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Cinde W. Ingram

O.W.Lee Celebrates 60th year

As O.W. Lee celebrates its 60th anniversary, the family's fourth generation has entered the business with designs that debuted at the recent Casual Market in Chicago.

OW LeeOn the first night of the market, Brian Lee, O.W. Lee co-president of product development, and his sister Terri Lee Rogers, co-president in charge of sales, paid homage to the roles their parents and grandfather, founder Oddist Winfred Lee, played in developing the wrought iron and wrought aluminum manufacturer. Their brother-in-law, Chris Goff, serves as co-president of manufacturing.

Rogers' son, 21-year-old Paul Rogers, designed the Spanish-influenced San Christibal Collection, which was introduced for the 2008 season and marked the family's fourth generation in the business.

Founder Oddist W. Lee had worked as a welder for Brown Williams, the predecessor to Brown Jordan, prior to World War II. Because of difficulty getting raw materials during the war, Brown Williams closed with plans to reopen when the war ended. Lee went into business for himself, making custom wrought iron gates, railings and furniture and started O.W. Lee Company in 1947 in Pasadena, Calif.

In the 1950s, Lee's son, Bob, joined his father's business and eventually took charge when his father retired. In the decades since, the company has stayed family owned, operated and committed to its original quality. Much of its furniture is still hand forged, using the same methods as artisans and blacksmiths.

Although scrollwork is forged by hand and formed on an anvil from red-hot, half-inch rods, 35 welding booths were going full steam at the end of the 2007 season. Handwork is used to customize details of the furniture, but the manufacturer also incorporated computers into its processes and moved into its current Ontario, Calif. plant in 1999.

"We can program in different shapes and control and bend by computer without changing tooling and cut to length," Brian Lee said. Each frame is powder-coated with a UV and corrosion inhibiting finish.

Fire pits and alternative table tops continue to be growing categories. "Tabletops have taken off in the last four to five years," Brian Lee said, estimating the niche represents 25% of the business. "We use stone, granite, copper and travertine and polish by hand."

Those tabletops are laid out on an aluminum honeycomb frame with epoxy grout. Rust, brown and Baltic brown are popular colors, Brian Lee said.

"The designs in these tabletops are all natural," Rogers said. "The stones and their dramatic veins are the focal point and the source of all their beauty."

Metal straps are hand-applied on chairs inside O.W. Lee's manufacturing facility in Ontario, Calif. Workers combine handcrafting skills with the convenience of computers to fill custom orders.

Next door to the metal manufacturing plant, about 20 sewers create cushions using 110 fabric options. Fabrics include designs of Sunbrella by Glen Raven, Outdura and Sunbury. Reticulated foam helps the cushions maintain their shape.

"We're really trying to create the whole package for the outdoor room," Brian Lee said. "We're putting a lot of investment into it."

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