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The Great Wall of Elements East

How the making of Elements East forged together craftsmen and community to bring the newest location of the store offering unique interiors and antiques.

To the joint propietors of the new Elements East in the new Ravenna project in Shorewood, getting the store open by Thanksgiving weekend required the collaboration and energy of a group of artisans and project managers.  It opened Nov. 19, just in time for the Black Friday shopping weekend.

The original proprietors of the Elements East store were Alicia Urban and Therese Armbruster. That store was on Silver Spring, and drew customers from Chicago, Madison, Racine, Mequon, Cedarburg, and beyond, with their special artifacts and personal service. After losing the lease last year, Urban found this new space, and the group has been waiting to get in and create their vision.  In the meantime, a sister store opened in Delafield, at 631 Genesee Street.

Since Urban's passing, Armbruster partnered with a longtime associate of the store, Mary Lou Semmelink. Armbruster spoke of the strong support of the community and what a positive impact it has had on them preparing the store. She opened her arms and pointed to all the flower arrangements throughout the store, "Look at all these flowers," she said. "They're from people wishing us well. It's great. It's overwhelming."

The new place

Shorewood store hours are Monday through Wednesday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Semmelink or Armbruster can be found in the store every day, and unlike other store owners, are familiar with each piece and its origin.  

Semmelink took me on a tour of pieces in the store today, which I somehow failed to realize are true antiques and many over 200 years old.  Some pieces are refurbished or reproductions, but all are created with native woods, techniques, and finishes. Even the lamp near the entrance has a story. "This is actually a ceramic pillow used by ladies to preserve those intricate hairdos, and the curve is where you'd 'rest' your head," said Semmelink.

She and Armbruster continue to offer free in-home personal consultations, such as finding the perfect piece for an empty space, or sourcing the right scale for a Shorewood foyer. They also are available to consult on feng shui solutions.

The race to open

The two, along with designer Angela Westmore and a team of artisans and friends, created the store and completed the final staging that came "down to the wire," said Semmelink, with people cupping their hands to watch them put lampshades on, twist finials, and pull plants into place. And the end result is a testament to their commitment to beauty, quality, and care.

The plans were huge: Build a yurt. Create a sculptural galvanized steel wall. Move in many pieces of furnishings and carpet, paint, and light the lights. 

Angela Westmore crafted a plan from the vision, and Joel Duris, the carpenter from M13 Design Lab, was contracted through Caravella Paintworks to create the yurt, with lumber from a Milwaukee salvage yard. 

Westmore also hired Steve Zens to create the metal wall.  Zens is brother to Shorewoodian Dan, and both are part of the local well-known Zens Manufacturing family.  Steve described himself as having been “raised in a textile plant with every tool imaginable at his disposal,” and his vision for creating the metal wall came from other projects he's done. In all, Zens spent 272 hours of cutting, power washing, and hand-placing the sculptural wall element that greets visitors to the store.

“I had a lot of fun doing it,” he said, “and it really was an organic process.”

Building the wall

After creating from plywood the large curved wall that centers the store, Zens measured strips with red chalk lines onto five recycled galvanized steel sheets that he reclaimed from Miller Compressing.  In his warehouse at KK Storage, he spent long days cutting the strips with an acetylene torch which seared the powder and red chalk into a design, then power washed the parts and hauled them to the store.  

He set up a forge out in the alley and began fitting them to the wall by heating each individually and literally stomping them with his boot to flatten (hence a few identifiable artisan bootmarks), then quenching with water from a hose run out back.  With an assistant, he formed the pieces with a bending press and attached them from the bottom up with a nail gun and 1 3/8” ring shank siding nails, then tampered them with a rubber pad and rubber mallet.

Zens also credited the care and customer service he received from Mike at Bliffert Lumber on Humboldt for the success of the project.  “I went in to figure out the curved wall and which plywood to use. Then I went back to figure out the best kind of nail gun and nails," he said. "Mike and I went in the back and just started nailing different ones into a sample I brought in to see what worked the best, given the curve and the narrowness of the plywood.  All of a sudden, I looked up, and there was the old nail gun from my dad's shop that my brother Terry had fixed over and over until I guess they gave it to the Blifferts. It even says 'Zens Manufacturing' on it.  It really felt like a group effort was going on.”

“We’d get about two feet of wall done per day,” said Zens. “The workmen doing Ravenna would come through and admire it, but kind of chuckle at my slow progress,” he said.  “In the end they really validated the effort and stood back to take it in.

“This isn’t like putting up siding. We looked for the right pieces to go together, and built it like a sculpture. That’s why there are so many organic shapes in it — it’s almost like looking at clouds or a Rorschach test.”

Zens challenged us to find shapes in the wall and the other section he built to frame the entrance to the ADA-compliant bathroom.  “There is a whale that we found in the pieces – it just popped out at us – so we decided to put it over the doorway there,” he said.

His signature on the wall is visible in the upper left corner. “That’s been my signature since I was a kid,” said Zens, “doves in flight, that’s how life should be; no one taking the lead, just flying, sometimes one in front of the other."

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