Gregorio Rebollar – known only as Goyo – stands at a table in his King William workshop tapping holes into a sheet of copper. So rapid is his hammering, the perfect curve of piercings revealed when he lifts his hand is astounding.
The light fixture he is making will join the pantheon of Isaac Maxwell Metal’s highly original and sought-after sconces, light fixtures, screens, doors and doorways, tables, mirror frames, floor lamps, and even refrigerator door panels that add a flourish of exotica to local residences. The creations can also be found at the Tower of the Americas, the downtown Frost Bank’s lobby, a church in Dallas, and an opera center in Houston.
Complex, often densely arranged apertures in his fixtures and sconces transform a space with their pattern of pinhole lights. Most are abstract, but a pair of window screens in the workshop depicts mother pheasants and their chicks pecking in the grass.
Maxwell, who died in 1998 after an illness at age 59, was a respected architect who moved to San Antonio in the 1960s after attending architecture school at the University of Texas at Austin. He worked with some of local architecture’s most prominent modern architects: O’Neil Ford, E. B. Flowers, and Bill McDonald. He designed some of the most distinctive homes in Terrell Hills, Olmos Park, and Alamo Heights. Maxwell’s early fascination with the magic produced by pierced metal began with his discovery of lights being made in Mexico.
“A designer named Gene Byron living outside of Guanajuato, [Mexico] worked in punched tin,” said Mike Casey, a friend of Maxwell and his wife Judith since they discovered a mutual love of Neil Young’s music in the early 1970s. “The concept caught both Isaac and Bill’s eyes, and they started ordering pieces for homes they were designing.”
When deliveries became a problem, Maxwell and McDonald decided to figure out how to do it themselves, Casey continued, in copper and bronze.
The main hurdle was reproducing designs.
“Isaac figured out he could make drawings of the dot patterns and place them over the metal sheet,” Casey said. Rather than basing the patterns on designs of other cultures or times, the seemingly endless designs came from Maxwell’s imagination.
“Goyo still uses Isaac’s original drawings,” he said, pointing to an old wooden chest stacked with thin horizontal drawers containing the vintage drawings.
After Maxwell’s death, his widow, Judith Maxwell, a landscape architect, continued the business with Goyo. As the Maxwells had no children, Goyo’s family had become their own. Goyo named a daughter after Judith, and his grandson Isaac plans to return to the shop when he graduates from college. Another grandson, Abel, 22, works at Isaac Maxwell Metal full-time, punching out patterns. He and his brothers began as apprentices starting at age 10.
Goyo’s mastery comes from long experience. In 1974 at age 20, he was doing handy work around Maxwell’s shop. His future mentor, boss and patrón admired his artistic ability in wood carving and moved him into helping make the copper and metal pieces he created for residences that he designed beginning in the 1960s.
While the family remembers Maxwell fondly, Goyo, who speaks only Spanish, demonstrated what a hard taskmaster he could be by raising his arms over his head and crashing them down – if Goyo made a piece he thought was good and Maxwell found an imperfection, down he smashed it on the floor. Goyo has become such a perfectionist himself that he makes his own tools from hardware he grinds into subtly different point widths.
In 2014, Judith Maxwell needed to step out of the business for health reasons. A financial advisor told her the business was no longer sustainable and must close. At about the same time, Casey said, friend Steve Golden called him and asked how he could order 11 Maxwell light sconces for a home he was building. Casey, who lives near the workshop in Southtown, got in touch with Goyo and helped coordinate the design with Goyo, Golden, and his architect.
“When Steve came over to see the prototype with its lights shining on the wall, he was so happy,” Casey said. “I thought, this is more fun than I had practicing law for 40 years.”
Casey saw the light, so to speak, and offered to invest in the business and partner with Goyo in operating Isaac Maxwell Metal. Compared to law, going to work is indeed more fun.
“I am greeted with a beso from Goyo and an abrazo that causes my vertebrae to crackle when I get to the shop in the mornings,” he said. “It makes it worthwhile when I ask myself, ‘Did you plan on starting a new career at 73?’”
They moved the shop and office from its longtime spot on South Alamo a few blocks over to 1135 S. Saint Mary’s St. The shop, a former house, doubles as a showroom where orders may be placed.
“I can imagine my pal Isaac respond if anyone asked him about marketing,” Casey said. “’Marketing!’ he would bellow, as if offended. He was never into retail. If someone wanted to buy something, he’d say fine, come on over to the shop.”
While Casey has done a little advertising and participated in a trade show before, word of mouth and calls from old friends have carried the day.
“People hear and come by,” Casey said, “they are so happy to see it continued.”
Current projects include giant pendants for the University of Texas at Brownsville through Overland Partners, and orders from architect Don McDonald, the Liberty Bar, and the Pearl.
One of Maxwell’s early architectural clients, Mary Beth and Jack Williamson, worked closely with him on the design of their Olmos Park home, completed in 1968. While the space would have stood the test of time even without copper light fixtures and sconces as well as a carved fireplace and one-of-a-kind stenciling, those special elements are integral to the home, Mary Beth Williamson said. “Both [architecture and embellishments] flowed out of the same brain and sensibility.”
Having designed an elegant but less than formal house for them, as instructed, was Maxwell himself a laid back sort of person?
“He was very un-laid back, but he listened,” Williamson said. “He had a very strong personality; he knew what he liked. He would go to the mat for you to get what you wanted or come up with something better.
“Isaac made no attempt to fit in. He lived as he directed.”
Casey recalled that when he first invited the Maxwells to dinner when they were becoming friends, Isaac sat down at the table and said, “I suppose you’re saving your cloth napkins for close friends?’
“He was very civilized, and paid attention to details,” Casey continued. “To this day I eat my Cheerios with a cloth napkin.”