Hardware City. Silver City. Brass City. The nicknames of our cities carry forward memories like ghosts, visions of lives once lived, with some reminders hanging around. There is an industrial corridor of once-proud 20th-century manufacturing in Connecticut. Starting on the west side of Hartford, flowing down through New Britain, through Waterbury and Meriden, south along the Naugatuck River through Ansonia, Derby and Shelton, then toward Bridgeport and Stratford on Long Island Sound: these were our boom towns, churning out products into the world, stamped with their origin.
Anywhere in the U.S. and throughout the world, a piece of brass would come stamped with its origin: this comes from Waterbury. The brass industry is gone from the Brass City. The things that the people of Waterbury made are still in use throughout the world, however, because they designed and made them so well. The story is replicated throughout Connecticut and the United States, in Bridgeport and Peoria and Milwaukee and Youngstown. The decline of American manufacturing has shaped the social and political trajectory of our country as much or more than any other development in the last half-century. We are a post-industrial society.
In more recent years, perhaps because of anxieties about what has been lost, the principles of design that governed this great boom in American manufacturing have become fresh again. There is a new American aesthetic. It’s been called industrial chic, or vintage industrial, and it appeals to collective memory, a vision of the past that is part of the DNA of a place like Waterbury. You’ve seen it at Restoration Hardware. You see it anytime you go into a third-wave coffee shop or brewery tap room with exposed brick and pipes gridding the ceiling. It’s an aesthetic hint at the heat, the smell and the roughness of industrial processes, blended with the clean, Scandinavian smoothness of current tech-inspired design.
“We’re leaving so much history behind, and really good design behind us that is not being picked up that’s being thrown into scrap yards and discarded.”
— Tim Byrne, Get Back Inc.
Tim Byrne, an Irish immigrant who is equal parts carpenter, revivalist, design guru and mad scientist, was at the vanguard of this aesthetic innovation. For nearly 20 years his Get Back Inc. business has occupied an entire floor of the former Oakville Pin Co. site on the Oakville-Waterbury line in Watertown, and has become a wildly successful design firm based off the rescuing and restoring of old pieces of American manufacturing equipment.
The 30,000-square-foot space is divided into several sections, each representing a different part of the Get Back process. One side of the former factory floor has raw materials, housed in a gaping hall. The cavernous room is packed to the walls with old book presses and other machines with cranks and wheels we have long lost use for. Another section houses the wood shop, where Byrne’s eight or so employees manufacture wood furniture. On the other side of the floor is a magnificent showroom, where Byrne’s finished pieces are displayed.
In addition to the one-off pieces fashioned out of salvaged material, Get Back Inc. also manufactures a cast-iron seat ($500) that can swing out on hinges from whatever item (a kitchen island, perhaps) it is attached to. Other items in the showroom include old card catalogue-filing shelves resuscitated from their former uses in apothecaries and old hotels. The lighting items also have similar industrial backgrounds. More often than not, the lighting pieces are designed for functionality, with joints that make them adjustable.
Get Back has sold pieces to the great and the good, from Bono to Bruce Springsteen. Meg Ryan was recently featured on the cover of an architecture and design magazine sitting on one of Byrne’s tables. A glance at the price tags on the items in the showroom and the prices listed on the website for these one-of-a-kind tables, desks and chairs falls under the heading of “if you have to ask…” and shows just what a market there is for this brand of restoration. Prices range from the hundreds into the tens of thousands.
Why has it taken off in popularity? Byrne says much of the reason stems from a reaction to the developments in American consumption patterns. “The U.S. is a disposable country,” he says. “I’ve never seen so much stuff thrown away.” This is evident in a different principle of design, one anathema to Byrne and his ilk: planned obsolescence. A smartphone, those contemporary machines held up as paragons of innovative design, are built to break. The profit motive has changed production and consumption. We are forever buying, always moving, always swiping our cards. When was the last time you had an item repaired to extend its life?
Byrne’s disagreement with this disposability is not a hollow one. This decades-long shift in design principles, now accelerated by the tech boom and to which Byrne’s work responds and critiques, has had real global consequences. The cobalt needed for the lithium batteries in our smartphones has to be mined — mostly in Congo, and often by children as young as 7. The global supply chain that produces the machines that shape our daily lives now leads back down a mine in Congo, not a factory in Waterbury.
“The speed with which we seem to go through life — life is happening with the internet and everybody is going so fast these days. We’re leaving so much history behind, and really good design behind us that is not being picked up that’s being thrown into scrap yards and discarded,” Byrne says.
The 64-year-old Byrne knows other ways of life. He left school as a 16-year-old on the south side of Dublin. Before that he was thrown out of boarding school in County Westmeath. (Why? Byrne quotes Cool Hand Luke: “a failure to communicate.”) He went to Kent in England where, like thousands of Irish have done for decades in England, he built roads, specifically the A2 motorway.
After going back to Ireland and getting married, unemployment in the country then sent him to America in 1987. “I came here on a Tuesday and I had a job on a Wednesday. No green card, nothing,” he says. “Went back to Ireland, brought my wife and two kids. Told my kids we were going on vacation, and then got our green cards in a lottery like four years later,” he says.
Family connections brought him to Connecticut, where he worked as a carpenter in a small cabinet shop in the Litchfield area. Throughout the ’90s he operated his own cabinet-making business, and in the late ’90s moved into antiques and restoration, before starting Get Back Inc.
As Byrne strolls through his space, he points out the functionality of unreconstructed machines in the raw-materials section. What looks to the untrained eye like pure scrap, to Byrne is pure art. His mind cuts through the cobwebs and dust that coats the old machinery, preferably pre-World War II American, that he picks up at auctions or at scrap yards. He sees not ruins, but something that Meg Ryan might have in her apartment.
With bright, impish eyes and a tape measure he uses for pointing as a school teacher might use a stick, Byrne has difficulty fully explaining a concept without pointing to a design element on a piece that he’s already done or is envisioning. Such are the mechanics of the furniture designer’s mind.
He is not without a sense of mischief, though. In the foyer of his shop there is a framed antique sign. “NO IRISH NEED APPLY,” it reads. Asked the name of a particular piece, in which a wheel and a chain is used to adjust the height of a massive glass surface, he replies dryly: “a table.”
Pointing to another table crafted out of a piece of Argentinian walnut, he points out the imperfections. “A factory wouldn’t use this because of the defects. To me that is the essence of this piece. There’s only one like it,” he says. Another central feature of Byrne’s furniture design is the preservation of a piece’s functionality.
While some have described his work as fitting into the world of “steampunk,” in which a version of an industrial past with outmoded technologies is resurrected and worked into a notion of an alternate future, Byrne is not a devotee of the term, as he is not in the business of fantasy. “I really don’t buy into it, because I think in steampunk, they add things,” he says. “Where we tend to try and keep it as real as possible. If it has gears on it and chains, it works. If it doesn’t, we take it off.”
Ireland does not have a big manufacturing base, either now or historically, Byrne explains. When he came to the U.S., everything from the country’s manufacturing history was new and fresh, fresh in its oldness.
The journal Salvage, in its opening editorial statement, asks the question: “Why salvage? Salvage because we are wrecked. Because we need a strategy for ruination.” Byrne and his Get Back have found at least one strategy.