Grand pianos are works of art and feats of engineering composed of over 12,000 individual parts. It takes hundreds of hours to carve, forge, assemble, and finish one–a process that relies on skills passed down through the generations. Steinway, the most famous piano manufacturer, began crafting pianos in Germany in 1853 and in 1872, the company opened a second factory in Astoria, Queens, and has been fabricating them there ever since. For a new book, Making Steinway, photographer Christopher Payne visited the legendary factory to document its process.
Payne originally visited the factory in 2002 on a public tour when he was a practicing architect, and he marveled at the process behind the instruments. After his grandparents–who were both pianists–passed away, the experience took on new meaning. “My memories of the factory took on a more profound, spiritual importance and I felt an obligation to return to take pictures of the instrument so deeply connected to my family,” he says.
About five years ago, Payne began planning his photo essay, which follows the journey of a piano–as its plates are cast in an Ohio foundry, as its wood rim is bent into place using a process Steinway invented in 1878, as woodworkers carve ornate legs, and as technicians calibrate the actions of each key.
“In this era of service jobs and office work, most of us have never been inside a factory. The kind of manufacturing and craftsmanship that happens at One Steinway Place in Astoria, New York, where people transform raw, often messy materials into some of the finest musical instruments in the world, has nearly vanished from the American workplace,” Payne says.
Today, Steinway employs around 300 people, most of whom live in the area. When the factory opened, William Steinway, founder Henry E. Steinway’s son, decided that he needed to develop the area to attract the finest workers. Astoria, which was mostly open space at the time, gradually transformed into a company town, known as Steinway Village, complete with housing advertised as “country homes with city comforts,” a library, trolley system, and free kindergarten.
“The people who work at Steinway come from all over the world, and the factory is a microcosm of the diversity that makes New York City—and America—great,” Payne says. “Some workers are new to the factory, having recently immigrated to the U.S., while others have been there for decades. Together, they share a quiet pride and dignity, and are proof that manual labor and craftsmanship still have value in today’s economy.”
See how the pianos are made in the slide show above.
[All Photos: Christopher Payne]