When set designers for "The X-Files" need weird-looking walls to put behind agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, they sometimes call a Buffalo company that invented a textured stainless steel called Rigid-Tex.
"Our art department loves the look of this stuff. Very futuristic," said Billy Spire, the show's construction manager.
The textured metal, which comes in more than 20 different patterns, has also been used to fashion futuristic-looking panels for the movie "Robocop" and for a bus crash scene in the film version of "The Fugitive."
Then there were those textured panels made especially for the Rolling Stones that were used on stages during three separate concert tours. When the lights hit the metal, the rays were bent in an eye-grabbing way.
But you don't have to be Mick Jagger to come into contact with the product that rolls out of Rigidized Metals Corp. on Ohio Street. Chances are you see and touch the stuff every day. In elevator cabs. In Metro Rail vehicles. At Thruway tool booths. And even in more -- shall we say -- sensitive settings.
"We're talking toilet partitions. Lots of toilet partitions. Pretty exciting stuff, huh?" chuckled B. Mason Bowen, a sales consultant with Rigidized Metals.
The seeds for this $10 million-a-year company were planted more than six decades ago when its founder, Richard S. Smith, walked by a jewelry store window and spotted a patterned silver Tiffany cigarette case. Smith, who started in the industry as a laborer on blast furnaces, later became a salesman for stainless steel. Seeing the fancy cigarette case helped him to recognize the demand for textured metals with different designs.
He spent several years pitching the concept to a number of major steel companies, but there was little interest. In 1939, Smith resigned from Republic Steel and plunged his efforts into a new start-up venture. In 1940, he founded the predecessor to Rigidized Metals in Pittsburgh, Pa. Two years later, he moved the company to Buffalo where it has been ever since.
National Sales Manager Stephen H. Patterson said elevator cabs and food processing equipment are two of the most common applications for the company's patented Rigid-Tex metals. Company managers boast that there's probably not a city in North America that doesn't have a Rigidized elevator in at least one of its buildings. Locally, elevators in the Rath Building, City Court Building and Buffalo General Hospital use the textured metal. You'll also see it in Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls.
But what's the big deal about textured metal? Forgetting about elaborate movie sets or concert stages, why do many building owners, transit authorities and other users turn to patterned stainless steel?
Bowen's answer came in the form of a demonstration. He reached into his pocket, pulled out some keys, then began forcefully scratching two pieces of metal -- regular stainless steel and the textured kind.
"Look at how the pattern hides the scratch," he said. "A vandal takes a key to the inside of an elevator, and you barely see his handiwork," Bowen said.
In addition to being more vandal-resistant, textured metals tend to be stronger and more rigid, according to Bowen.
Patterson -- whose business card is printed on textured aluminum -- said a growing number of architects are also incorporating the products into their building designs. For example, Society Tower, a skyscraper in Cleveland, Ohio, used the company's textured stainless steel for roof paneling.
Rigidized Metals has even supplied the materials for a futuristic-looking apartment in a Chicago high-rise -- a dwelling that is constructed of stainless steel.
"You never really know what you're going to be working on next year. That's part of the fun," said Patterson.
Over the next couple months, Rigidized Metals will reach out to the consumer market for the first time. Patterson said the company is developing a decorative kick-plate that protects the bottoms of doors from scuff marks. It the future, it might even manufacture license plate holders and light switch-plates.
"This is something we should have done years ago, because the market for these type of products is limitless," Patterson said.
More than 90 percent of the company's business is conducted with vendors from outside the Buffalo area. But a company that is based in the Niagara Frontier Food Terminal on Clinton Street counts itself as one of Rigidized Metal's local customers. The Sausage Maker is a mail-order company that sells sausage-making supplies and it uses the textured metal to make "home smokers" for the do-it-yourself crowd.
"We have only good things to say about Rigidized Metals," said spokeswoman Norma Mathewson. "They always come through for us. And it's great that they're located right here in Buffalo."
There are currently 43 people working in Rigidized Metals' Ohio Street facility, plus another 20 sales representatives scattered across the country. The Smith family still owns the company and the third generation is putting a heightened emphasis on exporting. Company executives are convinced that Western European markets, as well as those in Australia and the the Pacific Rim, can be catalysts for growth in the coming years. Last spring, Rigidized Metals sent one of its key operatives to Ireland to talk trade with business leaders in one of Europe's fastest-growing economies.
Bowen said the local plant continues to expand, noting that the company recently purchased a 60-inch mill.
"This is revolutionary in the industry. We're one of the only companies in the nation that has this type of mill. It can roll a sheet that's five-feet wide," Bowen said during a recent tour of the sprawling facility.
One of the most recent jobs that rolled off the 60-inch mill was a large contract for a company that makes bathroom partitions.
Not quite as glamorous as creating textured metal panels for Tinseltown, but someone has to make them.