- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 2, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - The unusual multicolored metal sheets stacked outside A. Zahner Co.’s headquarters are likely to end up as part of skyscrapers, museums and artwork in big cities around the world, including Washington.

In the last 15 years, Bill Zahner has made the company founded by his great-grandfather in 1897 into a recognized leader in using metals in complex architectural or artistic projects.

A. Zahner’s reputation has grown partly because it is the company that architect Frank Gehry usually depends on to determine how to color metal and make it bend to his adventurous and challenging designs. It was A. Zahner that installed the stainless steel “skins” covering Mr. Gehry’s Weisman Museum in Minneapolis and the Experience Music Project in Seattle.

Mr. Gehry began working with Bill Zahner in the late 1980s and continues to rely on his knowledge of metals and the techniques needed for unusual designs, said George Metzger, Mr. Gehry’s partner.

“We were impressed from the very beginning with how Bill understood the craftsmanship of working with metal itself, what types of metals we should use, and the architectural implications of metal,” Mr. Metzger said. “For years, he’s been a valuable resource for us.”

Mr. Zahner, who has written two books on the use of metals in architecture, said he began studying metal because of the craftsmen at his Kansas City-based company, which is privately owned.

“They can just touch a piece of metal and know what it is, how it’s going to work,” Mr. Zahner said. “I decided I really wanted to learn more about metal than we had known before.”

That altered the fortunes of A. Zahner, which had previously focused on more mundane metal work, such as siding, decking and heating ducts. Since he became company president in 1989 and CEO in 1995, Mr. Zahner has added 15 to 20 engineers, expanded the plant in Kansas City to about 100,000 square feet and added another plant in Dallas.

About 200 people now work for the company. They are generally working on 10 to 15 projects at once. Current projects include the de Young Museum of Art in San Francisco and the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tenn. When Mr. Zahner took over, the company had a volume of $5 million; current volume is more than $37 million.

Besides Mr. Gehry, the company has worked with other noted architects such as Rem Koolhaas, Antoine Predock, Daniel Libeskind and Tadao Ando, and companies such as the Walt Disney Co. A. Zahner also works with sculptors.

Mr. Zahner said he had to overcome a perception that a company from Kansas City couldn’t handle high-end, difficult projects. And that perception still sometimes comes up, such as when Mr. Zahner was bidding to be part of the National Museum of the American Indian project in Washington.

Designers and architects wanted a building that reflected American Indian culture, including a copper wall that would look like it was dug from the earth 1,000 years ago. But they had no idea how to build it, make it structurally sound and get the right color tones.

“They thought there was no way a little company in Kansas City was going to be able to do this,” Mr. Zahner said. “They said, ‘You can’t do it; we’ve talked to everyone in Europe.’ We walked in and blew them away.”

The three-year effort resulted in what Mr. Zahner calls the highlight of his career — a long, copper wall that looks like a woven basket, dropping from 10 feet to about 3 feet, that circles the museum’s entry rotunda.

“They put a lot of faith in what we did,” Mr. Zahner said.

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