Silver Design Regains Some of Its Polish In 20th-Century Show
Designers bring the metal back into fashion after losing ground to less-expensive silverplate and stainless steel
SILVER is a material which summons up wonderful vocabulary: words like reflective, lustrous, malleable, ductile. Helen Clifford describes it as an ``amazingly flexible metal ... capable of being worked into a variety of forms and decorated with many different techniques.''Skip to next paragraph
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This adaptability of silver, and its responsiveness to the hand, eye, and imagination of both craftsmen and designers, is more than attested to by an exhibition Dr. Clifford has curated. She is a historian of this precious metal. Her show, simply titled ``20th Century Silver,'' is at the Crafts Council's gallery here.
Elegantly displayed, the silver artifacts range from 19th-century precursors of our century's silversmith designs to today's stars of the craft.
There is a fairly strong concentration of living and working silversmiths, but the exhibition offers a historical perspective too. There is even a momentary glance back at the earliest-known English teapot, which was constructed during the years 1670 and 1671 from a cone of metal. It sports a conical lid and projects a charmingly direct little spout. Presumably this object is included to demonstrate that the functional simplicity we like to believe belongs to our age actually has an old pedigree.
Like many traditional handmade crafts, silvermaking was disrupted by the rise of industrialization and mass-production. And the discipline has had special disadvantages when trying to hold its own against the factories, specifically the introduction of cheaper methods like electroplating, and less expensive materials like stainless steel. These were more accessible to the pocket of the masses.
Taste also has turned against silver: its aesthetic is sometimes seen as inevitably too ``precious,'' a pretentious sign of affluence or class. Design divorced from craft
By the start of the 20th century, many ancient crafts skills had collapsed. Designing became divorced from making.
The repercussions of this breakdown have affected silverware throughout this century. The variety of designs displayed at the Crafts Council reflects silver's wonderful adaptability. It also reveals society's confusion about the function of both silver and its makers.
For today's silversmiths, there is no consensus of style, and there are no imposed standards or taste guidelines.
In short, plurality reigns, as well as rampant individualism and even a merry mayhem with regard to time. Nobody seems sure whether to live and work in the present or the past; whether originality or eclecticism, modernity or traditionalism, matter more, or even matter at all. There is a post-Modern freedom from any kind of orthodoxy, which prompts many silversmiths today to think of themselves primarily as artists.
The paradox in this is undeniable, though. Silversmiths are craftsmen, many of whom are practicing (often with consummate skill) techniques scarcely altered since the Middle Ages, and yet their work has become less and less utilitarian or even symbolic. It is just art.