Meet a couple who stumbled onto a crafty new business, and find out how their work is international in scope.
Anyone in search of original, custom steel and iron home and garden décor will find it at Steel Heart Ltd., 208 W. Front St., Harvard, in the historic Starline Building that houses artist galleries and studios.
Owners Jacek and Gretchen Peczkowski have filled their large showroom and warehouse with original, handcrafted metal indoor and outdoor pieces: gazebos, trellises, obelisks, wind chimes, shepherd’s hooks, garden stakes, chandeliers, sculptures, wall hangings, armillary spheres, benches, chairs and more.
The husband-and-wife team began the business in 1997, almost by chance. Jacek was a robotics technician working in the automotive industry, but he also enjoyed designing and creating furniture and decorative pieces for the couple’s home. It was after they put their house up for sale that the idea for Steel Heart formed.
“People would come to look at the house, and ask about the furniture,” says Gretchen. “We had a friend from North Carolina whose father designed furniture, and she said, ‘You should sell this.’”
Jacek not only designed but also fabricated each piece by hand, first by himself, and as the business grew, with the help of local manufacturers. As the cost of local labor rose in post-NAFTA [North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement] years, it was no longer feasible to afford U.S. labor.
“We either had to close, or go to Mexico for our manufacturing, so we did,” says Gretchen. “But we wanted to be socially responsible, also. Jacek located a man in Mexico who could perform the necessary welding work. His father was a circuit preacher. Villages come to him every week for bags of rice and beans, so several times a year we still load a semi full of supplies and distribute them to poor villages there.”
In time it became necessary to shift their manufacturing to China. “My husband literally got on a plane and went to China,” says Gretchen. “He found a person and taught him how to weld and fabricate the pieces.”
When the pieces arrive at Steel Heart, they’re not finished.
“Once we get them back, we have to clean them off and assemble them,” Gretchen explains. “We also do some of our own painting here, and we usually distress the paint, to make everything look more rustic.”
Jacek’s designs are all original. But if you happen to see a similar-looking item in a big-box store, chances are good that it’s a copy of something created by Steel Heart.
“We do a lot of wholesale, so we display at trade shows,” says Gretchen. She points to a baker’s rack. “One year, we displayed this baker’s rack, and within a few months, we got a magazine in the mail and there was our design, which another company had knocked off. When it began to happen more often, we took it up with a patent attorney, and he told us to let it go and move on to our next design. So we look at it as a form of flattery.”
Jacek’s distinctive work has even drawn the attention of an HGTV celebrity.
“P. Allen Smith was at a garden trade show, and saw our large armillary sphere,” Gretchen says. “He called and ordered one for his own yard, and sells our pieces in his shop in Arkansas. It’s very thrilling for us.”
The couple has two daughters. Kyra is a freshman at Wittenberg University in Ohio, and Ayla is a sophomore at Valparaiso University in Indiana. Both help out at the store, but each plans to pursue her own career. Jacek and Gretchen are in the process of renovating a farm that is more than 100 years old, so they can relocate the business there. Renovations include transforming the carriage house into office space, creating a showroom in the 1810 barn (which was part of the Underground Railroad and has a slave cellar, says Gretchen), and installing outdoor gardens to showcase their products in a natural setting.
Jacek has already built a patio from stones originally used in China as washboards; he incorporated old millstones. A long, covered stone walkway leads to a larger covered pergola with an original granite table and chairs and custom fireplace. In another part of the generous yard, Jacek has created a circular walkway that winds through a stand of pine trees and a few other gardens, but he’s far from finished.
The store also sells stone benches, urns, fountains, bubblers and figurines like gargoyles. Because of space limitations, there’s no way to display these in completed form.
“Once we relocate, we’ll be able to plant the large urns, set up fountains and show how the bubblers work,” says Gretchen. “That’s another year or two down the road, though.”
Many more gardens are in the works for the farm. “We’ll be adding to the show gardens,” says Gretchen. “Jacek has many more ideas and things he wants to showcase.”
Jacek comes by his talents naturally. In his native homeland of Poland, his grandfather was a blacksmith, and his father was an avid gardener.
“Grandpa was sent to Germany, to Wittenberg, specifically to do brickwork,” explains Ayla. “He created rose gardens, laid stone and bricks. He was just a great gardener, and my dad is, too.”
The story of the couple’s meeting is as compelling as the evolution of the business.
“It was back in the 1980s, when the Communists had control of Poland,” Gretchen explains. “Jacek escaped and made his way to Yugoslavia, and climbed over the Alps into Austria. He came to the refugee camp where I was teaching English and doing missionary work. He arrived with just a knapsack on his back. After he immigrated to Canada, I visited Jacek and we were married in Quebec. I then came ahead to the States, and when Jacek arrived here, all he had with him was that same knapsack. So we’ve literally built this up from nothing.”
Steel Heart frequently expands its lines.
“Fairy gardens are very popular now,” says Gretchen. “My husband found someone to make his designs in miniature, for fairy gardens. In our trips to Poland, we found someone who makes blown glass gazing balls.”
And Jacek is always creating new designs. One new line, aptly called “New Line,” is made entirely from recycled materials, each piece individually cut, forged and welded.
A big advantage of Steel Heart merchandise over mass manufactured items is its durability.
“It’s handmade, and it’s much more solid,” says Gretchen. “For example, our shepherd’s hooks are very sturdy and have a stabilizer foot.”
Steel Heart has a delivery service, and will ship items to customers. “And we have one-of-a-kind pieces we can get for people,” says Gretchen.
Gretchen believes her husband’s refugee background is a factor in their success.
“When you have nothing to lose, you’re willing to take bigger risks,” she reasons. “Bigger risks have bigger yields. We make a good team in that respect. Jacek has the big ideas, and I’m a bit more cautious, so between us, we figure out how to make things work.”