A decade ago, artisan Mark Melonas was piecing together a living teaching sculpture at the Baltimore School for the Arts, doing some freelance graphic design and staging exhibitions at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
And he was fooling around with concrete.
A friend was looking for a small sink for a tricky spot in a Canton rehab, and Melonas asked if he could give the project a try.
"I actually made it in my Bolton Hill apartment, carrying bags of cement up the steps," said Melonas. He hand-carved a mold and cast the sink in his kitchen.
One concrete sink led to another and another, and Melonas moved all that dust to the basement of his parents' home in Columbia.
"And it kind of got a life of its own," said the founder of Luke Works, now located in an old warehouse in Waverly. "That has defined a lot of what we do, but that's not all we do."
Melonas and a small team of craftsmen now create sleek and exotic pieces for the home in concrete — and wood.
Much of their work is still sinks and countertops for kitchens and bathrooms, but they also coax fireplace mantles, free-standing bars and waterfalls out of their cement mixers, much of it sparkling with bits of glass or tinted in very un-concretelike colors.
"Customers come for the concrete, but they stay for the cabinet work," said Melonas, who has a degree in design and sculpture from the University of Maryland and a master's in furniture artisanry from the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.
His designs, and the work of Jacob Ulrich, his concrete specialist, and Seth Scott, his lead furniture maker, have a decidedly Scandinavian quality, a contemporary look with clean lines and voluptuous curves.
And they are riding a concrete wave. As a material for countertops and sink tops, it is the new granite. It is in the same price range — about $90 to $110 a square foot — and new coatings have corrected concrete's major shortcoming, stains.
Plus, concrete can give homeowners and designers a wider range with which to work.
"It is liquid," Melonas explains. "With other material, such as stone, you only get what the slab has to offer. You can cut it in different shapes, but that's it." And the seamless casting process makes each piece look like a work of art.
By creating the pedestals and cabinets on which these otherworldly concrete basins sit, Melonas and his team can give a bathroom or a kitchen a show-stopping contemporary look.
Luke Works — Luke was his nickname growing up — is celebrating its 10th anniversary and is outgrowing its warehouse, which is located down an alley and around a corner on Homewood Avenue. But the company doesn't need to sell itself with neon on a major highway. The team turns out about 50 projects a year and has weathered the recession well.
"Ninety percent of our work is custom residential," Melonas said. "And people find us through their architect or their designer, or they Google 'concrete.'"
His clients are engaged and appreciate his point of view. "They are interested people. When you want something that is custom work, you are already engaged. And they are open to what we have to say."
Melonas' family views his work with bemusement, however. "They don't know where I came from," he said.
He gew up in Howard County, where his grandfather, a farmer, was also a skilled woodworker, making items for his farm and toys for his grandchildren. His grandmother sews, embroiders and paints. As a child, he made furniture in the basement with his dad.
"They were creative people. And I got from them those ideas about honest work and hard work and having something to show for it at the end."
For Melonas and Ulrich in particular, Luke Works is a bit removed from the sculpture that as undergraduates they hoped to create one day.
"Most of the people who come to us ask for slabs, for countertops," Melonas said. "But you never know when some new and exciting job will walk through the door. And every job has new problems to solve. There is a creative aspect to that."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun