Forging a life as a craftsman. Blacksmith Erwin Gruen of Chicago has lifted ironwork to the level of art

THE poetic image of a smithy with bellows, biceps, and a chestnut tree quickly goes up in smoke when you meet Erwin Gruen - he's a blacksmith who has lifted the craft to art status. Forget the horseshoes and such stuff. That's not what Mr. Gruen hammers out on his anvil. He creates chandeliers, consoles, tables - and even four-poster beds. His market, however, isn't directly to you and me. He sells to the cream of interior designers, and you'll also see his work in the elite corners of department stores where home furnishing prices are customarily at cloud level.

Over the years, homemakers have often viewed ironwork as a ``poor relation'' to high-polished wood, silver, brass, and bronze. It generally scores a plebeian rating, a rough and tough metal that's suitable in some eclectic settings or in Early American decor, but that's about all.

Not for Gruen, though. He gives ironwork ``class.'' With 50 years of experience behind him, the native Berliner manages to achieve the grace of gazelles with the ox of materials. Even when stretched to delicate proportions, forged iron has tremendous sturdiness, he points out. And this is what Gruen cherishes about the metal - the marriage of strength to fluidity of line. To attain comparable sturdiness with wood, you'd have a table leg of monstrous proportions, he explains.

Gruen carries on his art in the basement of a four-story brick building, constructed in the late 1800s and located a few shakes from Chicago's chic Michigan Avenue. The immediate environs boast 60-some galleries, both art and antiques, the latter catering to connoisseurs searching for Queen Anne and Louis treasures rather than grandma's cupboard or Art Deco jewelry.

Gruen shows up at his 5,000 square foot workshop on weekdays about 6:45 a.m. He flicks on the FM, puts an apron over his jeans and plaid shirt, and fires up the forges. His aren't the open, coal-fired versions immortalized by historic villages that attract tourists. Gruen's three forges are small, enclosed, and heated by gas.

In fact, if you get technical about it, his iron isn't really iron at all but low-carbon steel, stacked in the shop in 20-foot bars.

``Pure iron is too soft,'' Gruen explains, so it's tempered with carbon, and is thus transformed into steel. Through the years, though, craftsmen have preferred to paint ``Ironwork'' on their shop shingles rather than ``Low-carbon steelwork.'' For obvious reasons.

Heated to a fiery hot, the ``iron'' becomes like soft butter. This is when Gruen works quickly. Each tap and slam of the hammer has to be right on. There's no time to tinker or answer the telephone because once the metal starts to cool, its magic malleability vanishes. Without expertise, one can easily end up with a lump of junk. As Gruen works, the grinder whirs and sparks fly. He's putting a brushed finish on a table. Does he ever finish his pieces with a coat of paint? Certainly not. ``If you paint it, you cover up the charm, the craftsmanship,'' he explains, although he frequently gives an elegant finish with gold leaf or verdigris - but never paint. That's for cast iron porch furniture made from molds.

When asked about cast iron, Gruen answers with a ``hmmpf,'' then likens these mass-produced pieces to the millions of prints made of an original painting. ``Copies,'' says the craftsman who signs each of his works.

Gruen's early blacksmith days had none of his present artistic and economic success.

``It was 1934 and I was 16,'' he recalls. The place: Nazi Germany. Because his father was Jewish, Gruen was forced to leave school and take up a trade.

``I didn't even know what a blacksmith was at that time. I could just as well have been a mechanic,'' he says, but a Jewish organization placed him with a master craftsman in a blacksmith shop. And Gruen learned his lessons well.

When Hitler's Nuremberg laws separated the Jews from the Germans in 1935, Gruen's German mother divorced her Jewish husband - all as a ruse, however. Outwardly, she played the role of a ``true'' Aryan, taking control of the family clothing business and running it herself. But all the while, she was insuring the safety of her husband behind-the-scenes.

``She saw him almost every day. She got food to him and clothing and money and everything'' while he hid out, Gruen explains. During the war, ``I must have found 20 different people to hide him,'' including a Nazi party member, he recalls. ``Without my mother, my father and I could not have survived.''

When the war ended, the family reunited.

In 195l, Gruen came to America. Why? ``Every European wanted to come to America,'' he says.

Gruen's immigration to the States was sponsored by a Jewish organization which placed him in Chicago. From then on, his talents took over, landing him a job in a blacksmith shop on the city's North Side. Within a year, he and a co-worker bought out the boss.

The partnership got off to a blazing start. The blacksmith shop churned out pieces and parts, and business was solid. But before three years went by, a split came because Gruen had a yen to go arty with ironwork, to try his hand and hammer at furniture and accessories. His partner saw no promise in that venture.

So Gruen ended up solo in an alley coach house that he rented for $80 a month, living upstairs and working downstairs. ``What I wanted to do, nobody was doing. And there was no market at the time'' for his ironwork dreams, he says. Gruen mailed memos to interior designers to announce his availability for forged ironwork. Gradually, business came to his door, enough that by the early '70s, he needed more and bigger doors and floors, necessitating a move to his current address.

Gruen has no sons - or daughters - to inherit his craftsmanship. But he's taken two apprentices under his wing. They're brothers, black, and both live in Cabrini Green, a public housing development where unemployment runs high, and survival is rugged. Sam Harvey has been working with Gruen for seven years; his younger brother, Eugene, for three years. They acknowledge that their teacher is a tight taskmaster, but the brothers thrive under this tutelage. They're on their way to vocational solidity, and they know it.

Gruen walks slowly around the workshop where black curlicues and serpentines filigree the whitewashed walls. He runs his hand along a piece of iron, much as a parent might stroke a child, or a horseman, his favorite jumper - with that special appreciation that recognizes potential.

``To me, iron is the ultimate challenge,'' he says quietly.

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