Situated on a busy industrial corridor of Philadelphia’s Frankford neighborhood, Amuneal’s 60,000-square-foot fabrication space looks every bit an artisanal design mecca. Furniture and shelving are meticulously crafted from metal and wood every square inch of which has been treated by hand to achieve just the right surface texture and color. Finished pieces are packed with installation instructions and diagrams that are almost works of art in their own right.
Graduates of Philadelphia’s top art schools apply their hand-fabrication skills to Amuneal creations with laser-like focus. Here, a graceful metal-and-glass staircase designed for a luxury retailer is taking shape; there, a series of custom shelves is being prepared for a multinational corporation. They seem to have been here forever, part of Philadelphia’s long and storied tradition of specialized urban manufacturing.
But what makes its story so fascinating is that Amuneal — whose name is a portmanteau of the Greek letter mu, used in formulas to represent magnetic permeability, and the metallurgical term anneal — was established in 1965 as a producer of magnetic shielding for industry. It is precisely this unusual heritage, embodying decades of innovation and customization, that has positioned Amuneal so well for entry into a design world that’s more dynamic and fast-moving than ever.
When Adam Kamens’s parents founded the company, their clients included manufacturers in the medical equipment, aerospace and electronics fields. (The metal shielding it still produces protects sensitive items from the magnetic waves in devices that range from cell phones to pieces of highly specialized scientific equipment.)
But the business changed in the 1980s, and like so many family firms, Amuneal needed to diversify. Technological innovation then and into the ’90s reduced the need for magnetic shielding, particularly with the decline of cathode-ray tubes in TVs and computer screens, and the company initially struggled to adapt. So, when Kamens took over Amuneal following his father’s death — having already set up his own glassblowing studio in Olde City — he shifted the company’s focus to art as much as science.
Kamens sees parallels between the technical precision involved in glassblowing and the highly individual design solutions that Amuneal creates for its clients. In both practices, “you start with no form, then very quickly you have something taking shape, and you have to become really good at problem solving in the moment,” he says. “You learn the properties of the materials and translate that design intention into a finished product.”
Today, Kamens is the company’s CEO, and his wife, Kim, runs its exhibition space, the American Street Showroom, in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. Amuneal’s first foray into design was bespoke and to-the-trade customization. Beginning by making architectural fittings for such retailers as Fresh, Coach, Harley Davidson and Abercrombie & Fitch, it gained admirers with an eye-catching sculpture of a horse designed by Terence Gower and crafted from 1,000 metal hangers for Barneys New York in 2006.
Soon, hotels and restaurants came calling, and Amuneal started performing commissions for the likes of the Royalton, Standard and W hotels. The MacArthur “Genius” award–winning artist Sarah Sze asked Amuneal to help her fabricate pieces for New York City’s High Line and the campus at the University of California, San Francisco. Interior designer Mona Ross Berman, who works with Amuneal regularly, chalks its success up to fearlessness. “Customization is where the magic happens in design,” she says. “Amuneal is unusual in that they’re up for the challenge. When I need something very specific for a project, they invariably say, ‘Let’s try it.’ ”
With Amuneal’s reputation growing in the fields of architecture, interior design and hospitality, launching its own line of furniture and shelving seemed almost inevitable. Architects and designers in search of sophisticated, handcrafted quality began to approach the firm for designs “that felt like us,” Kamens says. Now, with Amuneal’s foray into the furniture world in its third year, that aesthetic has crystallized into something recognizable and distinctive perhaps best described as Wunderkammer chic. Kamens is an avid collector of antique laboratory equipment, scientific ephemera and minerals — the sorts of things one might find in the library of an 1870s Philadelphia row house. But there’s no fussy Victorian carving to be found in his company’s designs.
Instead, certain vintage touches, like the use of sumptuous brass fittings, richly hued woods and sturdy construction, suggest 19th-century roots with a sleek, contemporary twist. Kathleen Ryan, of the New York design firm Ychelle Design, who works with Amuneal frequently, says its aesthetic has enduring appeal. “Regardless of trends, people love bronze. Cast bronze in particular has a timeless look that signifies quality.”
One jaw-dropping design, the brass wine room, is a tour de force of metalwork that both meets the needs of a serious oenophile (climate control, insulation) and provides for an elegant display, putting bottles of rare wine on an aesthetic par with a collection of fine ceramics or glass. Yet it has humble origins. “The wine room evolved from our standard Frankford panel system,” Kamens says, “which is inspired by the old, romantic New York City storefront and office systems of the nineteen-thirties and forties.”
Amuneal’s butcher block console table recalls the chic geometry of a Paul Evans console, with white-oak end grain and delicate bronze inlay. The Amuneal Murphy bed combines a clever, space-saving design with a sense of humor. “The inspiration for the Murphy bed came about when we were working on a client’s spare room, realizing that it needed to be part family room, part playroom and part guest room,” Kamens says.
The result was an elegant spin on the Murphy, enhancing both its look and its functional flexibility. Clients can customize the drop-down bed with various woods, brass and blackened or stainless steel, with storage hidden in the front panel plus two recessed nightstands and a lacquered headboard that becomes visible when it is lowered.
For those with home offices that don’t need to double as guest rooms, the customizable oak and brass desk system offers a stylish visual landscape from which to work, with plenty of drop-down and sliding doors to conceal paperwork and gadgets. The units are crafted from solid oak with a cerused-chestnut finish and outfitted with solid brass hardware that lends visual heft and character.
A perfect counterpart to this system is the blackened-steel and leather-wrapped counter-height stool. Its seat is hand-clad in leather, and its metal parts are precision machined and laser cut, all in Philadelphia. Amuneal would have it no other way.