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Made in Maryland: Niermann Weeks' mission is crystal clear

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Chandeliers were the first thing Joe Niermann designed. And it was five years before he sold one. Now the bejeweled iron and crystal silhouettes are his signature.

"I don't really care for the crystals, one way or the other," said Niermann, though millions of them are stored in large paint buckets in the Millersville strip mall he converted into the Niermann Weeks company factory. "I want the design to be strong enough so that it doesn't need crystals."

But it is the crystals — from tiny, man-made beads imported from the Czech Republic to the fist-sized rock crystals found in nature — that identify Niermann's light fixtures, some as small as a wall sconce and others 6 feet tall and 6 feet across and weighing 300 pounds.

The crystals give each piece a delicate and magical character. And because a chandelier can be seen from so many different angles — from the side, from above, from below — they give each of those points of view a different complexity and offer fresh surprises.

"I see the designs that come out of my husband and my children's brains, and I wonder, 'Where did that come from?'" says Eleanor McKay, who shepherds this family-owned business. Both daughters, Eleanor Niermann, 40, and Claire Niermann, 37, have worked in the shop since they were youngsters and now share design duties with their father.

McKay met Niermann while curating exhibits for the Wisconsin Historical Society. Though he was in the insurance business, he was fascinated by the finishes on fine antiques, and he volunteered to help with restoration. Soon enough, people were asking Niermann to repair their antiques or to copy a piece or make a second one.

The couple married, and she used her education in library science and history to gather the research that helped him ground his early designs. They moved to Memphis, Tenn., where she continued to curate at the University of Memphis and he continued to restore furniture. It turned out to be more lucrative than staging exhibits.

"It was the early '70s, and the funding from the outside work was so much steadier," said McKay. She and her husband teamed with Mike Weeks, a Memphis blacksmith and metal sculptor, and the partners began the business by specializing in metal tables and chandeliers.

"I didn't have a job when we moved to Memphis, so I walked into a consignment shop," said Niermann. "And they asked me if I could repair this iron-and-crystal chandelier. It was like a whole world opened up to me."

When the business began in 1978, the partners were operating out of a Memphis mansion they were in the process of restoring, selling out of a back room. The first thing Niermann designed was his own iron-and-crystal chandelier, but nobody wanted to buy it at first. Today, it is his biggest seller. For years, it was his reproduction English country furniture that kept the company afloat. It was slow going, but soon the designs drew the attention of affluent homeowners and influential designers

The firm relocated to Annapolis in 1984. McKay and Niermann had been married in Bowie and her parents lived there, so it was home. In addition, McKay had gotten a job with the Library of Congress, and her husband followed her.

Meanwhile, Niermann's design business had grown to 35 people and the first-month sales reached $40,000. "It was such a fabulous amount of money," said McKay. "We couldn't believe it. And it supported us all."

McKay and Niermann bought out Weeks in the mid-1990s and today, despite a rough ride through the recession, the Millersville factory produces 1,600 to 1,700 chandeliers and light fixtures a year, at prices from $2,000 to $25,000. And that doesn't include the metal and glass tables or the wood furniture.

"We get knocked off a lot," said McKay, and the company has resorted to patenting some of its designs. But the flip side is, the company must "sign" each piece because they so closely resemble their European Classic (1770 to 1840) antecedents that they often end up in antique sales.

Niermann's designs are inspired by what he sees when he and his wife travel. He makes sketches, and she takes pictures. The curves in the dome of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, for example, inspired the Crevecoeur chandelier.

McKay calls her husband's chandeliers "architectural jewelry," and says that customers often save up to be able to purchase a luxury piece of lighting that will set the tone for a room, staircase or foyer.

"We are a fashion industry, there is no question about it," said McKay. Claire Niermann describes one of her father's chandeliers, the Avignon, as "a woman in a simple Chanel dress, wearing a string of pearls."

The chandeliers, along with the metal and glass tables and the wood furniture, are all crafted in the converted strip mall where about 50 employees, some former art students, bring their special craft to the fabrication processes. Most of the finishes are "distressed" in such a way as to appear that the mirrored surface or the ironwork has been rescued from castle ruins.

While both daughters participate in design, Eleanor Niermann is also in charge of marketing, while her sister's role is much more practical.

"A lot of what I do is the engineering," said Claire Niermann. "How are you going to ship it? How are you going to get it in the house? How are you going to hang it?."

She can also "shrink" the company's designs or "expand" them to fit a particular space. And she has the job of keeping track of all those crystals.

For example, Claire Niermann can tell you how many of four different sizes of crystals she will need to order to make seven Biarritz chandeliers: 21,000, 26,000, 16,000 and 1,750, respectively. And those numbers differ depending on the finished size of the light fixture or whether it has multiple tiers.

"My father doesn't care how many beads it takes. He just wants us to make it. But if you ever want to make it again, you might want to have a record of how many beads it took."

Eleanor's love for the family business is more ethereal. "A chandelier is dynamic. It changes from every perspective. You don't sit on it, you don't eat at it. It does something, and I love that we have a special little place in the industry."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

Niermann Weeks

Origins: Joe Niermann's love of antique finishes and wife Eleanor McKay's knowledge of history combine to create lighting fixtures and furniture with one foot in European classicism and the other in contemporary design. A former partner, Mike Weeks, brought his skills with metal work to the design business but left the company in the 1990s.

Maryland roots: McKay's parents lived in Bowie and the couple was married there, returning often to Maryland for vacations. When McKay secured a prestigious job with the Library of Congress, they moved to Annapolis in 1984. They converted a strip mall on Veterans Highway into a production facility, and daughters Eleanor and Claire were "working" there as children. "Slave labor," Claire Niermann says, laughing.

The line: Niermann and his daughters have designed more than 70 different chandeliers. It is their specialty, but the company also designs and produces tables, mirrors, chairs, chests and elaborate beds.

Where to buy: Niermann Weeks' designs were once available only to interior designers and architects, but McKay quickly realized how shelter magazines and television shows have changed the way people think about their homes. "They want to do it," she said. "They don't want to pay to have someone else do it." So there are now showrooms the public can visit in Washington, New York City and Toronto. Visit niermannweeks.com for more information.

About the series

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Maryland craftsmen were producing some of the finest home furnishings anywhere. Inlaid bellflower furniture, repousse silver, case clocks and other goods made in Baltimore, Annapolis, Frederick and elsewhere during this period are still admired for their design, quality and craftsmanship. Today, the state is home to dozens of businesses producing hand-crafted, often one-of-a-kind furniture, mirrors, lighting and other items for the local market and beyond. So we're turning the spotlight on some of the Maryland companies that produce top-quality furnishings for the home. Some are small shops, and others have grown to become large companies with a national footprint.

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