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Tom Muir - The Forest and the Trees

by Marjorie Simon - ©Metalsmith Magazine - Summer 2004

"When any useful thing is designed the shape of it is in no way imposed on the designer, or determined by any influence outside him .... All the works of man look as they do from his choice, and not from necessity."'

"Being next to a big old tree has always been one of my favorite places."

Tom Muir

Universal Joint Bracelet, 2003
sterling silver, nickel, stainless steel
3 1/8 x 2 5/8 x 1"
Photo: Tim Thayer

First impressions can be misleading. Take Tom Muir, for instance. In person, he seems like a mischievous younger brother with an easy-going southern drawl. His affable persona masks a tenderness and grace that he expresses in refined and often witty holloware. Muir's work hovers between craft and design, science and nature. To understand it, look to the forest and the trees- the forest for its interrelatedness and the ecosystems that inhabit the physical space, and the trees for their symmetry, their geometry, and their spirituality.

Muir has always felt strongly about trees. As a boy he was comforted by a "best friend tree." Now he shepherds 24 acres of forestland in the high grasslands of Ohio , where a cold dry climate and fertile glacial soils support forests of hardwood trees. The dominant ecosystems that influence his life and work are anchored by an unusually large variety of indigenous species, some of which are estimated to be hundreds of years old.

The Definition of is (espresso server)
2000
sterling silver, aluminum, acetal
11 1/4 x 2 3/4 x 5"
Photo: Tim Thayer
Born in 1956, Muir grew up in suburban Atlanta , hence the long vowels and soft speech. His early childhood was spent in that contradictory period of American history known as the 1950s, and he was a teenager (luring the Vietnam era. But his real roots are found in a value system of craftsmanship and utility; from his father he absorbed a work ethic in which one never cuts corners.

Though he wasn't aware of it during his childhood, Muir's family tree was populated with craftsmen and metalworkers, including two blacksmiths, jewelers, a boat builder, and a glassblower. Encouraged from an early age to express his creativity, Muir studied drafting in high school and then drawing at Georgia State University . His first college art class was team-taught by Richard Mafong and the late Jem Freyaldenhoven. In graduate school at Indiana University he studied with Randy Long and Leslie Leupp. The influence of Leupp's airy and linear sculpture and objects is most evident in Muir's work of the 1980s. What attracted him to making jewelry were things that had always interested him, specifically technique, process, challenge. Muir thought learning metalsmithing would he like studying a difficult musical instrument: if he could do that, he could do anything.

Structure, nature, and balance underlie Muir's engineering and are represented aesthetically by his use of mirroring and interrelated forms. He looks for the structural or transitional elements in the natural arrangement of things, and the objects he makes reveal that combination of man-made and natural forms. He considers the totality: the Woods, soil types, the geometry of nature. What is the temperature of the water? Is it running water or still?

Domestic objects such as tea infusers and tea servers are based on the harmonious symbiosis of air ecosystem. What distinguishes Muir's work from other nature-based designs is its elegant subtext. A coffee pot in the shape of a tree wouldn't be nearly as interesting as the organic, often sexualized androgynous globes that bulge from Muir's containers. The perfect forms of Muir's holloware may seem removed from random patterns of leaves and branches, but think of the moment in Mondrian's Visual development when the tree fractured into lines, and you have an idea of Muir's preoccupation with the perfect reflection: the moment when reality and reflection or illusion come together. He considers vertical symmetry, the dialogue between object and image, the nature of boundaries and inversion, and what it means to reflect." Muir's latest containers, both the tire tea infusers and the larger teapots, exemplify these recurring themes. They comment on the traditions of making as well as changing social mores.

Silver has been a part of American domestic ritual and tradition since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when bourgeois families used coffee and tea services, serving utensils, and other silver domestic objects in imitation of their English Counterparts. A robust American silver design and manufacturing industry gross a, people of means were no longer satisfied to live with homemade utensils and furnishings, and fine craftsmen became a part of the social-cultural­economic nexus. The wealthy had sterling silver gravy hosts, porringers, and crumb trays, and the middle classes had silverplated items of similar design. Even the big silver designers such as Gorham and Tiffany created whimsical and ornate holloware and utensils according to the prevailing design motifs of the time. Commercially available modernist pitchers from the 1930s seem close cousins of Muir's vessels.

Tazza, 1992
copper, bronze, brass, sterling silver, copper place, steel
20 x 10 x10 "
Photo: Rod Wheless
Tea Infuser, 1993
sterling silver
6 1/4 x 1 1/2 x 1 1/2"
Photo: Tim Thayer

This history forms the deep background of Muir's vessels. Muir's design motifs have ranged from medieval mace to nurturing hand to natureinspired spirals and leaves. He commemorates the tradition that produced them, recalling them as commonplace objects that are recognized even if they're no longer in everyday use, He uses the ideal of an elegant silver coffee server to create a bawdy, sexually ambiguous vessel in The Definition of Is (2000), linking an old-fashioned form with one of America's most embarrassing moments, the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle. Its sexualized contours hint at escapades lurking in the best of homes. More than one of Muir's vessels intimates the moment of sexual differentiation, or androgyny. In choosing a provocative title, Muir threatens to undermine the seriousness of his intent. Viewers may fix on the deception, either than, as Muir intends, the immanent. By this he means "the moment when sexual principles come into the universe and there is an awareness of being that is erotic." In this case the title, though amusing, is a little misleading.

Tea infusers are popular domestic objects for silversmiths. Like the black Bakelite telephone, they are easily recognizable, and their obvious function provides a little structure around which much experimentation can take place. They're not so serious that they cannot support a playful treatment and they are a favorite of students everywhere. Muir has made many of them, often paired with larger teapots, including the Changing Hand (2002) version and the silver Watercraft (2003) infuser with copper Watercourse (2003) teapot.

Watercourse (teapot) 2003
copper, brass aluminum 12 1/2 x 4 x 7 1/4"
Photo: Tim Thayer

Changing Hand (teapot), 2002
copper brass 12 x 2 1/2 x 7"
Photo: Tim Thayer

The tea infuser gives Muir a chance to work in a smaller, though no less challenging, format, and to comment on the value of utility and the interrelationship of all things. In 1991, he used sterling silver, giving his designs a coolformalism. A decade later, the Changing Hand Tea Infuser (followed by the Changing Hand Tea Pot in 2002) warms with the addition of gold and encoded nature references. An oak leaf on the palm side signifies strength, masculinity, and tenacity and the transformational nature of seed into mature tree, a common metaphor for growth (acorns into mighty oaks). It also refers to the practice of finding bits of history in fields, old man-made objects that become part of the natural landscape. The perforated side where the tea drains out contains the rings of the tree that reveal its age. In the Watercraft tea infuser, some holes appear as a shadow pattern beneath the leaf and others are on the ends of the fingers and thumb. By making them flattened ovals rather than cylinders, the vessels have two distinct sides with two related images-and an implied relationship between them.

In the mid-1980s, Muir openly explored the relationship of man and machine in works that were more mechanistic. Although he is still interested in machines, Muir's work now is more humanistic and relational, as shown in Watercraft and Watercourse. His skill and fascination with working parts leads him to make a springloaded door on the tea infusers: turn the thumb to open the chamber and fill with tea. As each piece is being formulated in his mind, Muir considers what it means and what he wants to convey, that is, the "essence" of the object, the vesselness of it. His skillful drawings and paper models precede the complex assembly of all kinds of domestic and personal objects, including eyeglasses, cups, salt and pepper shakers, and even a Hanukkiah, the nine-cupped candelabrum used during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

Espresso Server, 1991
sterling silver, nickel, oxidized aluminum
10 1/2 x 5 1/2 x 3 1/4"
White House Collection of American Crafts
Photo: Tom Muir

Muir's vessels have continued to swoop and dive into the 1990s and beyond, some like Komelia Okim's gliding figures, others like Leupp's pipes and lamps. They recall the design aesthetic of the mid-1950s-60s known as Populuxe. The design of Populuxe objects promised fun and luxury, not a severe functionalism -appearance was more important than utility, It was anti-arts-and-crafts, and characterized by a desire to eschew the historic, he traditional, and the ethnic, and to embrace the fantasy of the new. The most salient example of this aesthetic is, of course, automobile design and the romance of jet engine-inspired fins. Growing up in the car culture of the south certainly contributed to Muir's aesthetic, but he was also influenced by domestic objects of the time such as his mother's aluminum egg cooker. He remembers it resembling "a space ship from cheap 1950s sci-fi movies,' and that shape can be found in more than one vessel, including an espresso server (1991) in the White House Collection.

Muir's 1994 entry in "Design Visions International: Directions in Class, American Jewellery and Metalwork , Australia " is illustrative. In the Tazza (dish), a twisted Nine topped with a spiky caterpillar emerges from a satellite dish that is itself embellished A with a tuning fork, as if Jack's beanstalk culminated in an insect from outer space. At the time, Muir was teaching at the Center for creative Studies in Detroit (now the College for Creative Studies), which gave commentators Sarah Bodine and Michael Dunas reason to call Muir "a boulevardier from Detroit" and to frame his choice of holloware in terms of the many possibilities inherent in the larger format.

It is in these larger objects that "one can see the traditional enthusiasm Americans have for the highly individualistic, the iconoclastic, and vernacular and the pastiche that form then- own language of independence from classic European tradition.... Muir's design sensibilities for elegant functional pitchers and Cal borders on the flare of an auto body customiser." Of course Muir was hardly the first designer to incorporate the romance of speed. In 1925, silversmith Johannes Steltman was inspired to by a racecar to create a tea service of enamel, silver, and semi-precious stones (although in truth it looks more like a fish And as recently as 1984 Austrian Hans Hollein designed a tea service for Alessi called Aircraft Carrier.

Sarah Bodine brought the maker back into the discussion of design, when she posed the provocative question of "whether holloware's sculptural possibilities derive from the inside or the outside of the piece, whether the creative process pushes the skin outwards or whether the skin is raised to envelop and Calm the turbulent atmosphere of its interior space. Where does the true character of holloware lie?" No one raises, sinks, folds, or encloses a vessel without taking on the history of holding Muir is always aware of working back and forth, inside and out. His affection for Populuxe expression is sustained by a maker's concern for meaning. Makers of holloware take on the issue of containment from the outset, as Lisa Gralnick pointed out in her excellent essay in the 2001 Exhibition in Print.' The vessel is both container and contained, with the interior space as important as exterior. In contrast to, say, Hat-Ian Butt's incense burners, which seem to personify serenity, Muir's undulating, often asymmetrical forms seem to just barely contain some perverse imp, or energy, waiting to jump out.

Tom Muir's silver containers connect man and nature. Rather than separate natural forms from machined ones, Muir reminds us of the unity that link, biology to physics, the sympathy of hi between the atom and the cosmos, the cell and the organism. Biology is both the impetus mad the recipient of engineering. Organisms are a collection of pumps, valves, filters, pipes, hinges and ball joints. Universal joint Bracelet, made in 2003, seems more closely related to the internal structure of a limb or wing than to a statement about adornment for its external form. Gleaming silver articulates its complex movement and flexion, unlike the actual wrist whose connections will wear out in a few thousand repetitive motions. Today, bionic physiology covers a titanium hill joint with literal skin. An integral hinge is invisible on the exterior ,if a coffee per or tea infuser. Neither will move smoothly without careful engineering. Muir references nature in an oblique way, glancing off the literal, so it's unclear whether that bulge is a breast or an engine cowling. Following the model of the tree whose hidden roots are equal in size to the visible branches, Muir's deep knowledge of nature supports his visible mechanics. When he chooses, he can make an anatomically correct white oak leaf, or just suggest leafness with a more generic form.

"The observations and discoveries I make [in the woods] every day are important in my work. I try to view the bigger picture along with some of the smaller details that usually go unnoticed." To facilitate his meditations, Muir cuts trails so he can visit the "largest, most impressive trees."' One chinkapin oak spreads its full majestic crown because there are no neighboring trees to compete for sell, water, or sun. A tree with a four-foot diameter trunk carries a lot of history within its cells. The details Muir includes in his vessels also contain a history, whether personal, such as the oak leaf in Changing Hand Tea Infuser, or social, as in the many coffee and tea servers, or even political, as in The Definition of Is. By adopting the hand as his most recent metaphor, Muir brings human agency and reference to craftsmanship back to the fore. The hand raised in greeting seems to arrest or caution the viewer as well.

Industrial designer David Pye once questioned functionalism by taking apart the questions about what a thing "does," demonstrating the folly of imagining that there can be only one answer. Muir's working philosophy is to challenge form in the context of utility. He looks at "use" or function and tries to see how many ways it can be imagined. It is often noted that art looks backward and forward at the same time. – Tom Muir's trajectory from the "boulevardier of Detroit " to snails and tree rings moves with the times, but looks over its shoulder all the same.

Marjorie Simon is a metalsmith and writer based in New Jersey.


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