The creative output of Ridgway metalworkers Lisa Issenberg, owner of Kiitellä, and John Billings of Billings Artworks has touched thousands of lives in some of the most elite professions on the planet.
Billings is responsible for the music industry’s highest honor, the Grammy Award, every one of which is individually crafted in the basement of his Ridgway studio.
Issenberg has designed awards for the American Alpine Club and for competitors in many winter alpine sports. Slalom superstar Mikaela Shiffrin of Vail has hoisted at least 10 of Issenberg’s made-in-Ridgway awards overhead in her brief career, and female racing greats Lindsey Vonn, also of Vail, and Bernadette Schild of Austria, Federica Brignone of Italy and Tessa Worley of France have all won Issenberg’s medals, too.
For one of her clients, Squaw Valley, host of the 2017 FIS Ski World Cup races, Issenberg designed stainless steel awards shaped like skis. The skis were modeled after vintage wooden boards with graphics reminiscent of an antique ski poster (a nod to the historic venue).
“Every piece is new, every project is custom,” Issenberg said of her work. “It’s a poor business model.”
It does, however, allow her to tailor each award specifically to the needs of each client, something Issenberg thinks a lot about.
She got her start in Telluride, where she moved after college.
“I guess it was Telluride that influenced me, but mostly it was finding (the nearby small community of) Ophir. I remember having a feeling of home that I’d never experienced,” Issenberg recalled.
“The combination of getting outside, high into the mountains, at first with a camera,” for photographs she fused with metal jewelry, was an initial inspiration.
“Bärbel Hacke at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art took me in when I was just 21 and sold my work. I’m so grateful,” Issenberg said. Almost three decades later, the gallery still represents her.
As she met more people, her work broadened.
“Mountainfilm asked me to create awards, and that led to work for the Telluride Regional Medical Center, and for the Michael G. Palm Theatre, which to this day is the site of my largest donor wall,” she said. “All the while I was accepting assignments for everything from furniture to metal railings. I said yes to everything. I felt fortunate, but it was a scattered feeling.”
So Issenberg took a break to study industrial design at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute.
“I was out of place there,” she said frankly. “I was an artist. Eventually, somebody told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. Just do what you do.’”
It’s a philosophy she’s followed ever since. Her design today is a fusion of art and a clean aesthetic coupled with a newfound understanding of how industrial processes work.
“Prior to design school, my personal design ‘depth’ felt so limited,” Issenberg said. “I’d come up with one design and not know how to go deeper. It cuts off passion when you can’t go deeper. I learned that whatever the object, no matter how simple,” its permutations are limitless. “It was a world of possibilities that I brought back with me to the mountains.”
Now in Ridgway, she decided to focus solely on creating awards, and today her portfolio includes clients from Marmot to KEEN to Squaw Valley, Lake Placid, the Vail Valley Foundation and more.
“With any project, my design philosophy is multifold,” she said. “My first thought is to learn what is the essence of a place or an event. Everything will be different, whether it’s a snowboard race or a theater. The second is to see what’s essential. It can’t just be a simple, minimal sculpture with no words. Names and titles are part of this. Often there are logos and dates, and sometimes more than that. I want to use only what is absolutely essential, to take all these objects and ask, ‘How can I strip these away, so the essence is what speaks to people?’”
Commissions often come by word-of-mouth. Two years ago, Issenberg designed awards for the U.S. Ski Team Freestyle National Championships in Lake Placid. That is where Jenna Lute, an event manager for the Olympic Regional Development Authority, first spied Issenberg’s designs.
“We’d been using the same medals since the beginning of time,” Lute recalled. “I had no idea we had a choice. Lisa’s awards had a rustic look and the way she layered colors on them was really cool. They were multi-dimensional. So, I reached out to her. I was surprised that it’s just her, a one-owner business. I put through a proposal to our CEO that we use her medals for all our World Cups this year. He really liked her work and said yes.”
Accordingly, Issenberg has designed awards for World Cup bobsled, skeleton, luge, and freestyle aerials and moguls events (in Lake Placid next week).
Earlier this season, her awards went to elite downhill men’s skiers at the World Cup Birds of Prey event in Beaver Creek.
The work “is enormously fulfilling on so many levels, artistically and philosophically,” she said.
Some of the awards she’s proudest of have been given out by organizations such as the Conservation Alliance, “which distributes funds to smaller groups in order to, say, clean up a river, or take down a dam, or protect open space,” and to individuals deeply involved in conservation, like the former Secretary of the Interior.
“Last year, Sally Jewell received one of my awards from the American Alpine Club,” Issenberg said. “She’ll never know me. I’m just tickled I got to create an award for someone I admire and am thankful for.”