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.''

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.

One may well wonder how the Arts and Crafts movement, which was so concerned with preserving and fostering individual craftsmanship in the modern world, has developed into art-for-art's-sake. This is happening to such a degree that even ostensibly usable forms like bowls or cruet sets are more like mini-sculpture aimed at museum display cases than made for serving soup or holding vinegar. Silver's `art' status

The exhibition catalog includes a short essay by English silversmith Michael Rowe. Rowe is also an influential teacher at the Royal College of Art, where British silversmithing has been given its most serious impetus in the 20th century. He is perfectly open about the art status he believes the best silver, including his own fine hollowware, attains today.

``Questions of whether [a work] is design or sculpture seem futile,'' Mr. Rowe observes. ``If the concept is strong and expressed with the strictest economy, if the judgments of scale, internal coherence, proportion, finish, etc. are good and as finely tuned as I can get them, then maybe the thing will sing a little and have poetic resonance. That will justify it a place in the world.'' A place as art, that is.

Rowe does, however, preface these remarks with this statement: ``I continue to work in metal, fascinated by its qualities as a material and by the technical processes of forming it.'' And these words, certainly, make him sound more like a craftsman.

The aim of this exhibition (which includes work from European countries, Japan, and Australia, but nothing from the United States) is partly promotional. The Crafts Council in the United Kingdom hopes to help craftsmen of all kinds find patrons. Craftsmen are no less reliant on the tastes and whims of wealthy private collectors today than in years past.

Some silversmiths place a foot in each camp - the craft camp, and the design-for-manufacture camp. A number of those who are represented in this show, David Mellor notably, seem to have performed this balancing act with success - and without an impossible sense of contradiction.

Others believe that abandoning the craftsmanship themselves and designing in order for some other workman, or machine, to do the actual making, limits the imagination and curbs the progressiveness that the craft calls for. The work also lacks touch. Advocate of handcrafting

Danish silversmith Karl Gustav Hansen, for example asks: ``Why submit to the limitations of machine production and refrain from the wealth of expression, which only handcrafting can offer?''

As an example, he says that ``raised silver has an incomparable quality - it is alive.'' (``Raising'' is the forming by hand of a sheet of silver into a vessel by hammering and compressing it.) Still other silversmiths welcome new forms of technology, even designing by computer.

The exhibition makes one point loud and clear: Working in silver is not moribund, and even if the end of the 20th century is a period when anything goes, anything going is far better than nothing going at all.

* ``20th Century Silver'' continues at the Crafts Council gallery through Nov. 7.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.