An appreciation for artisanal processes and old-world aesthetics has long been ingrained in Victor Salas, a San Antonio native who grew up around a family business specializing in custom woodwork and metalwork. Beyond sweeping the floors and other tasks, Salas participated in what one might describe as a crowning moment for his family’s still-active ARTchitectural Interiors. Tapped to build several pieces of hand-carved wooden furniture for Pope John Paul II’s record-setting 1987 mass in San Antonio, the Salas family devised an aptly “old-world” delivery method for the once-in-a-lifetime occasion. After securing the pontiff’s elaborate throne to a trailer, they rope-towed it by hand 16 miles across town to the host venue, a field in Westover Hills later developed and dedicated as John Paul Stevens High School. Unsurprisingly, the community took notice of this laborious exercise. “A bunch of people came out,” Salas recounted. “It was a whole-day event. It was crazy.”
After graduating from Central Catholic High School in 1995, Salas moved to Austin to pursue a BFA in art history from the University of Texas. While studying design, photography and drawing at UT, he stayed involved in ARTchitectural Interiors, at times spending his weekends visiting job sites, passing out business cards and helping sell custom pieces. With his sights set on a degree in architecture, Salas relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, to attend Washington University. Once he’d completed the program, he interned briefly for a St. Louis architecture firm but felt unfulfilled by the tedium of AutoCAD assignments and returned to San Antonio for a full-time position with the family business.
Working alongside his father for just over a decade, Salas took on specialized jobs including a restoration project at Mission San Juan Capistrano, one of the five Spanish Colonial missions that make up the San Antonio Missions UNESCO World Heritage Site. As he worked his way up to a senior position, Salas increasingly gravitated toward detail-oriented work within the high-end residential market while his father sought out more volume-based commercial endeavors. Their divergent interests ultimately ended in conflict and Salas left the family business in 2014 to launch Forged Oaks, a company named after his mastery with iron and wood. From humble beginnings that involved completely starting over from scratch, Forged Oaks has emerged as a trusted source for builders, designers and homeowners looking for one-of-a-kind, handcrafted furnishings and statement pieces such as hand-carved doors and fireplace mantles, solid-wood cabinetry, wrought-iron gates, range hoods and staircase railings.
Although the vast majority of what Forged Oaks creates is installed in private homes, a handful of Salas’ projects can be spotted in public spaces across San Antonio, including the stately wooden doors at the Lucchese Boot Company in the Alamo Quarry Market, the quatrefoil windows and a towering flagpole at the Bexar County Courthouse, and a sculptural lighthouse tower at Woodlawn Lake Park. While Alexander Marchant has gotten to know Salas quite well by providing specialty hardware for his covetable, custom woodwork (including a Lynn Ford-inspired door outfitted with a Designer Doorware entry set and a glossy teal bar tricked out with a solid bronze Linkasink and Armac Martin pulls), we caught up with the Forged Oaks founder to learn more about his creative process and what sets his company apart from the competition.
What would you describe as your specialties or favorite things to work on?
We do a lot of forged ornamental iron, a lot of custom vent-a-hoods [and] a lot of custom furniture — conference tables, custom cabinetry. Every project is kind of unique, so I don’t know if there’s one thing that I enjoy more than the other. I guess I enjoy the diversity of the stuff that I get to do.
What can you tell us about your creative process and how your projects take shape?
Here’s an example: the other day a client called me up and he had basically Googled “hand-carved doors.” So I went to go meet with him the other day and he had some really old Lynn Ford doors that were on a house that burned down in the Olmos Park/Alamo Heights area. So with this one, we’re trying to reproduce the design and [specific type of woodwork]. Part of the doors are burned and part are not. When I’m dealing with interior designers, they have a concept picture [or] drawings of what they’re trying to do. From there, I’ll start doing my drawings, making samples of details [and] finishes … Once they make those selections, we start building the piece. And for a lot of projects, we make a lot of samples. If we’re doing a staircase, we’re making a full-scale mockup of part of the staircase so the client knows exactly what they’re getting. Because drawings can be very deceptive. They don’t know what size thickness material you’re going to use, the proportion, the detail. That’s where I think my expertise comes in, is in those details — the right proportion of materials, making the project look custom, and not something standard that they can get off the shelf.
How did your lighthouse tower in Woodlawn Lake Park come about?
I grew up around Woodlawn Lake. [As a kid] I ran around that lake. I was around that lake all the time. So I’m always driving through that area. And when I saw that they were [building] a bridge and doing all this construction, I got in contact with the contractor, told them about our metalwork and gave them pricing for a bridge on the pathway. I had given them a proposal to do the decorative panels on that bridge but they subbed that out to somebody else. And then this sculpture piece popped up that they also needed. They had a little sketch of what they wanted … It looked like a lighthouse but sort of made from ribbons. I think it was just a schematic … I don’t think they were thinking about it [in real terms] until we started forming the actual pieces. Landscape architects came out and looked at the piece and said, “It’s a little bit different than what we thought but we actually kind of like it.”
What did the Bexar County Courthouse restoration entail?
I did restoration on about 300 windows — replacing glass and making new windows. There were two different sets of quatrefoil windows that are in the double-high courtroom, and [we made] some small and large quatrefoil windows. And then we did the reproduction of the hardware, the backplates and knobs. And we duplicated moldings to match the old molding profiles, casing and trim. We also [duplicated the] flagpole on the cathedral side — without taking it down. We went up there, measured it, made a template, and made a new one for that new corridor between the two courthouses. So now there’s one on the cathedral side and one between the two courthouses heading south.
You mentioned a house in Boerne that you’ve worked on pretty extensively.
It’s funny how that job started. A friend from architecture school worked at the architecture firm that was building this house. So he said, “Hey, my friend that I went to school with does custom woodwork and custom metalwork.” So the owner contacted me about her project. And I went out there and looked at it and said, “Wow, this is a really nice house. This is an architectural house. It’s not a builder house. It’s not a cookie-cutter house.” This [house] was designed with landscape, site and everything taken into account. So I knew it was going to be a really unique project. And the first thing that I got was something really simple. If you look at the Missions and old structures, they have those tie-backs, which they put on retaining walls. But these were just going to be decorative, to make it look like old construction. It was [inspired by] an Italian villa, that’s the look of the house. And so that first project I got was these oval tie-backs. And I made a quick sample in wood and I showed them how it was going to look and they said, “Yeah, we want them, go ahead and make them in metal.” And from that little project, it evolved into, “OK, what else can you do for us?” I think after that I did their interior bar out of wormy chestnut. We did a custom wine cellar. And then we were basically doing something in every room. We did a lot of furniture pieces. We did a custom, really high-end closet … We did an outdoor kitchen. We did pretty much all the metalwork. The owner didn’t really have a design for the entry gates … so I gave her the idea of doing round columns at the entry, with two pillars and these gates, and these fences that create this welcoming to this house.
What would you say sets Forged Oaks apart from other businesses in San Antonio or Texas?
We’re very unique, we’re very creative and we want to build something new. We’re not trying to copy anything — although there are times when reproduction is necessary [if] you’re trying to match something old. We’re always looking at new ideas, new ways of doing something. And then we’re very design-driven and detail-driven.And the way we build things, we want to build them to last. I don’t know if I had given you the explanation of these furniture stores — you can buy a bed there and, even though it looks like a piece of furniture, once you assemble something like that, it works for the most part. But the type of furniture [we build] is more like heirlooms. They can be passed on from generation to generation because they’re built with structural integrity. And I think that’s what really sets us apart is we’re always looking at our craftsmanship, the type of materials that we’re using.
You’re also something of a one-stop shop.
Definitely. We’re able to work with the client, work with the designer and work with the architect. We make the samples, do drawings, build it, do the finish — match any finish that’s out there — and do the installation all in-house. A lot of other people are subbing out parts of the project — somebody’s building it, it gets delivered, somebody else is installing it. It can be as simple as hardware. You can make a beautiful piece and you can install the hardware in the wrong place. And bad placement can ruin a piece of furniture. That’s one thing that really separates us: we figure out everything in the design phase. The design never ends for us.