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William Frederick - Taking the Work as It Comes

by Polly Ullrich - © Metalsmith Magazine - Spring 2005
Daniel Pederson's planishing hammer came into the possession of William Frederick in a way that still provokes emotion. Pederson, a master Norwegian silversmith renowned for his shy but courtly manners and deft hammer marks, was co-owner of the venerable Kalo Shop, one of Chicago's earliest and most prominent Arts and Crafts metalworking enterprises. Pederson died in 1970, the same year the hugely successful shop closed, after selling its handmade silver objects to three generations of Chicagoans. At its height, the shop employed 25 silversmiths and opened an outlet in New York City.

Chandelier, 1978
design based on Arts and Crafts architecture of Greene and Greene
sterling silver
32 x 26"
Photo: Robert Hurling

Later, Frederick, himself a Chicago silversmith, visited Robert Bower, the shop's former business manager. Bower pulled out an old box and opened it to reveal 32 carefully wrapped hammers for raising and planishing silver holloware, forged and fashioned by Daniel Pederson himself. "I know you can't buy a hammer like this anymore," Bower told Frederick, who had been Pederson's student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Then he wrapped them back up. "Placing the box on the floor, he closed it, and he leaned down and kissed the box," recalls Frederick, who had offered to buy them. "It brings tears to my eyes, thinking about that. He was letting go of those hammers."

Ring, 1970
commissioned by Marquette University as a gift for the Dalai Lama
14k gold, turquoise
band height 3 1/4"

Bower was actually saying good-bye to a pivotal era in Chicago art history, when the city became a focus of Arts and Crafts activity and led a renaissance in metalsmithing. Well-known Chicago silversmiths - people such as Clara Barck Welles, who founded Kalo, Robert Jarvie, and others - set up shop during the Arts and Crafts period but inspired a community of metal artists that existed well through Modernism and into the last half of the twentieth century. William Frederick is an heir to that tradition, and at age 83, he is old enough to remember and tell stories about the best of these artists. A craftsman/raconteur with a mischievous wit, he has filled commissions for silver objects in his one-person North Side Chicago workshop for the last 50 years.

Despite his age, Frederick is still operating at full professional tilt, pushing as hard as he can into demanding projects. Although he complains at times about arthritis, his hands are strong and his eyes sure. He epitomizes a life lived in the American crafts that emerged after World War II - he went to college as a returning veteran and then supported himself fully with studio work during his long career. Frederick has shunned university teaching ("I'm much too soft to be a teacher," he says), although he holds a degree in industrial design from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BFA and MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has met movie stars, politicians, and even a Catholic cardinal because of his commissions. He has exhibited his work periodically in national exhibitions. And in 2001, the Society of American Silversmiths awarded him its Hans Christensen Sterling Silversmith Lifetime Achievement Award.

Funerary Urn, 1987 bronze, sterling silver 12 x 5 1/2"
Photo: Robert Hurling

"Bill Frederick is the epitome of a fantastic silversmith," says Jeffrey Herman, the executive director of the Society of American Silversmiths. "He creates solid, heavy gauge work that is meant to be used, and even somewhat abused, that takes on character and is comfortable in its function." Herman estimates that there are perhaps only 50 to 75 professional non-academic silversmiths in the United States who make a livelihood solely by specializing in functional holloware and flatware. Most young metalsmiths concentrate on jewelry because it is more lucrative, and public taste has veered away from silver for use in the home.

Chalice with Square Wire Base. 1974
sterling silver
6 1/2 x 5"
Photo: Robert Hurling

As a young silversmith, Frederick tried to get hired at the Kalo Shop, but Daniel Pederson turned him down, saying that he would be paid only one dollar a day. "I would have taken it," Frederick admits. His studio is now filled with approximately 500 handmade polished steel tools acquired from historic metal workshops in Chicago - not just Pederson's hammers but the whole tool collection from the Kalo Shop and its stumps (which were rescued just before they went to a junkyard), tools from the well-known Art Metal Studios, from the Lebolt and Company shop, and tools once owned by the idiosyncratic and immensely talented Chicagoan Renard A. Koehnemann, among others.

Monteith, 1985
design based on an 18th-century Irish original
Britannica standard silver
8 1/2 x 14"
Photo. Robert Hurling

These tools are themselves small sculptures - heads, horses, irons, and stakes, forged and ground by the silversmiths themselves into liquid shapes, their surfaces butter smooth from decades of repeated use, the ash or maple handles of the hammers comfortable and balanced in the hand, with a small dent where the thumb nestles. They are what Frederick uses on a daily basis. The Chicago decorative arts historian Sharon Darling once affectionately referred to Frederick as "Son of Kalo." And indeed, the pieces that he produces from these tools have the Kalo spirit, if not exactly the Kalo look, resonating with Kalo's solidity, warmth, and a sweetness of line, but tempered by Frederick's own penchant for a reductive, Modernist simplicity.

It is Frederick's planishing hammer marks, applied at the very end of the hand-forming process for holloware and then left to dapple the surface of his finished pieces, which most pointedly extend his work from the Kalo tradition. It was these marks that Hans Christensen, the charismatic Danish metalsmithing teacher at the School for American Craftsmen in Rochester, New York, discouraged when Frederick enrolled in a summer program there in the 1950s (Christensen preferred a shinier, purer surface). But Frederick remembered how experienced silversmiths from Chicago never looked at the stamp at the bottom of a handmade silver object - they knew who formed it simply by identifying the planishing marks. So when Frederick went home to Chicago - he was born in nearby Sycamore, Illinois - he began leaving the hammer marks on his work again, as a reference to the humanism inherent in objects made by the hand, and as a sign of individual identity.

Sleeve for Orchid Flower Pot, 2000 sterling silver
5 x41/2"
Photo: Eric Ullrich

The aesthetic of Frederick's work is profoundly animated by his grounding in practical limits and ethical responsibilities. Before he found his calling as a metalsmith, Frederick as a very young man earned a reputation as a "pure designer" in an industrial design firm - rather than spewing out a wide selection of potential, optional designs for a new product, Frederick would concentrate his ideas into one single design that he could passionately argue was right.

The influence of this design training has informed all of his silversmithing work: serendipity has substantially formed his career in the crafts. Frederick has never turned down a commission - he calls it "taking the work as it comes" - and he affirms the aesthetic significance of limits imposed by the financial and functional needs of his clients. Oddly, this spurs him to greater inventiveness: "When I design, I never think how I am going to make something," he says. "I just assume it can be done. And when the design gets finalized, then I get serious and plan how I am going to do it." Recently, however, he happily received "a blue sky job": an attorney commissioned a silver object, without financial or design limitations of any kind. Frederick immediately set to work on a design for a sterling silver pierced vase with floating bezels for stones.

'Taking the work as it comes" has resulted in an extraordinarily varied body of functional silver work and now, at Frederick's age and level of experience, there is practically nothing that he cannot make in silver. Silver objects have historically been intertwined with ritual, and Frederick has produced numerous objects within that category - including liturgical vessels (more than 400 commissions for religious chalices), commemorative trophies for corporations, reproductions of historical silver objects for individuals and associations, and the heavy, engraved chains worn by university presidents during ceremonies.

Each object has a story behind it, which Frederick is willing to recount. Like the one about an eighteenth-century elaborately repouséed montieth, a huge punch bowl, which he reproduced in Britannica standard silver for an American descendant of an aristocratic Irish family after the original was lost during hard times. Or the sterling silver chandelier in the style of the Arts and Crafts architects Greene and Greene, which the owner transported from Pasadena, California, to Lake Tahoe, Nevada - and built a new dining room to accommodate. Or the heavy, domed turquoise and gold ring commissioned by Marquette University for the Dalai Lama - before they knew that he never wore jewelry. Or the chalice commissioned by a seminarian who ran off to Las Vegas to become a dancer.

Frederick has made hundreds of wedding rings, at least three dozen of which were lost when their owners went swimming. 'There are several in Lake Michigan," he says. 'There's one in the plumbing of Mexico City and there's one off the coast of Hawaii.

I know this because people come in and ask me to remake the ring - it must be important to them." Recently, Frederick was standing on the curb in front of his studio during the 2004 Chicago Marathon. Thousands of runners streamed by in the street. Suddenly a marathoner broke from the ranks, swerved toward him, and held up his left ring finger. "Remember me?" the guy said as he sped away. "You made my wedding ring."

"He looked vaguely familiar," says Frederick.

These stories underscore the sense of life and universal human experience resonant in Frederick's silver objects. Frederick's work could be described as an aesthetics of humanism - an aesthetics that is bound up with technique (how the work is made) and ethics (the moral values that went into its creation). The malleable characteristics of sterling silver allow it to be worked almost indefinitely in a circular process of repeatedly raising and annealing until the correct shape is achieved by continuously measuring it against a template made during the design process. The piece is then planished and, finally, polished. This careful process takes an enormous amount of time, and allows for the play of numerous judgments of quality and of conscience during the stages of forming.

When William Frederick raises or planishes a piece of silver, he is continuing a lifelong struggle for perfection that, ironically, he hopes will ultimately fail. He is, however, engaging in what the art writer Glenn Gordon has called "a theological rage for quality." "I'm not a machine," Frederick said one day, as he layered tiny hammer marks into the surface of a chalice with one of Pederson's hammers. "Machine-made things are cold, hard, and perfect. My work is not perfect, and that gives it a character or a human quality. But I'm striving for perfection, and that's the driving force, the challenge of trying to make it perfect. For 50 years, I've been struggling for that. And I've probably never succeeded, really. But when you're finished with the hammering, the piece has got to match the template, if you're really controlling it. It's easy to say at that point, 'Well, it's a little too big, but let's let that go. Who's going to know?' That's when your ethics get involved in this process." Frederick has deliberately proposed commissions for clients that required the production of two identical objects in order to test whether he could make an object that exactly corresponds to another one.

Frederick works at a stump cut from an old tree trunk that came from his family's farm in Sycamore. To watch Frederick raise or planish a chalice on an iron at this stump is to watch an intricate dance: his hand holding the hammer strikes the surface of the vessel positioned on the iron with assurance and control, while the other hand continuously rotates and lifts the silver object away, then repositions it exactly on the part of the iron that will bring out the form best during the next blow. Frederick calls this "hammering blind" - since the iron is hidden under the chalice, the right place to hit can only be sensed kinesthetically and by recognizing the sound of the hammer blows.

"Knowing where you are" on the iron, then, becomes a larger metaphor for an existential state achieved through the efficient and fluid techniques of the most rigorous of silver artists. The correct sound produced by a raising hammer is loud, deep, muscular, and hard as it bends the silver into a form. A planishing hammer, however, has a high, solid, clear ring when it hits the correct part of the iron. A metalsmithing workshop can be noisy from hammer sounds, but Frederick has said that when he is enmeshed within the multiple and continuous actions required by his work at the stump, he hears only the distinct quality of the hammer sounds, never the noise.

In this way of working, technique becomes an integral part of meaning. When Frederick preserves his planishing hammer marks, rather than filing them off into the sheer sweep of a mirrored surface, he builds singularly human characteristics into the work and signifies an aesthetic based on the qualities of intimacy, accessibility, and sensory experience. Frederick aims for what he calls a "fresh" surface, acquired by rapid, even, side-byside hammer marks that open out and bloom like brush strokes as the tool moves along the shimmering edge of the vessel. The marks must be placed exactly right, so that they do not need to be corrected, or muddied, by much polishing. The final object stands as a visual and haptic record of the gesture of those marks.

Frederick's work, while impeccable, stands for more than a perfect workmanship. Embedded in his objects are the personal qualities required to gain command of his field: longevity, perseverance, and the slow accretion of mastery. Despite the influence of Daniel Pederson, Frederick has traversed the trajectory of his long career primarily alone. "What I learned in the studio, I learned basically by myself," he says. "If you're working alone, you learn to make decisions yourself, and often you go the wrong way. And you never forget that. It's a learning process. In a sense, that's what life should bean unfolding."


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