Meet Curtis Warnes, owner of Steel Appeal in Empire, who has found his niche— and passion—in functional fine art reminiscent of a Michigan beach or the Northwoods. Explore his process, designs, partnerships and life he is making along the way.
The smile lines along Curtis Warnes’ bay-blue eyes deepen as he imagines the conversations customers are likely having about the functional artwork they purchased at his rural shop a few miles east of Empire’s Lake Michigan beach on M-72.

“I picture them saying, ‘I picked this up in the middle of nowhere from this crazy guy working in shorts, wearing sandals with socks, while on my way to the dunes!’” he says, laughing.

No doubt every customer is also mentioning something about the 14-foot-high T. Rex that hangs over all the action of the busy workshop, with its massive spiky spine and cool hammered steel joints. But what Warnes doesn’t need to imagine is the initial reaction as someone gets the first glimpse of their custom order.

Empire's Steel Appeal
“I have customers cry, quite often,” he says. “For whatever reason, there seems to be an emotional aspect to the furniture we build. To me, that’s very fulfilling.”

Just looking at a custom Steel Appeal piece of functional fine art, that emotional reaction is understandable. Pieces made of steel or of a classic combination of tiny beach gravel, whole and slabbed accent stones and unusual wood slabs laid out in a pool of resin, seem to viscerally connect us to the iconic Northern Michigan beach-walking experience. That connection is authentic—Warnes’ family has lived in the area for several generations (and ran a local grocery store), so he knows the beaches well that he now strolls with his family in search of raw material for his pieces. And perhaps that emotional reaction is also because customers sense something of the work ethic and creative process that comes from this artistic father of five (and four dogs) finally discovering what he feels he was born to create.

Empire's Steel Appeal

On the MOVE

Warnes starts each day at 4:30 a.m. He’s a guy who likes to be on the move, having left designing at a computer for days filled with milling logs, slabbing stones or completing the final crafting on one of his sought-after tables as the sun is just coming up along his several-acre corner of M-72.

Picking a building in the center of the county in which he grew up, but in a particularly remote part, was intentional. Warnes keeps an open-door policy as much as possible, and he loves interacting with the customers who follow him on social media or pop into the building to watch him work. But limiting interruptions is good for getting things done, and he likes that visits to his shop are intentional—very few people just happen upon his spot. He learned to like the “store as a destination” idea from his mom’s excitement about an annual back-to-school shopping pilgrimage to an OshKosh store a couple of hours from home.

Those who do visit are welcomed by the exterior of the building in Christmas green, a shade brighter than the towering pines that create a natural divide between the studio space and a woodpile. Half of the pile is for heating the building using the outdoor wood stove; the other half goes into on-site milling for his sought-after custom tables of unusual wood species, metal and rocks, whole and slabbed.

In front of the building are examples of some of Warnes’ most popular projects. Here, you’ll find retired ski chairlifts from Sugar Loaf (where Warnes was once a ski instructor), waiting to be crafted into furniture of some sort, and also a graceful red-orange butterfly chair—a sample of a piece that’s become his signature and has been sold across the country to zoos, shops and as private home garden chairs.

Empire's Steel Appeal
Empire's Steel Appeal
Once inside, machines buzz, as does the small but mighty staff of three. This morning, Warnes is working (shirtless, in shorts and sandals) behind a plastic divider that protects a slabbing machine as it slices the rocks to help create the dimensional feel that makes his furniture pieces so unique. Assistant and talented sculptor Enoch Flaugher is working on a machine that allows him to craft the metal base for a wooden table. Steel Appeal keeps most of their table bases simple, un- less a customer requests something like Flaugher’s current project: a base resembling the trunk of a tree.

On the other side of the room, a mechanized plasma cutter is at work, flattening an unusual slab of wood with five hearts; Warnes will later move this slab to an adjacent room to sand it by hand, and metal will replace the slab in the plasma cutter to cut a customer-ordered loon towel rack. The towel rack is made from a pre-set design but finished with a custom Steel Appeal coating that results in the illusion of movement.

Above it, all hangs the $45,000 dinosaur that, when com- pleted, will find a permanent home along M-72 next to his company sign. While the dinosaur was inspired by a spe- cial-order piece for a customer, Warnes believes this future roadside attraction could be his gift to the area and a great way to drive some of that M-72 traffic to his website and social media pages.

Empire's Steel Appeal

An unusual EXPERIENCE BLEND

Listen to Warnes talk about dino-related future opportunities and you see the multiple generations of family entrepreneurs shining through, as well as some experience in his college years selling everything from cutlery to mortgages.

Warnes studied engineering in college, and after graduation—trying life back home for a bit—he worked at a communications company. To cut back on travel after the birth of his first child, he joined his uncle’s masonry business and filled in on weekends and rainy days at the specialty metals products company that pre-dated Steel Appeal. One year it rained for a week and a half, bringing masonry work to a halt. At the same time, an employee at the metals company opted not to show up, and the owner offered Warnes a job. It was a perfect fit, and when Warnes was in his early 20s, he bought out the business and began his ongoing passion for expanding the product line and customer base.

Warnes continued the bread-and-butter line of powder-coated metal items like switch plate covers and towel racks that feature northern trees and animals that had been a staple of the previous owner. But he also moved beyond that to create things like craft custom railings and Petoskey stone fireplace surrounds, as well as the custom tables that have come into high demand. He has a year’s worth of orders in the hopper for creations that might feature a red elm burl or a Lake Superior palette of stones all a reddish hue. In addition to custom orders, Warnes sells his wood, stone and resin tables at Glen Arbor’s Synchronicity Gallery. And his butterfly chairs grace places like the Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and a special pollinator garden at Empire’s Grocer’s Daughter Chocolate.

Empire's Steel Appeal
Empire's Steel Appeal
Jody Hayden, owner of Grocer’s Daughter, says she’s loved the chance to support a local artist who captures the northern spirit in his art, is so unassuming and who gives so much of himself to his craft. “What you see from M-72 versus what you get when you take the time to stop and talk to him,” she says, “is kind of mind-blowing.”

You see the same reaction among Synchronicity Gallery customers, says owner David Thomasma. A bar-height piece of black walnut and Petoskey stones immediately became the gallery centerpiece, attracting crowds uttering reactions like:

“This is amazing!” and “But I wouldn’t want anyone to touch it!” The work stands out, Thomasma says, in the way each is a fine art piece with elements arranged particularly creatively.
Warnes’ first table was inspired by a friend who made functional art with rustic themes. “I had this concept in my head, and honestly, I had no intention of it going any- where,” Warnes recalls. “I made a dining room table for my wife, then I made one for the gallery. I was documenting it on my social media page and I started to get interest. As soon as the table hit the gallery floor, I started to get orders, and it built on itself from there.”

That the piece that’s come to most define his business now is a table more of wood and stone than metal is unexpected but also perhaps serendipitous, Warnes says. The three generations of Warnes before him always gathered at large wooden tables for Christmas and Thanksgiving to eat, talk and play endless games of euchre and spoons.

“I don’t know if it’s that or what it is, but this is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done, and because of that, it makes me very good at it,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in it, and I’m excited. Every time I get an order and talk to a customer about making their table, I want to start it that day. That’s what I get to do every day. I lose myself in my work. Can you imagine if everybody could lose themselves in their work?”

Kim Schneider is a long-time travel writer specializing in Michigan adventures, food and wine. The Midwest Travel Journalist Association has named her Mark Twain Travel Writer of the Year, and she’s the author of “100 Things to Do in Traverse City Before You Die.”

Liam Kaiser is a visual storyteller whose work documents people and our experiences in the world. He’s got a strong love for the outdoors and the grit that comes with it. You can follow his adventures on Instagram @LiamKaiserCreative.

Photo(s) by Liam Kaiser

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