Designs in Steel's Archuleta Uses Hairdressing Skills to Make Art

by Christie Chisholm, New Mexico Business Weekly, June 28, 2010

Hairdressing and working with steel aren’t professions that seem to go together.

But for Leroy Archuleta, they’re the perfect combination.

Archuleta has cut hair for 35 years and steel for 13. Hairdressing began as a way to put himself through college, and the money was good (to the tune of $125,000 to $130,000 a year), so he stayed with it. He enjoyed the creativity, tailoring his work to each customer. But he worked 10- to 12-hour days. And in his early 40s, after a divorce, he decided to take a chance.

The men in Archuleta’s family toiled with their hands, built things, got dirty. As a child, Archuleta didn’t like dirt. But as an adult, his partner knew a guy who owned a welding shop, and something propelled Archuleta to take lessons. He apprenticed with the welder for a year and a half. Then he leased the shop next door, and Designs in Steel was born.

Archuleta doesn’t make things, he makes art—functional art, like chairs, tables, mirrors and gates. He uses sleek, modern lines and organic forms. When he works with fabric—such as when he upholsters cushions for a chair—he likes his colors vibrant. If clients ask him to replicate something they already own, he tells them he won’t copy another designer’s work, but he’ll be happy to make something in the same vein.

He insists he’s not a businessperson, he’s an artist. That factors into the choices he makes.

Archuleta refuses to advertise. All of Designs In Steel’s business comes via word-of-mouth. When Archuleta started welding, he didn’t stop hairdressing—he just cut back to part time. After decades of cutting and coloring the hair of well-to-do customers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, when he started making art, he already had a client base. He’s not shy about handing out business cards and telling people what he does.

He says hairdressing has informed his welding in other ways as well.

“It’s kind of like having a client in a chair,” he says.

In a salon, his clients come in with photos or descriptions of what they want, but otherwise Archuleta knows nothing about them. His job is to figure out “what you want to feel like when you walk out.”

Designing custom furniture uses the same technique, he says. He sits down with clients, visits their home or office to get an idea of their style and creates something that will make them feel good, that expresses who they are.

With a shop rate of $75 an hour, his revenue averages about $80,000 a year. That doesn’t include the money he makes hairdressing. These days, he mainly does hair color, and the starting rate he charges for a color treatment is $100. Spending about 15 hours a week on hair and 35 hours a week in his shop, Archuleta makes a nice living.

Archuleta shows his artwork at several galleries in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, including Objects of Desire, Victoria Price Art & Design and Mariposa Gallery.

Jennifer Rohrig, co-owner of Mariposa, says the gallery has shown Archuleta’s work for about 10 years. He also made the gallery’s staircase.

“What stands out the most about Leroy’s work is I really appreciate the way he works with patina and color,” Rohrig says. “It might look like wood grain, but it’s steel. He makes steel sometimes seem softer than it is, and that transformation of materials is what I’m attracted to.”

Designs in Steel also recently sold some pieces to the makers of “Breaking Bad” for the show, including a 14-foot-long wall sculpture and a mirror.

But despite Archuleta’s successes, there’s been a learning curve. When Archuleta does custom work, which makes up the bulk of his business, he draws up designs for proposals. In the early days, when customers asked to hold on to designs so they could consider them, he was happy to let them. But some of those customers took their business elsewhere, using his designs. Now Archuleta won’t let clients keep drawings unless they give him a deposit, although they can come look at them in his shop as often as they like.

Pricing pieces also involved some trial and error. Archuleta thinks he sold his earlier work for too little. Every piece he makes sells for a different price, since every object is unique. A chair and ottoman set he recently sold went for $1,800, and a loveseat and chair set for $4,500. He usually charges a minimum of $2,000 for gates, while the most expensive gate he has sold was $5,500.

Designs in Steel has fared well through the recession, although last year Archuleta felt the pinch. When work slows, he falls back on hairdressing. He also calls potential clients who have expressed interest but never followed through, and sometimes that lands him jobs.

A few years ago, Archuleta contracted five people to work for him. But he found himself taking on too many projects just so he could pay his workers. Two years ago, after their contracts ran out, he let them go. Every now and then he’ll hire someone to help on a project, but most of the time it’s just him, and that’s how he likes it.

“When you’re a hairdresser, and you’re busy and you work with a lot of people, you really are kind of ‘on.’ Here in my steel shop, I just turn it all off,” he says. “So I kind of have this nice duality. I come here and hide.”