DESIGN : Designing Irons in the Fire : A master craftsman of wrought-iron furniture has provided a hub for artisans to band together in an informal commercial guild.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Susan Heeger writes regularly for The Times.

No ordinary sign marks the quarters of Martin Iron design on Burbank Boulevard in North Hollywood. Instead, a giant prehistoric bird rears its rusty head beside a fiberglass greenhouse edged with potted plants.

Inside, amid the drip and whir of an old swamp cooler, wrought-iron furniture shares display space with a curious mix of carved carousel horses, yards of recently designed fabrics and Russian antiques--the wares of artists and merchants who have banded together in an informal commercial guild.

At the heart of the place is Peter Martin, who designs and manufactures wrought-iron chairs, tables, beds and lighting fixtures. Along with his sister and partner, Joan Martin, he sells them wholesale--to interior designers, hotels and other commercial concerns--and retail--to anyone who wants to buy.

His designs run the gamut, from traditional European styles to his own antic creations: the "Castle Macbeth Chair," a cross between a baronial throne and fortress window grates; the "Moonstruck" line, which pairs a moon with a bird in a bower of leaves; the "Cat Chair," inspired by a piece of feline-shaped jewelry.

"He'll make anything you want," says interior designer Melissa Partridge of Partridge Designs in West Los Angeles. "I'll fax him a drawing; he makes it up." Partridge, who often buys Martin's furniture for her clients, adds, "You can't beat his prices, or his flexibility." He'll alter a design without constantly charging more, Partridge says.

This kind of flexibility seems ingrained in Martin, who began his adult life with an anthropology degree and immediately ("after searching the want ads under 'anthropologist,' " he jokes) started an interior plant-scaping business in Studio City. In 1984 he jumped at the chance to rent a 5,000-square-foot greenhouse in what he calls "a disaster-stricken part of North Hollywood," full of car-parts shops and manufacturers.

Immediately, he remembers, "the rent tripled, and the walk-in traffic went to zip." To make ends meet, he turned to outdoor landscaping, and when clients began asking him for garden furniture, he decided to try building some.

At first he worked in wood (and still makes wood pieces on request), but he switched to iron because of its durability and popularity.

"If you drop wood, it chips," he explains, "but you can throw wrought iron down the stairs--it still looks great."

Wrought iron is also, for the most part, handmade, which Martin believes accounts for its appeal: "People are turning their backs on the mundane. And they're reaching out for what rarely exists anymore in this age of plastics and technology."

His clients especially like furniture he compares to "something out of an old Scottish castle," and above all, they want it rusty--a finish that can be natural or applied.

Even rusty, Partridge says, wrought iron fits equally well with traditional and contemporary designs. And, as Martin has discovered, iron is just as welcome indoors as out. Only 10% of what he makes now winds up in gardens. The rest, from chandeliers to love seats, coffee tables and dining suites, lands in every corner of the house--richly upholstered, topped with granite and glass and finished in myriad ways.

Priced between $85 (for a simple torchiere) and $1,500 (for a canopy bed), Martin's furniture--along with the offerings of other North Hollywood artisans--is attracting West Side designers used to shopping close to home for clients.

But even as Martin welcomes new blood--creative and commercial--into his community, he's happy to see the local character remain essentially unchanged.

"When you get a shop that does car axles right beside a ballet studio, that's interesting," he says. "There's a certain tension--a kind of energy that works."

Where and When Location: Martin Iron Design, 10726 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call: (818) 760-3636.

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