Sitting on a Touch of Class

Local blacksmith and sculptor memorialized for Duke benches he designed

A plaque honoring local artist Francis Vega was recently installed under one of the benches he created to beautify Duke's campus. Photo by Marsha A. Green.

Within the past decade, more than 100 sheet metal benches with the Duke crest and hints of gothic arches have been installed across Duke's campus, lending unity and beauty to outdoor spaces.

Last month, a plaque was fastened below one of the benches near the Old Chemistry building to honor the late Francis Vega, who designed the prototype and died in April. Vega was founder of Vega Metals, Inc., the Durham company that manufactures the benches.

"Duke's campus is the only place you'll see these benches, although I've heard that some alumni would like to buy some," said Mark Hough, campus landscape architect at Duke. "The design is simple yet elegant, echoing so many of the architectural details that make Duke interesting."

Tallman Trask, Duke's executive vice president, and John Pearce, then university architect, asked Vega to create the benches in 2005 when they considered creating a common set of lampposts, trash receptacles and other outdoor furniture to enhance Duke's landscape. 

"Frank was a well-known local sculptor and as soon as we realized we wanted metal benches, rather than wooden ones, we turned to him," Trask said.

The prototype bench, with the Duke shield on the backrest, was first created in Duke blue, but Trask and Pearce decided the color was too prominent. That bench was not installed. Instead, all of the benches have been made in brown, the color that copper usually turns in North Carolina. 

The first two of these benches were installed in 2006 on the main quad in front of the Davison Building. As additional landscape work was done around campus, benches were added to areas around Perkins and Bostock Libraries, the School of Law, Sanford School of Public Policy, and most recently, outside the Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Health Education Building. A special, curved bench was made using the same design for the space between the Bryan Center Plaza and Duke Chapel.

Hough said that as the campus landscape evolves, more benches will be ordered from Vega Metals and co-owner Neal Carlton, who worked with Francis Vega. 

"These benches are comfortable and practical, but they also bring a touch of class to the landscape," Hough said. 

Vega also designed other metal work for Duke, including the iris fountain in the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. He died April 19, 2013.