“Made in Milwaukee”: DIY Network showcases unique design firm

“Made in Milwaukee” airs 11pm ET Fridays on DIY Network.

Jeremy "Sham" Shamrowicz of DIY Network's "Made in Milwaukee"When I go to meet Jeremy “Sham” Shamrowicz at his design studio, I’m expecting him to be wearing either a kilt or some sort of pirate garb. Such is the wont of the eccentric star of DIY Network’s Made in Milwaukee, who has been doing business his way since 2000 and now has his own TV series to show for it. As it turns out, on this wintry day on Milwaukee’s north side, Shamrowicz is wearing a pirate shirt — the kind that might give Jerry Seinfeld pause — beneath a well-loved pair of overalls.

Flux Design — where Shamrowicz and his team plan the jobs, debate their strategies and construct the pieces they use for their designs — is a playground of creativity. Not one room in the vast facility looks like your average office building. Much of the furniture was built by the people who work there, and it’s hard not to notice the plentitude of Star Wars memorabilia that litters the landscape. (Not for nothing, the man did name his son Anakin.) But beyond sharing wide-eyed reminiscences of the Millennium Falcons and AT-AT walkers we played with as kids, we do manage to talk a bit about the show and Shamrowicz’s singular approach to his work.

“When we started Flux, one of the things that I had said was, ‘You know what, I can build stuff like other people build, but then we’re just like everybody else. How about we build stuff with different materials that other people [use], but not as often?'” he says. “That makes a big difference. So really when I try to explain to people what it is we do, I say I study materials. It’s not fancy. It’s not ground-breaking, it’s not earth-shattering and nobody’s going to be like, ‘Wow, what a smart guy!’ And it’s process. That’s it.”

That process is all about “creating an experience” with a space, something people will remember and tell others about. It involves keeping the business as local as possible, dealing with local vendors and using all the local products at his disposal. And afterward nothing is wasted, with chips of leftover wood going home with employees for their fireplaces, then the ashes being brought back to use as fertilizer for their gardens.

It also includes tireless research. Shamrowicz can easily burn an hour or more regaling people — usually members of his patient crew — with all the stuff he’s learned about woods, metals, building styles and whatever else is relevant to the job at hand. The history of a building or the story of its owners make for great fodder in coming up with just the right one-of-a-kind design. Yes, it’s a design show about a Milwaukee firm, set in Milwaukee-area homes, but there is far more on display than the familiar stereotypes of beer, cheese and Happy Days. (And when you do see that stuff, it looks much cooler than you’re used to seeing it.) Flux prides itself on unique designs, known broadly to some for their love of metals and twisting them in new and exciting ways, and their work can be seen all over Milwaukee’s downtown hot spots.

The results speak for themselves on Made in Milwaukee, which focuses on the firm’s residential projects, with a different set of homeowners each week in awe of what Shamrowicz and his crew create. Their vision might not be for everybody, but Shamrowicz wants to make sure it’s absolutely perfect for that client. This week’s episode involves them converting a garage into an industrial-style art studio, and it’s a masterful combination of modern design and organizational clarity. In other words, exactly what the client wanted, and in the coolest way possible. Other episodes have seen them turn a basement into a baseball lover’s dream, replete with stadium-style brick and hand-crafted lockers, and spiffying up a kitchen by putting in a mechanical pot rack that can be raised and lowered from an overhead structure.

“I don’t design as a designer going, ‘Well, I designed this, so you have to like it,'” he says. “Designers are supposed to design something because you need to love it. And if you love it, and I execute it well, then I did my job. I do have clients who come to us and say, ‘OK, this is the space. You guys tell me what I need.’ I love clients like that.”

While the extra attention a TV show brings is welcome, there are some aspects that require getting used to. For instance, the big reveal at the end of every show is not business as usual. The standard operating procedure involves the client seeing the designs in every stage and becoming comfortable with it, feeling a sense of ownership before any nails are hammered. Then there are the times when the camera crew asks everyone to stop working for a second so they can grab a particular shot. These minor adjustments aside, Shamrowicz says the transition has been seamless.

The show’s first batch of episodes run till March 29, and no word has come whether Made in Milwaukee will get a second season. If it does, however, it will be because of the same word-of-mouth that has made the brick-and-mortar business successful. Like the humble city it calls home, the show has not gotten a big media push.

“You don’t know how people are finding it and how they’re connecting to it, because maybe you think there’s a traditional way that they’re supposed to know, but we haven’t necessarily followed that traditional route,” Shamrowicz says. “A lot of times people do, ‘OK, here’s this huge press release. Here’s all the stuff that’s coming.’ We’re kind of the opposite. We haven’t really done a huge press release. We sent out some information and we got some responses back, like, ‘Huh? There’s a show about Milwaukee?'”

Photo: © 2012, DIY Network/Scripps Networks, LLC.