Amuneal’s reputation is good enough that on occasion, a client will call up with no idea who they are, as one from Kenneth Cole did recently. "I don’t know whom I’m calling," he explained to Adam Kamens, the company’s CEO. "I’m new, and I have a note from the person I replaced that just says, ‘You have to call Adam.’"
They call because Amuneal is one of the few companies that can coax an architect’s or designer’s or artist’s fever-dream into reality. For Barney’s, the company built a horse out of hundreds of coat hangers, and a 50-foot steel ceiling fixture that looks like a spider web. For Calvin Klein, a fleet of cast-resin mannequin silhouettes that hang from the ceiling like ghosts. And recently for Ted Baker’s new 5th Avenue flagship, they built a three-story staircase covered in brass inlays that looks invented by Doc Brown during Back to the Future III.
You’ve probably seen their handiwork and never known it: Display cases, tables, shelves, bars, wall panels, window displays, and chairs for Bloomingdales, the Guggenheim, the Peninsula, Macy’s, Coach, Anthropologie—the list goes on. For the building where I’m typing these words, 7 World Trade, they built the marketing suite where billionaire Sheldon Silverstein sold his vision for what Ground Zero would become after 9/11.
Amuneal, in other words, makes the environments that power our high-end retail capitalism. That’s on top of making critical components in everything from the machines that stamp out Samsung’s cell-phone memory chips to quantum-computing experiments. That they manage to do both is a testament to the massive flexibility and extreme specialization it takes to survive as a 21st-century American manufacturer.
Kamens is 5' 9" and boyish at 39. Preternaturally polite, he favors slim-fitting designer jeans, rimless glasses, and neatly pressed pastel button-downs with exactly two buttons undone at the top—like an investment banker trying not to be an investment banker. You might peg him for a startup guy. But in Philly he hardly fits at all with the neighborhood he works in, Frankford. That’s a little hint about the strange nature of Amuneal’s business.
The plain-faced, low-slung factory is surrounded by a 10-foot-tall chain-link fence topped by shiny loops of concertina wire. The parking spaces closest to the front doors are painted with orange circles: Reserved for the women at late hours. "Not that anything has ever happened," says Kamens. That precautionary mindset is common to the neighborhood. There’s an empty row house across the street painted all white to look respectable, with the porch sealed off with chain link, like a fighting cage—but to keep people out, rather than in.
It wasn’t always so. Forty years ago, when Kamens’s parents founded the company, Frankford was still a neighborhood sustained by a dense patchwork of factories. His parents started the business almost on a lark, brought on by a fortunate indignity.
As Kamens tells it, his father, an engineer at an electrical parts company, noticed how TVs and the cathode ray tubes in them were growing larger every year. That posed a problem: Electricity from the internal wiring was scrambling the picture. The tubes needed special shielding. Kamens’s father went up to New York with his young wife in tow to see a parts manufacturer who could help. At dinner, the would-be partner cut him off before shoptalk could commence, dripping with condescension: "We don’t talk business in front of women." Kamens’s mother, a petite woman, stormed out. His father rushed to follow. When they got back to the hotel, she was still fuming. "What are you going to do about that?" she asked. Kamens’s father took his wife’s measure, and replied, "Let’s put that guy out of business."
Amuneal soon exploded, expanding to well over 100 employees and three factories on the back of a booming demand for high-tech equipment; in one of their ads from the 1960s, you can see Kamens as a boy, standing inside a magnetic shield the size of a closet—part of a device to measure the body’s electric pulses to better understand epilepsy and heart arrhythmias. But the boom faded as companies moved south seeking cheaper labor, then overseas. By the time Kamens was in college, and after his father’s death, the business was sputtering.
Kamens’s senior year, while he was still intent on finishing a degree in glass blowing and doing that for a living, his mother called, asking him to come help turn the business around. Her pitch was simply that she and his father hadn’t known anything either when they started. Kamens was sitting on the porch. It was a bright spring day, in the middle of the afternoon. "I thought, ‘I really can’t fuck it up any worse,’" he says. The first order of business, back in Philly: laying-off half its workers. "I remember sitting there freezing cold and it wasn’t cold out, and feeling like I had no blood in my body," Kamens said. "The words don’t mean anything because you don’t have a solution. To not vomit, I had to focus on: What are we saving?"
Night courses in physics followed, and intensive on-site learning. That original business of making parts for CRT’s was gone. But as electric gadgets and satellites and networks grew, they became exponentially more sensitive, and reliant on the same shielding his parents developed. Amuneal scraped by; they started making parts that help deliver your cell-phone calls, atomic clocks, and instrument shielding for fighter jets and battleships.
But all of those big-ticket contracts were built on sand: If any of those clients went bankrupt, or the technology changed, he’d again face that sick-making specter of layoffs. So Kamens thought: What could we make that our customers would never know about, if we failed? He thought that furniture might fit the bill.
With the help of a few designers and architects he’d met blowing glass, Kamens produced a kitschy line of furniture and sprung for a booth at New York’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair. "People in the company thought it was the death rattle," Kamens says.
Those people weren’t pleased with the order Kamens actually returned with from the fair: not furniture but rather 200 hangers for bikinis, from a woman in New York who never gave her card. Kamens was eager for the lead, enough to keep with her despite more orders of just a few hundred dollars, for things like clipboards. Finally, she came to Philly, to see if Kamens could handle anything more. She turned out to be the global head of retail design at Barney’s. During a factory tour, she stopped before a gleaming row of metal plates the size of potato chips. Kamens explained that they were defibrillator paddles for children. And she said, "If you can save a baby’s life, we’ll be fine with whatever I throw at you." Soon after, her boss came to see the defibrillator paddles as well. And soon after that, he told Kamens, "What you make is great, but you don’t know shit about this business. We’ll teach you, but you have to promise not to outgrow us."
Raytheon had unwittingly prepared Amuneal for Barney’s. The talent of working around set-in-stone blueprints on sudden deadlines when electrical instruments go haywire happens to also be perfectly applicable, when your client is a designer running from one four-alarm fire to the next.
The newfound business grew so fast that it soon dwarfed the previous clientele. Amuneal’s clients came to include famous artists, including MacArthur-fellow Sarah Sze, for which Amuneal has made a sprawling, huge assemblage of 200 cat-sized fire escapes, and a sprawling, off-kilter warren of tiny shelters for butterflies, birds, and ladybugs on New York’s Highline. "Adam wants to make anything happen, in any way possible," Sze says. "He loves to get into the minds of other people."
Kamens, for his part, has become extraordinarily savvy at managing the fickle winds of a client’s vision. In New York, in the course of an afternoon, I watched how he walked the famed architect Andre Kikoski through the complexities of producing one gleaming brass column to anchor a restaurant in one of Las Vegas’s mega resorts. He eventually got Kikoski to fall in love with the opposite of what he’d originally asked. At Club Monaco, meeting with the global head of retail design, he delicately framed his recommendations with an odd, Jujitsu-like turn of phrase: "Maybe the metal wants to be like this." Kamens was using the old Bauhaus ideal of letting materials speak for themselves as a way of deflecting focus on his own preferences.
Oddly enough, fickle designers have helped grow Amuneal’s original business; Kamens learned to share the nuances of his company’s craft with clients, rather than striving to keep them secret. "We decided we didn’t want to work with people who treated our work as a commodity," says Kamens. "So we look for niche markets that see us as a key element." Today, Amuneal is six times the size it was a decade ago.
Still, he’s now facing the challenge of growing his business in new ways. He’s still leaning on that business trick of doing something random enough not to threaten his other clients. Amuneal is building a series of display fixtures—clever ways to show off precious goods, such as novel art frames that look like Joseph Cornell boxes. There are delicate art pedestals inspired by an antique surveyor’s tripod; oddly beautiful vice clamps have become jewelry stands. "The idea is to find old industrial objects and give them new functions," explains Kamens. Put another way, Kamens is trying to find a future for these relics of our manufacturing past. It’s a way of deflecting authorship, which might raise hackles with his designer clientele.
One particular source of inspiration, for a line of display cases, is the little-known Wagner Free Institute of Science, a natural history museum in Philadelphia, which was assembled by a single man, William Wagner, in search of living examples of Darwin’s then-radical idea of natural selection. It remains almost perfectly preserved in its 19th-century state. In the standing cases, there are water buffalo skeletons and lion pelts and extinct deer, still annotated by the man who killed them. There are rows upon rows of neatly organized collections of specimens, ranging from butterflies to crystals, pinned and neatly annotated beneath delicate, wavering panes of hand-blown glass. "You open up the drawers below and there’s a whole other exhibition," Kamens said. During our visit, he opened one case up at random, which revealed a neat row of taxidermy ducks, packed side by side. "These physical objects are about the act of discovery itself."
[All images by Matthew Monteith for Fast Company]