Revving up design from the scrap heap

02/15/2014 12:00 AM

02/16/2014 11:11 AM

Shasta Smith is not your typical grease monkey. She’s an interior designer who also happens to have a thing for vintage motorcycles.

She rides them, she collects them, she mines them for inspiration. She parks her street-legal 1972 Honda racing bike next to her desk.

In fact, anything with wheels kicks her mental motor into high gear. She sees the beauty inside cast-off metal and finds a home indoors for what once was scrapyard junk.

“I have two types of clientele,” she said. “I’ve been a full-time interior designer in Sacramento for 15 years, but I also have another type of customer – people who want motorcycle design. That has international appeal.”

With her distinctive red mane, Smith has attracted a worldwide audience for her design firm, The Vintage Monkey. She’s worked on designs for popular home-improvement TV shows such as “House Crashers.” This month, her work will be showcased during a New York launch party for a new cable channel, FYI, devoted to creative design. Yet Smith remains mostly anonymous in her hometown of Sacramento.

“People are always surprised to find our studio,” she said. “They say, ‘We had no idea!’

“When they come through (the studio), their first impression is it’s a motorcycle shop,” she added. “But then they realize, no, it’s something else, something pretty cool.”

A 2,000-square-foot garage in Sacramento’s industrial area just north of downtown is home to Smith’s Vintage Monkey studio and workshop. Elmer, the shop cat, keeps a watchful eye.

The walls, floor and ceiling are lined with projects, several in progress. Almost everything started out as something else.

“I’m always on the hunt for vintage salvage,” Smith said. “Then, we create architectural elements based on those findings. We hate throwing anything away.

“I love coming up with something out of broken pieces and parts,” she said as she fingered drill bits and rifle shell casings. “It allows me to design up something almost from scratch. It brings back the elements of a vintage industrial era.”

A recent foray into scrap heaps brought up new treasure.

“I was elbow deep in gears all weekend,” she added with a laugh. “I got a big box of them. It was a wonderful find, but somebody has to clean off that old grease.”

A 4-foot-wide chandelier hangs over her conference table, a salvaged 1960s shop bench. The light fixture springs from two massive antique tractor wheels Smith spied on the back of a truck hauling scrap.

A table lamp features steel mesh shaped into a drum shade. Its base came from an old water pipe fastened to a heavy plow disc.

Motorcycle gears and assorted car parts re-assemble into table frames. Barbed wire makes holiday wreaths with an edge. Steel plate remnants bearing the patterns of massive gears will be welded into its new life as a sofa frame.

“We’re using 9-inch heavy-duty casters as legs so we can move it around,” Smith said of the gearhead’s ultimate sofa. “It’s going to weigh several hundred pounds.”

Metal artist Thomas Ramey works with Smith to fabricate one-of-a-kind pieces. He has an extensive background in creating architectural elements and also is a certified motorcycle mechanic.

“I really like working with her,” Ramey said during a break from welding. “Even if she wasn’t getting paid, she’d still be doing this work. This is who she is. She has great ideas, but she also has a lot of determination. She never gives up on an idea, even if it’s problematic. She’ll keep at until she figures out a solution.”

Smith also is hands-on – with a torch or motorcycle wrench. She restores motorcycles as well as “plays” creatively with spare parts. The results are impressive and not cheap. Her fully restored 1975 Honda Super Sport CB550 lists for $4,900. The tractor wheel chandelier is $2,400; the water pipe floor lamp, $1,400.

Some artwork bears little resemblance to its origins. Recycled steel rebar “grew” into a massive grape arbor that will be part of a new wine bar on K Street. Inside each cluster of metal grapes will be LED “candles” to add a flickering ambiance.

A third-generation interior designer, Smith admits designing is in her blood. Her grandmother was obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright, she said. Her mom works as a designer and vintage dealer in Southern California.

“My mom has a fantastic eye,” Smith said. “That’s where I got it.”

Motorcycles give Smith’s work its own unique spin. She turned one bike into a bathroom vanity for an episode of DIY Network’s “House Crashers.”

The two-wheel side of Vintage Monkey also has earned Smith notoriety in the cycling world.

“A lot of people like me would – and probably do – admire Shasta for more obvious and less-creative reasons,” wrote Heather McCoy, who runs the motorcycle blog RevGirl. “But any woman who describes herself as a ‘girl grease monkey’ automatically shoots up the ladder of cool. The fact she makes a living at it ups the ante.”

Motorcycles open a lot of unexpected doors, Smith said. “It’s the mystique behind the business. When I was a teenager, I got the bug. I’ve always had a passion for vintage cars, but I took it to the next step to drive my parents really crazy.”

While still a student at Florin High School, she bought her first motorcycle. In her early 20s, she took a break from riding for marriage and pregnancy.

“But when my son got a little older, I got back into motorcycles,” she said. “I got a little obsessive. My full-time work as a designer led me to design with motorbikes.”

Her work with wheels and other mechanical parts attracted the attention of the Arts & Entertainment network, which is launching the FYI channel.

“In this case, FYI stands for ‘For Your Inspiration,’ ” Smith said. “It will feature creative people who do things in the now. They saw my work and thought it was perfect for what they’re doing. So, they invited me to bring my stuff to New York for their official launch party.”

Smith, 36, admits her unusual work surprises people. “Most people wouldn’t expect a women to own and operate something like this,” she said of Vintage Monkey.

In addition to harvesting parts for her designs, Smith also owns seven racing motorcycles, all vintage. Taking her love to the next level, she co-sponsors a racing team. Dennis Parrish, who rides Vintage Monkey’s Honda CL350, won the American Historic Racing Motorcycle Association Formula Vintage national championship while competing at such tracks as Sonoma Raceway.

That’s gotten Vintage Monkey quite a bit of exposure. “We sell a lot of apparel,” Smith said. “People love our logo.”

Her company’s name plays off the grease monkey stereotype with a personnel note.

“It’s simple; an old friend always called me ‘Monkey,’ ” Smith said. “He was a lot older than me, so I called him ‘Vintage.’ That combination just seemed perfect for what I’m doing now.”

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