▪ Chicago Metalsmiths ▪
Arts & Crafts metalsmiths have never received the full respect due them. One of the main reasons we created this site was to showcase some of their remarkable talents.
Prior to 1977 most early 20th Century metalcrafters were totally unknown. But that year a landmark exhibition organized by Sharon Darling, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Chicago Historical Society, brought many of these masters into the public view for the first time. Her catalog for this exhibition (pictured below) has remained the standard reference work on this topic for nearly three decades. While Darling's focus was limited to Chicago makers, she highlighted most of the important craftspeople of the era. Other books, notably Marilee Boyd Meyer's more recent Inspiring Reform / Boston's Arts and Crafts Movement, covered Boston metalsmiths in part. And no short list of books can ignore Don Marek's excellent work on the Forest Craft Guild, Grand Rapids Art Metalwork 1902-1918.
Sharon Darling's Landmark Book
There are few other sources of information on this topic. Catalogs from auction houses (many of which are no longer in business) do provide brief descriptions of silver and copper objects, along with photos and prices. The best continuing source for information of Arts & Crafts metalwork is the series of first-rate catalogs from the nation's top Arts & Crafts metal dealer, Ark Antiques, which include well-researched histories and valuable commentary.
Darling's exhibition stemmed from an earlier investigation on the Kalo Shop for an article she planned to write. She eventually broadened the topic to include metalcrafters from three eras -- 1804-1890, 1890-1918, and 1918-1970:
"The first [era] extends through much of the nineteenth century and encompasses the rise of manufacturing and the development of a complex distribution network. Mechanized production of silverware continues to the present day, of course, but in Chicago its importance was superseded around 1900 by the revival of handwrought metalwork created by individuals or groups of artisans employed in small shops working under the inspiration of the Arts and Crafts movement. During this second phase, from 1890 through World War I, Chicago metalsmiths not only returned to working metal by hand but created original designs which can now be seen as representative of an important, though hitherto neglected, body of indigenous American art. Throughout the third phase, covering the years between World War I and the present, the craft was kept alive by a second generation of metalsmiths, many of European origin, who continued to produce silverware and other metal goods by hand in small shops in downtown Chicago or neighboring suburbs."
She was able to assemble several hundred pieces from the latter two periods, representing the Chicago Arts & Crafts metalwork A-list:
Darling wanted to answer important questions such as "why this field attracted so many women, and how immigrant craftsmen fared upon their arrival in Chicago" and why Chicago became the nexus of metalcrafting:
"When it played host to the World's Columbian Exposition, it was already clear that Chicago more than any other city symbolized America's transformation from a rural, predominantly agricultural society into an urban, predominantly technological one. By 1890 it had become the second largest city in the United States -- a towering electrically-lit beacon in a sea of prairie and farmland. In their attempts to cope with the growing pains of a great metropolis, Chicagoans pioneered innovations and reforms that often influenced life far beyond the city's boundaries.
"…Given a nurturing context, in which culture was pursued with the same ardent vitality as profit, it is not surprising that Chicago should have become a center for artistic innovation. By 1912 the city's architects, designers, and artist-craftsmen had ushered in a range of new styles in architecture and the decorative arts which expressed their culture and their times. Included in this surge of artistic activity was a revival of handwrought metalwork.
"Between 1890 and the outbreak of World War I, metalsmithing in Chicago was infused with a new vitality that flowed from the Arts and Crafts movement, which had its origins in England. While Chicagoans interpreted and adapted this imported philosophy to meet their particular needs, the fundamental principles of the movement-which had been carried directly to Chicago from England by both individuals and publications-remained essentially unchanged.
"… Of all American cities, Chicago proved the most receptive to the reforming principles of the British Arts and Crafts movement, for its philosophy appealed directly to the democratic instincts of many Chicagoans and coincided with cultural and social reforms already under way. By the turn of the century a number of Chicagoans interested in social, political, and educational reform had visited England and several prominent British exponents of the Arts and Crafts movement had visited Chicago and lectured at the Art Institute. Moreover, British publications such as The Studio and The International Studio, together with Chicago's own House Beautiful, kept American readers abreast of the latest theories and creations of the British designers. On his first visit to the United States in 1900, [Arts & Crafts pioneer Charles R.] Ashbee found that Chicago art lovers were already familiar with many of the tenets and works of the British Arts and Crafts movement. He went on to deepen their interest and knowledge by lecturing at the Art Institute and addressing numerous groups and clubs."
She also noted why silver held such a lofty position among the Arts & Crafts metalworkers:
"By the 1880s the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement had generated the formation of various societies, organizations, and guilds dedicated to creating and exhibiting all kinds of artistic handicrafts in England. Clay, wood, and silver were among the principal media which the Arts and Crafts reformers of the late nineteenth century found attractive. Inherent in the nature of these materials was their capacity to be transformed into objects that were at once useful and beautiful. Silver, one of the most malleable of metals, could be shaped into totally new and original forms, limited only by the skill of the metalsmith. It was the most 'human' of the metals, for to it could be attributed the qualities of warmth and life: its polished surfaces caught and played with sunlight and firelight; it quickly became hot or cold, depending on its immediate surroundings; and it was a precious metal long identified with wealth and power. To reform the design and production of silver objects would set new standards of beauty and taste for something of great value."
Before her detailed history and analysis of the individual makers listed above, Darling summarized the rise of what she called "a new school of Chicago metalsmiths":
"At the beginning of the new century the city could claim a school of metalsmiths working within the framework of the Arts and Crafts tradition. Although their work varied widely in material, shape, and decoration, these artisans shared a common attitude: a faith in simplicity, a dedication to fine workmanship, and a respect for the dignity of labor. Working in copper, silver, brass, and bronze, they designed useful objects that relied upon simple forms and natural materials for their beauty. Such ornament as appeared tended to grow from within the metal itself, finding expression in repoussé floral forms or linear bands which emphasized or strengthened sides or rims.
"While Chicago metalsmiths adhered firmly to the belief that metal must be worked by hand and not by machine, most did not consider it improper to begin with sheets of copper or sterling silver that had been rolled flat by machinery. Using mechanically prepared sheets released the metalworker from drudgery and enabled him to save his energy for the creative processes. In the terminology of the day, handwrought or handbeaten indicated that an article had been raised and shaped by hand, not that it had been started from an ingot. The importance of handwrought metalwork lay in the fact that the object was of original design and made by hand under conditions in which the workman took pride and pleasure in his work.
"Handwrought metalware traditionally featured a surface on which tiny hammermarks were still visible. The hammered surface was considered more beautiful than the totally smooth surface from which all trace of the craftsman's hammer had been removed. The tiny facets refracted light, giving the surface life, and also provided tangible evidence of the craft process.
"For inspiration, Chicago metalsmiths turned to nature, the American Indian, or the American colonial period. In the Midwest, in particular, the revival of the handicrafts merged with the quest for an indigenous American art. Common garden flowers such as pansies, morning glories, poppies, irises, daisies, or roses were embossed or etched on metalwork, while the thistle, which grew wild in some suburban areas, appealed particularly to those of Scottish descent. American Indian baskets, pottery, and rugs were avidly collected and their functional shapes and bold motifs, such as the swastika, were occasionally reproduced in metalwork...
"A number of metalsmiths studied the simple, forthright forms of silverwork produced during the colonial period and some, like Robert Jarvie and employees of Marshall Field & Company, reproduced them in addition to more innovative pieces. The idealized figure of the Colonial silversmith, proud of his work and imbued with revolutionary spirit, served as an inspiration for the American metalworker in much the same way that the medieval guild craftsman did for the nineteenth century British craft worker."
Finally, she spoke of the development of Arts & Craft jewelry, and the role of women in the movement:
"Jewelry produced by Chicago craftworkers ranged from bold to delicate in design and many pieces reflected the influence of Art Nouveau as well as of Arts and Crafts. Baroque pearls, moonstones, amethysts, opals, aquamarine, and other stones prized for the play of color they afforded were commonly used by both Chicago and English Arts and Crafts jewelers. A few Chicago metalsmiths, Madeline Yale Wynne and Jessie Preston in particular, began to incorporate bits of rock and pebbles into their work to produce novel effects. To achieve striking color combinations metalsmiths occasionally applied enamel. Acid was used to produce special patinas and to etch floral or stylized designs on jewelry and household items made from brass, copper, or bronze. Since many acid-etched pieces bear a striking resemblance to objects pictured in manual arts guides, it is possible that the popularity of this technique stemmed from the widespread interest in manual training and attempts to create simple, attractive items using inexpensive tools and equipment.
"Jewelry-making appealed particularly to the growing numbers of women who were trying their hand at metalsmithing. Fashionable and respectable, it had the advantage of not demanding the muscles or perseverance required to hammer and shape larger items such as water pitchers, vases, or umbrella stands. A number of women worked as designers, creating sketches for pieces which were executed by men; a few executed their own designs following the dictates of pure Arts and Crafts principles. Indeed, the large number of women who worked as professional and amateur metalsmiths is one of the outstanding features of the Arts and Crafts movement in Chicago.
"By the latter part of the nineteenth century, accomplishment in some form of creative self-expression, be it music, painting, or elocution, was considered so essential to women of rank that such subjects constituted nearly the entire curriculum of many female academies. In its efforts to place the applied arts on a par with the fine arts, the Arts and Crafts movement made metalworking, weaving, pottery-making, needlecraft and other handicrafts equally fashionable-and more modern-feminine pastimes. Some of Chicago's female practitioners fell into this category of hobbyists; others, however, must be considered professionals. By the late 1890s, large numbers of women attended the School of the Art Institute and little seemed to stop the more ambitious ones from renting their own studios. Since the Arts and Crafts movement concerned itself with items for the home, commonly recognized as 'woman's proper sphere,' it seemed quite natural for women to seek advancement through careers associated with the creation of home furnishings. In Chicago, the first small shops devoted exclusively to the production, exhibition, and sale of artistic articles made according to the new philosophy were established by women."
Only 1500 copies of Darling's exhibition catalog were originally printed in 1977. Copies today sell for anywhere from about $60 to well over $200, and can be found on sites such as addall.com.
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or here to go to the index of makers