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Metal City: The Malleable Magic of Milgo/BUFKIN

Challenges arise in profiling a company whose processes are hard to explain. Though that isn’t to say that there aren’t stories to tell. The self-described “world’s foremost custom fabricator of architectural metal,” Milgo/BUFKIN has generated more than its fair share of larger-than-life tales while, remarkably, playing close to the vest. Just like its owner and Chief Executive Officer Bruce Gitlin, Milgo/BUFKIN is about as New York as it gets; both were born and bred in Brooklyn, and both have flashes of style that belie interiors of steel. They also both share a brashness — “What Steinway is to pianos, we are to metals” — that’s countered by a privacy protecting “creative know-how. We’re not interested in sharing with other companies what we’re doing.”
metal bridge art
Metal Bridge Art by Milgo/BUFKIN. Photo:  Milgo/BUFKIN.

Under the aegis of Built Well Autobody (the truck-body manufacturer founded by Bruce’s grandfather in 1916), Bruce’s Pratt-educated father began using the company’s equipment to make architectural panels for some clients, “to keep the machines busy.” Intrigued by the metal and, fortunately, possessed of the family talent and business acumen, Bruce majored in the incredibly specific Metallurgical Engineering program at Lehigh. At age 21 Bruce joined the company, then known as Milgo Industrial. The wisest advice Bruce received from his father was: “Out in the factory you have to learn how to be a mechanic on everything. You learn it by doing it so nobody can fool you, so you know what it takes.” With his mechanical mind, he began to solve complex technical problems for customers. He states simply, “People have these ideas, and it’s my job to figure it out.” And he has. Milgo Industrial continues the robust industrial manufacturing that built and has sustained the family business across four generations. By adding the “BUFKIN” enterprise (an acronym of the first-name initials of his children, nieces and nephews), Bruce made official the company’s well-established reputation for making the best contemporary metal sculpture.

Today that company, on a quiet Brooklyn street, happens to make some of the boldest art and commercial signage found around the world. The heartbeat of two great American cities are represented by iconic sculptures — Philadelphia’s LOVE statue, by Robert Indiana, and the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s Giant Heart — and yet they are produced, with a lot of heart, in New York City. Bruce contends that he isn’t an artist, but “by being involved in the art world at a pretty creative level, it certainly enriches my life, and [has] given me access to something I never knew existed.” He adds, “In the visual arts you learn how to see. Like in music you learn how to hear. There’s something very special about learning how to see.” With a portfolio consisting of collaborations with more than 4,000 artists, for a total that surpasses 20,000 sculptures, Bruce has had an excellent education the pedagogy of “seeing.” His teachers include Robert Indiana, Haresh Lalvani, Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Richard Serra and Claes Oldenburg. Bruce is an energetic and captivating storyteller, and in the three hours spent with him there were more than a few Indiana Jones style adventures we’re not at liberty to disclose. One story we can mention is that of the “Fallen Astronaut” sculpture, “dedicated to the astronauts who died trying to get to the moon.” Designed by Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck and carved by Bruce, the small sculpture was sneaked onto Apollo Flight #15 in August 1971 and successfully placed on the surface of the moon, where it resides to this day. A thousand limited edition replicas were made, including one displayed at the Smithsonian for 12 years. “Slate” recently published a story of the out-of-this-world adventure, available HERE. In an interesting contrast to the larger-than-life products the company manufactures, they keep a low profile and have never advertised. And why should they? The business comes to them. This begs the question of why. Part of Milgo/BUFKIN’s magic is their range of patented metal-working methods, primarily the metal-folding process, which doesn’t require welding to make complex three-dimensional sculptures. As Chair of Pratt Institute’s Board of Trustees, Bruce is in the unique position of accessing the institution’s abundant intellectual network. Haresh Lalvani — a professor of architecture at Pratt and one of the leaders in the field of morphology, the study of changing of forms and shapes — has been a consistent collaborator for 15 years. Together they “develop new processes for making metal morph.”

And then there’s the matter of materials; only the best will do for Bruce. He buys steel from mills in the US and Japan and Korea, the latter two produce “the best steel in the world” in Bruce’s opinion. He also sources stainless steel, aluminum and bronze from Italy and Sweden. The metal is cut with garnets; an entertaining (and meta) concept when you understand that he creates signage and store displays for luxury jewelers Cartier, Harry Winston and Van Cleef & Arpels.

The company employees approximately 80 workers, and is occupied in six to seven big projects and 200 to 300 smaller projects at any given time. With such a labor and materials-intensive process, it’s important to Bruce to be mindful of his company’s potential carbon footprint. Metal is recycled, a premium is paid to remove sludge to landfill rather than dumping into sewers, and attention is given to using non-electrical processes when possible. Though Milgo/BUFKIN’s impact is worldwide, Bruce makes sure his city gets the love it deserves. He insists, “I could drive on almost any block in NYC and point out [our] stuff. For real.” After 9/11, Milgo/BUFKIN worked on two tributes. One was designed by Pentagram for Port Authority, and used ruined metal leftover from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Bruce calls this “a memorial to the memorial of the ‘93 bombing.” The company also brought to life the concept of artist Ultra Violet — a riff on Robert Indiana’s iconic “LOVE” — using the palindromic roman numerals of that infamous date: “IX/XI.” Bruce also reveals that the company is “doing work at Ground Zero now.” On the commercial side, they’re “making new doors for Bergdorf’s.” After all, Bruce says, “New York is a metal city.” Over nearly a century of metal fabrication, the Gitlin family has left a strong legacy of miracles in metal. Building on his father and grandfather’s proprietary techniques, Bruce has managed to develop a creative process that attracts artists and makers from all over the world. “I’ve been doing metal work for so long, I just feel it and taste it,” he explains. “You understand the properties of the materials and if it will work or not.” Looking back and looking forward, Bruce attributes the success to, “Practice, practice, practice, that’s Carnegie Hall … but we did it, too.”

SEE: Some of Milgo/BUFKIN’s work:

“Superhero”: 41st Street, between Sixth Avenue and Broadway. “It’s on an outdoor plaza. It was done by an artist named Antonio pio Saracino, and sponsored by the Council for the United States and Italy. It’s magnificent. I’m very, very happy with it.”

H&M’s Flagship Store: 42nd Street and Broadway. Milgo/BUFKIN manufactured the interior displays. “Seed54”: 54th Street and Sixth Avenue. Pratt professor Haresh Lalvani designed the hypersurface. “9”: 9 West 57th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Designed by graphic designer and sculptor Ivan Chermayeff and installed in 1970s, Bruce says this was the first sculpture-logo building … maybe ever.”

With reporting contributed by Sophie Hays.

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