 people that combines a sales force catering to elite designers with a paint-splattered workshop they liken to “art camp.”
It is as far from Ikea as you can get. Top designers often cite the ability to customise pieces as a reason Niermann Weeks has long been their go-to. Since each one is handcrafted, a designer can tweak its proportions or finishes to fit a client’s space. Or even create something from scratch. When a client of Vienna, Virginia-based Hillary Summerbell wanted to use an acrylic tabletop she had found in her travels, the designer was able to work with Niermann Weeks to create a table base for it.
“No one else would be able to do that,” she says. “It’s nice to say to a client, ‘I can figure that out!’ ”
What makes that kind of customisation and attention to detail possible is the network of craftspeople who create the bones of the pieces the company sells - mostly to designers (that’s “to the trade” in design-world parlance) at its New York showroom and at other design showrooms, including the Washington Design Center downtown.
Rob Link is Niermann’s “metal guy.” A Maryland native, Link, 47, started working with Niermann 30 years ago and now forges table bases and chandeliers and bed frames in his own shop. Local woodworkers turn out tables and cabinets, and upholsterers stitch seats for chairs and benches.
Once the freshly created items arrive at the Millersville facility, a team of about 13 production workers might plaster, leaf, glaze or paint them, wash them with acid, and adorn them with hand-cut crystals or tiny mirrored tiles, until they resemble timeworn antiques that might have been discovered under a moldering tapestry at a Parisian flea market.
Even the more transitional furnishings and light fixtures, such as those in the company’s recent collaboration with designer Amanda Nisbet, are transformed with burnished finishes.
“It’s a very collaborative process,” Claire Niermann says. “We’re in a constant conversation with each other.”
Eleanor, 46, and Claire, 43, aren’t formally trained in design. Eleanor studied French and history, and Claire spent her early career overseeing operations and opening stores for Starbucks. But they learned the trade from their father, Joe Niermann, a former insurance actuary whose passion for restoring antiques led him to found the company in Memphis in 1978. Niermann and metalsmith Mike Weeks created a single reproduction of a 19th-century chandelier and began selling it to designers.
Eleanor and Claire’s mother, Eleanor McKay, who was an archivist by training and worked at the Library of Congress, became the company’s chief executive.
The family moved the business to Annapolis in 1984, seeking a better climate and proximity to Eleanor’s parents in Bowie, Maryland, and opened the Millersville facility several years later. Today, the annual sales of the company, which is private, reach into the multimillions. (The Niermanns didn’t want to be more specific, citing competitive reasons.)
“Growing up, it was always: You could help Dad or you could do your homework,” Claire Niermann recalls. She and Eleanor would sand, clean his paintbrushes and use a hair dryer to dry layers of paint as their father created faux-marble finishes, sometimes using a feather to mimic the fine veining of natural stone.
“It turns out that child labour isn’t child labour if it’s your own kid,” she says. “Dad checked.”
Joe Niermann and McKay bought out Weeks in 1992; he retired in 2013, and she finally stepped away from the company in 2015. But Joe still contributes ideas, often in the form of objects he’s found at antiques sales that he thinks might inspire new designs.
Near the design area where Claire is tinkering with her straws is a haphazard assortment of his discoveries: an inlaid Chinese screen sits akimbo, and a pair of marble obelisks sit next to an ornate candlestick. Eleanor points to it and says, “Mom calls that Dad’s antique compost pile.”
On a recent Friday, past the front office and design area, the workshop is alive with activity, though the meticulous work unfolds slowly.
Painter Thom Chaney perches on a stool, working on the hardware for a Danish commode, a chest of drawers with a chalky blue finish. The trick is to make the shiny brass pulls look as if they have acquired the lustre of years of wear in an elegant French chateau. He dabs on a layer of thin brownish glaze.
The entire commode, which itself requires multiple layers of glaze and paint, will take him about a week to finish. It will retail for just under $15,000.
Former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had a custom version of this cabinet created for the bedroom of their home in Chappaqua, New York. It had a double-sided television that would lift out at the touch of a button.
The Niermanns believe in letting their employees learn on the job, much as they did at their father’s knee. Before he came to Niermann Weeks, Chaney worked at a local Giant supermarket. Like many of the 22 workers at the Millersville facility, he lacked formal training. Link, the metalsmith, was a plumber’s assistant.
Chaney “is now our most talented painter,” Eleanor Niermann says. “It’s just about helping people find their natural skills.”
The familial nature of the business extends beyond the owners. Chaney’s wife, Jennifer Chaney, is across the cavernous room, painting a gold bobeche, a piece that sits on the base of chandelier candles.
Next to her, her sister, Sandi Kennedy, is carefully applying sizing - a gluelike substance - to a chandelier to which she will later attach delicate silver-coloured leafing.
They aren’t the only siblings at the company; floor managers Danny Jackson and Ike Cromwell are half-brothers.
Nearby, there is a beading station, where glittering crystals of varying sizes await in labeled dishes. Hands will string them together, using delicate wire, to form the strands that adorn the company’s signature chandeliers.
Beyond that, there’s the mirror and glass area. Niermann Weeks makes its mirrors the old-fashioned way, taking sheets of glass and affixing more silver-tone leafing to one side. The mirror is then treated to create a timeworn look.
This area belongs to Byung Lee, who is known as Mr. Lee to everyone. Lee cuts the mirrored sheets into small tiles, which are then painstakingly attached to tables and chandeliers - he recently used no fewer than 600 of them on a massive version of the company’s light-reflecting “Monaco” chandelier.
“Our things are not just made in the U.S., they’re made in Maryland by our neighbours and our friends,” Eleanor Niermann says.
And that’s increasingly important to customers who want the cachet of locally sourced goods, says Warrenton, Virginia-based designer Barry Dixon. In his 24-year career, he can’t recall a project where he didn’t use a Niermann Weeks product.
“I love supporting local businesses,” he says. “I do that whenever possible.”
Sourcing and shipping a chandelier from Europe can also be expensive and the timing unpredictable. “It would have to clear customs, then get on a truck, and who knows how long it could take,” Dixon says. “Or I could just go 20 miles up the road.”