Glasses are art to hang on the wall of your face. Of course, they help you see—but as anyone who has ever purchased nonprescription would know, it’s more about how others see you. Glasses can enhance the brow, reduce the nose, match a bikini, hide a hangover. Chinese judges of the Ming dynasty wore colored spectacles to hide their eyes and emotions, as well as to appear distinguished. Glasses are the difference between Jackie K. and Jackie O., Harry Potter and Terry Richardson.
Lee Allen Kuczewski looks good in glasses. Standing behind the counter in Providence Optical on Weybosset Street, the 28-year-old New Bedford native is surrounded by frames hanging on walls and stacked in drawers—classic tortoiseshell, blue ‘80s flat-top sunglasses, delicate cat-eyes. But his thin plastic frames, circular silhouette fading from warm bark to clear, look like they were made for him.
As it turns out, they were. A gold foil stamp on the inside of the temple reads Lee Allen, the name of the company Kuczewski started last year with his friend and band-mate Declan Halpin. In their factory on the third floor of Border City Mill, a former textile plant in Fall River, MA, they sculpt vintage plastics into funky yet subtle frames with cool gradients and iridescent details.
This is New England jewelery and eyewear, version 2011. If their glasses are modern takes on retro shapes, Kuczewski and Halpin are the new faces of an industry that once employed thousands in the region, but has been in steady decline since the early ‘90s.
Before becoming an optician, Kuczewski was an anthropology student at UMass who studied Ghanaian drumming and Javanese Gamelan. (He and Halpin became friends through drumming.) While apprenticing at an optical store in Taunton, MA, he began taking apart eyeglasses. Tinkering lead to collecting, customizing, and eventually, creating. Before starting Lee Allen, Halpin was a full time artist. A painter with a technical background in boat-building and metal-smithing, he is also a Computer Aid Design consultant for the jewelry industry, a skill he now applies to eyewear.
A WIND IN FALL RIVER
Lee Allen is the only company in New England—and one of three in the US—that designs and manually produces its own line of eyewear in-house. But for nearly two centuries, RI and Southern MA were worldwide hubs of eyewear and jewelry manufacturing. Nehemiah Dodge, a Providence jeweler who opened his store on North Main Street in 1794, invented the technique of rolling and plating gold around less expensive metals, birthing what would later be called costume jewelry. In the twentieth century, the thriving industry produced everything from brooches to cigarette lighters, sunglasses to casino dice.
In the 1980s and 1990s, production inevitably headed towards Asia and cheaper labor, where it remains today. In this sense, the Fall River studio, with its high ceilings and 24-pane mill windows, is something of a time-warp. Most of the surface area is taken up by pieces of bulky, army-green machinery, dating from the 1950s or earlier. To the untrained eye, the machines seem more suited for bolting together car engines than whittling delicate eyeglasses.
The machines are literally the relics of optical industry giants. Before they belonged to Lee Allen, they belonged to BK Optical, a family-owned eyewear manufacturer in Attleboro. Before that, the machines belonged to Martin-Copeland, one of the largest jewelry and eyewear manufacturers in the US. When founded in Providence in 1880, Martin-Copeland made eyewear and gold chains from the Manufacturer’s building downtown, where the Dunkin’ Donuts Center currently stands. In 1982, Martin-Copland employed 600 people in the RI region.
When Martin-Copeland shut its doors for good in 1993 due to competition from overseas imports, one of its head engineers, Attleboro native Andy Cloutier, purchased the old equipment and started BK Optical. He taught his family how to make the products.
Kuczewski apprenticed at BK from 2009 to 2010. “I basically stalked [Andy] until he agreed to take me on. I would come whenever I had time. I would run around and clean stuff up and get to know what the machines did, writing down model numbers and trying to research.”
In January 2010, Cloutier died unexpectedly of complications from a brain hemorrhage. A few months later, his widow and daughter liquidated the factory and auctioned off the remaining inventory and machinery. Naturally, Kuczewski and Halpin got first pick. It was everything they would need to start a business for a very minimal investment.
“It was both unfortunate and lucky,” Kuczewski says. In addition to the machines, they acquired vintage cellulose acetate plastic, custom rivets, and thousands of pieces of of hardware still in boxes, most imported from Europe and of higher quality than is easily found today.
The windfall also brought about creative constraints. Most of the plastics they use in their line are the same ones that BK used in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And while they are a rare find, some of the crazier patterns–for example, an iridescent green feather texture–must be handled with care.
“We’re not trying to break the design that no one will wear,” Kuczewski says. “It has to work on someone’s face.”
The real challenge, though, was setting up the factory. Many of the machines were still in BK’s basement, unused for years. After moving from Attleboro to Fall River (no mean feat with multiple pieces of 2,000-pound plus equipment), the two spent from June to November rewiring and testing machines. Nothing came with manuals. “We’d find old pieces of paper scattered around the basement about how to contact [someone] in France if there were any problems,” Kuczewski says. “So we went thorough everything in the inventory, looked at every single part, and tried things out.”
“It was playing on the verge of fighting,” Halpin says. “But once we figured it out, most of it worked. The stuff is steel–it’s not from Ikea.”
They managed to get some machines running that they still don’t quite understand. One refrigerator-sized machine uses an electric current to shoot tiny slices of metal into a molten hunk of plastic that will later become the temple on a pair of glasses, the stems that rests on an ear.
“The graphic designer up the hallway’s computer goes fuzzy when we use this.” Halpin says.
“We hope it’s not giving us cancer. . .!” Kuczewski laughs.
Most factories today use automated equipment that makes eyewear production cheaper, easier, and more standardized. However, this production style doesn’t allow for certain materials like tortoiseshell, buffalo horn, or cellulose acetate plastic. Or for the creative freedom that comes from being able to test out one’s ideas and produce small quantities.
While certain ateliers in Germany and France have continued to produce eyewear in a similar way to Lee Allen, New England and the rest of the US have all but abandoned this kind of manufacturing. “In this region, old machines like the ones we found were mostly sold for scrap when factories closed, Kuczewski says.
With such small overhead costs (and such few competitors in their small market), the team expects to have a good chance of getting their line sold in stores across the country. The next step will be to travel around showing samples to optical stores. The collection will be available in Providence Optical some time in the next few weeks, selling for about $250 a pair.
A COLLECTOR’S EYE
Above the black cases of samples in the studio, a display of vintage frames hangs on one wall for inspiration. One pair of thick tortoiseshell Emmanuel Kahns with clear plastic cut-outs in the temples catches my eye. Kuczewski, who also collects eyewear, has just come across a whole lot of the classic ‘70s-era French designer.
Kuczewski won’t tell me where he found the Kahns. As with any kind of collector’s item, there are places, people, and forums to know. Kuczewski’s favorite eyeglasses to collect are those of the 1720s—the first time someone decided to attach temples—and the delicate wire frames of the 1830s (which he suspects may soon regain popularity).
Some of the bespoke pieces that Lee Allen produces may well one day become collectors’ items. The two are in the process of designing and producing a “murder series” for Stevie Boi, fashion personality and stylist. One resembled a nine millimeter pistol with the trigger guard repeated in the lens, held up only by the support of the hand. The pieces are for editorial spreads, never to be sold or worn outside the pages of a magazine.
On the opposite side of the lens, another one of Kuczewski and Halpin’s bespoke projects is making a pair of frames for a client with a medical problem that prevents his eyes from producing tears. As of now, the client has to go to work in onion goggles that create a micro-climate around his eyes but don’t at all resemble normal glasses. “We think we can do better in coming up with something that is both refined and functional,” Kuczewski says.
When every pair of glasses was manufactured in an atelier, the building that currently houses Lee Allen, Border City, was becoming a booming textile mill. Today, garment sweatshops have relocated, as have ateliers and manufacturers. Lee Allen is what emerges in the ashes of industry, once mass production has been shaken up enough to be recreated.
ALICE HINES B’11 has perfect vision.