The early inspiration of New Orleans metal artist David Rockhold is a sort of classic example of necessity sparking creativity. His artistic journey began at age 24 when, fresh from a broken romance, he looked around his barren apartment and came to a sobering realization: “I needed a coffee table.”
His mind flashed on the stacks of pipe and other metal parts and pieces in the warehouse that housed his father’s business, a commercial fire sprinkler installation firm. Rockhold had wanted to try his hand at metal work, and now the creative wheels began to spin. Soon, he was plying his dad’s cutting and welding tools to fashion a chic-looking piece for his living room. The results were … not bad.
Encouraged, Rockhold leaped to fulfill another pressing need: a new bed.
He already had a design in mind. In flipping through a home furnishings magazine, he had spotted an elaborate piece with a frame and bedposts “sculpted” in the shape of tree branches. “It was a gorgeous ‘tree bed,’ so I just copied it,” he recalls. That bed became the foundation for a long series of original metal tree designs.
Rockhold’s education had included no formal art training, but his passion for building and restoring race cars had given him relevant skills and the confidence to give metal work a try. Then, another turn of circumstances pushed him to a new level. “One day I ordered a pizza, and when the delivery guy showed up, he saw some of my pieces and asked if he could see more.”
Turns out, the pizza delivery man, who shared Rockhold’s interest in metal work, knew the owner of a Magazine Street home furnishings gallery, and he was sure the dealer would like Rockhold’s work. The upshot: Dr. Jerry Presley, owner of Sitting Duck Gallery, offered Rockhold display space for his works. It became a watershed moment, where Rockhold’s art began to turn into a real metal works business.
The gallery display drew a slew of orders from individuals looking to bring unusual metal touches into their homes. While the tree beds became Rockhold’s signature pieces, his work ranged widely to include marble-top coffee and serving tables, and tree-themed metal chairs, bar stools and chandeliers. He broadened his offerings to include coordinating decorative pieces, such as wall sconces, candle holders and curtain rods in the shape of flowering vines, metal lattice-work lamp shades and switch plates. In all, Rockhold, who says he is a gardener at heart, seeks to bring outdoor beauty into his patrons’ homes.
His career got yet another boost when commercial establishments began to pay more attention to his work. He found a major client in Gary Wollerman, co-owner of GW Fins restaurant in the French Quarter. Wollerman, who was impressed with a redfish barstool Rockhold had designed, hired him to supply all the fish-themed metal works that now grace the walls of the popular restaurant. Recently, Rockhold supplied a collection of similar works for a new GW Fins restaurant that Wollerman opened in North Carolina. The works include an 8-foot-by-8-foot sculpture of underwater creatures.
Rockhold says his best pieces are those that he designs quickly and spontaneously, such as some of the fish art at GW Fins. What he seems to enjoy most, though, are the tree beds. “The beds are the big, fun thing I get to do,” he says.
Oak trees are a favorite source of inspiration “because I’ve grown up around them.” One of his most elaborate beds features small metal pieces cut, hammered and layered together to resemble tree bark. The bed has metal “branches” adorned with nearly a thousand “leaves,” each carefully cut from flat sheets of steel and hammered into a natural-looking shape. (While Rockhold used to pound the shapes by hand, today a pneumatic hammer speeds the leaf-making process.)
As he continues to ply his art in the South Prieur Street warehouse he shares with his father’s business, Rockhold also continues to benefit from the business acumen his father has shared. “I was raised in a business environment, so I know what it takes to keep it going,” he says.
These days, his clients are, primarily, interior designers who know his work well and have helped to spread it to clients in several states. Rockhold also increasingly relies on his Web site—http://davidrockhold.net—to broaden his exposure.
Meanwhile, he continues to practice his art in his metal-jammed warehouse, where sections of heavy pipe gradually morph into graceful finials and thin sheets of steel take on the delicate quality of passion flowers and oak leaves.
David Rockhold, 504/833-1704, http://davidrockhold.net