When you pick up a piece of flatware, what’s the thing that catches your eye? For some it could be the shine but, for many, it’s the design that pulls you in. Our eyes are instantly drawn to these images. Whether it’s a simple outline, floral pattern or a unique design we can’t help but to look a little closer at this work of art that is simply a kitchen utensil.
Who thinks of these designs – so intricate, timeless and beautiful? It’s a craft whom many craftsmen master but due to the push to manufacture overseas it’s one trade that’s become very seldom. There is however, one craftsman still sharing his abilities right here in Sherrill, N.Y. His name is Eric Lawrence and he is the Manager of Tooling and Design at Liberty Tabletop/Sherrill Manufacturing.
Lawrence grew up in Oneida and went to Onondaga Community College to study architecture and design. After graduation, he found work at the previous Oneida Limited factory (present day Sherrill Manufacturing plant and home of Liberty Tabletop). He started out in the shipping department but soon worked his way up the ladder after testing into an apprenticeship program for tooling and design. “There were over 600 applications submitted to the program and only two guys were chosen and I was one of them,” Lawrence said. He admitted the program was intense. “The apprenticeship lasted over the course of five years with 10,000 hours worth of training.” Lawrence would go onto complete the program and earned a certificate. Unfortunately, his efforts were cut short just a few years later. Lawrence lost his job at Oneida Ltd. due to outsourcing. This is something he never expected. “This was supposed to be my career and I planned to retire from it so I was shell shocked when I was let go.”
After he was let go, Lawrence sought after a similar type of creative craftsmanship. He took up different jobs one of which was in Arizona. It was there that he learned injection molding. Unfortunately, due to outsourcing in a multitude of industries Lawrence experienced the same outcome not too soon after. He ended up coming back to the Oneida area where he found work at OMP but once again faced lay offs from the company.
Luckily there was a light at the end of the tunnel. Lawrence knew Liberty Tabletop President Mathew Roberts and through that connection, Lawrence found himself working back under the roof where it all started.
Today, Lawrence is the only tooling and design specialist at Liberty Tabletop. “At one point there was at least 25-30 people working up here in the tooling area then after I came back it was down to three and now it’s just me,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence said most of his knowledge of the tooling craft came from the previous Oneida Ltd. tooling employees. “I started out as the young guy and I was fortunate to have all the older guys around who had the experience. I was really lucky to learn from the old timers, they really know the tricks of the trade.”
Going forward Lawrence said he is looking forward to coming up with new designs both traditional and non traditional. Recently Liberty Tabletop started creating Affinity patterns; these are patterns with a non traditional design. Our current affinity patterns include Old Harbor, Calavera, Celtic, Flame, and our newest one, Woodstock. Each of these were designed and tooled by Lawrence.
“I start drawing design ideas and then I create the prototype and being able to see my drawings turn into something real, people love seeing that!,” said Lawrence. In the recent years at Liberty Tabletop the affinity patterns have taken off in sales. Lawrence admits that once they were released to the public it became a snowball affect and customers wanted more.
Designing a pattern is something that takes weeks and even months to create. First Lawrence draws the design, and then he creates the tooling mold to make the flatware. Lawrence says he likes to keep the pattern organic. “Each pattern has its own unique feature created by hand and that’s not something that can be produced overseas.” A newer technology could help speed up the process but he admits that there really is no fast way to do what he does. According to Lawrence, “There are limitations overseas; the flatware that comes out of China is usually just a plain design, nothing like our affinity designs. It’s a rare breed to be able to work with machinery equipment and be artistic at the same time.”
Throughout his career Lawrence gained all the knowledge needed to become an expert at his craft. He says that if it wasn’t for all the training from those who were experts he would have never accomplished what he has done at Liberty Tabletop. “I always say if you find someone interested in a specific craft help them and give them their chance while their in school. We need to let more young people apprentice so that these stand out students can pursue their career, just like I did.”