American Canyon's Kreysler Composite forms art for big architecture

Maybe you’ve walked through the Sacramento airport and noticed the 56 foot long red rabbit leaping through the terminal.

Or maybe you’ve visited Cologne, Germany, and spotted the enormous ice cream cone that seems to have dropped from the sky and onto a building.

The 36-foot blue bear that’s peering into the Colorado Convention Center in Denver?

These are just a few of the large and unique projects that American Canyon-based Kreysler & Associates (K&A) create with composites, a substance that people tend to think of as fiberglass. It is essentially a very high performance material based on a combination of a resin and a glass fiber. It’s used to make shower stalls, airplanes, fly fishing rods, tennis rackets, mountain bikes, yachts, and formula one cars.

But K&A use the material to make things that, basically, other people can’t.

“We pride ourselves on being the guys to call who will look at just about anything. People may know what they want, but not how to get there. We rely on our innovation, experience, tools and skills, and we use all of that to try an offer a unique fabrication resource to the design, and engineering community,” said William Kreysler, the company founder and president.

K&A uses composites to manufacture one-of-a-kind creations like giant works of art, building facades, movie sets, and even furniture. The company’s long list of projects includes the acoustic panels in the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, a giant bowling ball crashing into bowling pins in a park in Germany, horses for P.F. Chang restaurants, and recently the wavy façade on the exterior of an addition to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Kreysler’s team enjoys the challenge each project brings. The company operates on five acres in American Canyon, with 30,000 square feet under roof. The company has 30 employees, and about 25 of them have been with Kreysler for more than 20 years. They control the entire process, from making the composites, creating the molds, and coordinating installation. It’s the same process for each project, but the amount of material used, how many layers, and how they form the composite is varied.

The material is created with glass fiber almost exclusively, as opposed to a carbon fiber, and a polyester resin, the most cost-effective and commonly used. The molds are made of foam, which are ground up and shipped back to the foam company when the project is completed.

One of the advantages of working with composites is the ability to create curved surfaces, unlike with traditional building materials. You can’t bend an I-beam, Kreysler likes to say.

“The vernacular and the whole world of building is based on flat surfaces, which is boring,” he said. “We’re unique because we’ll use these materials, but we’ll make one of a kind, or maybe 10, and most people in the composites business don’t think that way.”

K&A’s products are considered architectural, but the material could be used structurally, Kreysler said, noting composites are used that way elsewhere in the world. Several years ago, there were plans to build structural beams for part of a girder system to build a 2-lane automobile bridge in San Diego.

Per pound composites are fairly expensive. Rarely does K&A make anything that costs less than $50 a square foot to fabricate, and they have made sculptures and pieces for museums that cost more than $300 a square foot.

“So much of what we do is labor. The material cost is usually only around 25 percent of the total cost of the job. The rest of it is in design, engineering, mold-making and fabrication labor,” Kreysler said.

What they do is like old-world craftsmanship in a lot of ways, he said, they just use very contemporary tools.

“We’re just craftsmen. We’re not artists or architects, we’re just a shop with people that love to work with our hands, and have some skills that there’s a role for in the way things are done now.”

K&A’s creation of the wavy façade of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art addition was the first and biggest application of composites on a large multi-story building in the U.S.

There are more companies in Europe working with composites in part because the building codes are not as strict as they are here, and are not required to make their products as fire-resistant. One of the reasons K&A got the MOMA job was because they passed strict fire tests.

Architects are beginning to move away from designing in flat surfaces, Kreysler said, but haven’t quite recognized composites as materials that would free them up from the very sort of square-ish building planes that we’ve been building since the turn of the last century. Composites are not a new material, but are new to the construction industry.

“Nobody wants to be the first. The museum took a little bit of a step into the unknown, and tried something that had been proven in other areas. The reward is it worked beautifully and now people are starting to see it. The risk is it’s new, and nobody knows what it is. Like a new car you’ve never heard of. It looks beautiful, but you‘ve never heard of it, so would you take a chance on it?” Kreysler said.

Museum officials did.

The 10-story, 235,000-square-foot addition to the museum was designed by the internationally acclaimed architecture firm Snøhetta. The design resulted in 1,400 wavy pieces, the largest of which were 8 feet wide by about 30 feet long.

Kreysler wasn’t worried about the material, but more concerned about coordinating the project, like how to transport the 1,400 pieces of the project to San Francisco. After deliberating about options, including putting them on a boat, they decided trucking to be the best way to go. During the installation process, there were six trucks a day rolling all of the parts down to the city.

Kreysler landed in the world of composites as a result of his love of sailing. As a young man, he got a job in a boat factory thinking it would be the best of both worlds. That worked for a couple of years, but then “it just became work,” until it got to the point he didn’t care if he never saw another sailboat for the rest of his life.

When the factory finally closed, however, he realized he loved working with composites, loved working in a shop, and working with his hands making things.

“I thought ‘these materials have got to be good for something else,’” he said.

Kreysler founded his design, engineering, and fabrication shop in Petaluma in 1982, and the company began building sets for the San Francisco Opera, the “Star Wars” saga, and “Indiana Jones.”

K&A’s extensive client list includes Apple, AT&T, Children’s Museum of Mexico City, Disney Development Company, Jim Henson Productions, Lucas Films LTD, the Municipal Government of Tokyo, a host of architects from around the world, and many others.

The company has also made restoration parts, such as for buildings damaged in downtown Napa during the earthquake.

“It’s a nice material in that it can mimic a lot of other materials, but to me that’s not the best use of it. It’s such remarkable material, it’s so strong and so unique that it really deserves to be used because it is what it is, not because you can pretend it’s something it isn’t,” Kreysler said.

Because of the flexibility and durability of composite material, artists are inspired to create works using it. Kreysler’s team has collaborated on numerous pieces with Claes Oldenburg, one of the founders of the pop art movement. He took his art to the next level when he met Kreysler’s team, and started dreaming up large outdoor objects.

“Artists are always looking for some new way to express their vision. It opened the door for him to go back to the form of expression that he had used earlier, on smaller pieces, with fabric,” he said.

As of now, K&A basically has no competition.

“If there were, we’d be doing something else,” he said. “We’re not big fans of competition,” Kreysler said.

They actually do compete, he added, but not with companies that are making things out of composites.

“It’s not so much what our material costs, it’s what the product that we’re going to make costs compared to the product that somebody else would make out of another material. In the Bing case, if it was made out of concrete, it would have been too heavy to be strong enough,” he said.

Kreysler thinks about opening up another factory every now and then, but says he likes what he’s doing.

“When I go home, I can sleep at night. Another factory sounds like a lot of headaches. We’re happy here, we like it. We’re close to a lot of our customers, and those we’re not like to come to Napa anyway. They always seem to show up on Friday or Monday,” he said.

And although the material can be used in many different applications, K&A is happy with special projects like MOMA.

“That’s our focus now. There are lots of applications where we don’t fit, but it’s the few that don’t work for the older materials that is our marketplace. Which is why we’re a small company,” Kreysler said. “We’re not solving the world’s problems here, but we’re solving a few little ones.”

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