Here at Coco Architectural, bronze and brass are a part of our family’s legacy--we know the history because we have helped shape many of the significant metal crafting trends through the 20th and 21st Centuries. While the overall history of metal and how it has helped shape the rise and fall of civilizations throughout history is quite long, we want to share with you some of the history of our craft and how metalwork has inspired artisans and cultural trends through the ages.
Metalworking in antiquity
Although many people associate metal’s origins with the Iron Age, historians and religious artifacts have shown that hammering and casting metals developed almost at the dawn of humanity. Metalwork often defined a civilization’s ability to win wars and increase their cultural significance through artistic and religious relics. From the gilded bronze statues and weapons of the Egyptians to the masterpiece that is Chimera of Arezzo, bronze and brass often played a notable role in ancient times and continues to define and inspire culture today.
Bronze remained a preferred alloy for relics and buildings through the Roman era. In fact, the doors of the Pantheon and Roman Forum occupy their original positions and can still be seen on tours today. After the Roman period, the use of bronze fell out of style with artisans for a few centuries. It was only after Charlemagne came into power that bronze and brass started to take on new lifeforms.
Charlemagne’s influence started with religious artifacts, including the casting of bronze church bells that endures as one of the dominant features of church architecture today. Almost every metal piece and artwork during his era included the use of metal, which caused the Christian church to become one of the primary patrons of bronze casting throughout history.
During the Middle Ages, Europe transitioned from using metalwork for decorative or religious purposes into making castings of functional objects like chandeliers, candle holders, water basins and the like. Notably, chandeliers continued to be used exclusively in churches until the Gothic era. During this time, people began to consider that lighting their homes from a central source was more functional than having dozens of candlesticks around the room. Of course, the most extravagant and expensive figures distinguished the upper classes from the more straightforward metalwork of the lower classes.
The use of bronze and brass in religious castings allowed metal to prevail in popularity through the enlightenment, with the use of the metal in churches, homes and art throughout Western Europe and the Americas. Industrialization brought a decline in the use of bronze, as the era did to many works that required craftmanship over machines. It was utilized by a few individual artists, as seen in many of the Italian sculptures found in art museums today.
Modernization and the future
As many of the bronze and brass artisans moved to America, they brought about a renaissance of the metals through the Art Nouveau era. In fact, our founder, Rosario Coco, implemented brass in everything from church railings to high-end tea carts. As the use of brass in elegant fixtures became more popular in society, Coco Brothers Inc. introduced the first shower door in polished brass. Upscale hotels and residences used our brass metalwork throughout New York and the United States.
As technology continued to improve through the last century, so did our ability to leverage that technology to create more ornate and customized metalwork. Craftsmen like us need a balance of technology and craft to maintain business. Despite manufacturing of high-end goods moving overseas, craftsmen have supported their business through the new capabilities that technology ushered.
The use of laser cutting allows us to cut new materials and be more flexible with changes throughout the manufacturing process. For instance, if your ventilation grille needs to be ½-inch longer on one side for one room, technology allows that change to be made quickly and efficiently. Older methods like casting would have meant that you needed to find a way to fill in the gap or create an entirely new casting.
James Coco Jr., Coco Architectural’s president, said, “Technology has caused higher-skilled craftsmen to go away. There is more highly sophisticated, automated equipment that has taken their place. We are trying to hold the balance and use both.”
One example of using both technology and craftsmanship is the Beacon renovation of the Jersey City Medical Center. This historic building was constructed in the Art Deco style as part of the Works Progress Administration program. After falling into disrepair and having many of the brass fixtures stolen and sold for scrap, we were approached to try to recreate some of those pieces that had since lost their castings.
James went to the site, traced the remaining pieces on paper, and then went back to our shop to design the new fixtures in both brass and steel. The project needed the flexibility of not only variances in pieces, but also the types of metal used so that the renovation could stay in budget. The use of our latest technology allowed us to continue our legacy of focusing on quality work with excellent customer service.
If you need custom fixtures for your home or building, we have the expertise to make sure the design fits the historical style. Contact us today to see how we can craft custom metal work for you.