Over the last several years museums from around the country have been quietly purchasing sterling hollow ware made by Cleveland silversmith Frederick Miller. One of the most recent acquisitions was a silver and ebony pitcher collected by the National Museum of American Art for its Renwick Gallery. In fact, during my visit to his studio and home, Miller apologized for only being able to show me one bowl and one silver service in his personal collection. The reason for this quiet rush to acquire Miller’s work is not that his style is suddenly in vogue (again); rather, it is the realization of the value and importance of this artist’s creativity and originality. It is an acknowledgement that Miller’s works are, in fact, classics among works by mid-twentieth century, American silversmiths.
Although collectors have recognized his achievements for 45 years, what interest does Miller’s work hold for metalsmith? The general style of Miller’s hollow ware is rooted in European and Scandinavian ideas of form and function introduced in the United States in the late 1940’s. The artist’s forms stood out then as they stand out now, as some of the best of the genre. Frederick Miller put an American face on the influential style associated with the historic Handy and Harman Workshops.
Fred Miller’s story is interwoven with professional pursuits, friendships, and a devotion to preserve his creative abilities despite numerous pressures that could have compromised the integrity of his art. Perhaps the most important single element that has allowed this integrity has been his friendship with the artist John Paul Miller. This personal and professional relationship began roughly 56 years ago when the two Millers began separate pursuits in art and design at the Cleveland Art Institute in 1936. To this day both Millers work side by side in a well organized studio in Fred’s home, outside Cleveland.
In the 1930s, Frederick Miller found himself on a road into uncharted artistic territory. As a child, Miller had been fascinated with making model airplanes, but his interest was in technique more than creativity. He was a member of a national society and he concentrated on replicating scale models of non-flying airplanes. Two artistic influences in his family were his grandfather, an inventor who made beautiful objects in wood, and his aunt, who was a “capable painter” and with whom he spent some time.
Miller’s involvement with metals began when he learned how to hard solder from a friend who had learned the skill at a summer camp. In Miller’s high school chemistry lab he refined the new found skill of using an alcohol lamp and blowpipe. In a demonstration of parental support, Fred’s mother traded small batches of her silver, souvenir spoons to a local manufacturer in return for silver sheet. Fred would then experiment with making watch-faces, inlaid jewelry and even rudimentary, seamed hollow ware. After high school, Fred worked as a professional photographer for 3 years in Akron, Ohio, and he won several awards for his photo-murals. In 1936 he entered the Cleveland Art Institute in pursuit of a career in design.
Although Miller did not take any jewelry courses while at the Institute, he did experiment with enameling with Kenneth Bates who had joined the faculty in the late thirties. Confident with his design abilities and with the metalsmithing skills he had learned from as many sources as he could find, Fred sought a position in the silversmith and design area of Potter and Mellen, Inc., a fine furnishing and jewelry store founded in Cleveland in 1899. As there was no opening at the time, Miller turned to teaching at the high school level for a year before enlisting in the Army in 1941. Miller was placed in the Signal Corps (Intelligence), and he remained there for nearly 5 years.
Within two years of leaving the military, the artist entered into four life-long commitments. The first was his employment at Potter and Mellen, Inc. of Cleveland beginning in 1946. The second was a return to teaching, this time at the Cleveland Institute of Art. The third was the pursuit of his own works of art in silver. The fourth, though certainly not the least, was his family, which by 1946 consisted of Mary, his wife, and their two children.
Miller joined the Cleveland Art Institute as an instructor in silversmithing and jewelry in 1947, and he continued teaching there until his retirement in 1975. With the strong support of the school’s director, Laurence Schmeckebier, Miller’s personal work flourished. He used the Institute’s studio as his primary work space until he built a studio in his home in the mid-1960s. When the artist first joined the school he reorganized the metals department. Later, when a new building was built for the school he designed a completely new metals studio, including facilities for hollow ware. The artist is proud that at one time he had former students working as designers in every major silver company in North America. A number of his students would also become chief designers in industries such as automobile manufacturing; at that time the connection between craft and industrial design was much closer than it seems to be today.
Fred Miller enjoyed teaching very much and for many years he was able to create his personal work in the school’s shop in the evening and on weekends. Because of both his teaching schedule and his job at Potter and Mellen, studio time was precious. His numerous commitments also meant that his work output was modest. In 1975 Fred decided to retire, in large part, because he felt there was a change in the collective student body. In essence, his students wanted something that was out-of-sync with his own ideas concerning materials, workmanship and design. Perhaps he also had sensed the impending shift away from the methodological, rational attitude of the Scandinavian and Modern influences that had predominated during much of his career.
The year Fred began teaching, he entered and received an award in the historic Cleveland May Show, sponsored by the Cleveland Museum of Art. He continued to receive awards in this show for 21 consecutive years. Because the May Show drew national attention, Miller did well. The artist also still speaks appreciatively of the vision of the museum’s director, Dr. William Milliken. “He was the most universal appreciator of all, [of] everybodies’ efforts, regardless of whether they were [in] fine arts, crafts, sculpture, …whatever it was.” Beginning in 1949, the Museum was the first institution to collect Miller’s work, and eventually they came to own 9 works. Yet, well beyond the Museum’s patronage, Milliken promoted Miller’s work, helping the artist build a clientele. Miller has enjoyed a steady demand for his works in both jewelry and hollow ware for decades.
Fred Miller’s relationship with Potter and Mellen, Inc. lasted 31 years. Beginning in 1946 with an offer from Mr. Mellen to become the principle designer and Vice President, Fred thrived. He eventually became President and later an owning partner of the firm. At one time, the silversmith shop employed up to four jewelers and silversmiths, making stock and custom jewelry, ecclesiastical silver, tea and coffee pots, and serving pieces. During his time at Potter and Mellen, Miller brought in Solve Hallqvist, a silversmith who had been trained in Sweden by Baron Erik Flemming. Miller especially enjoyed designing, which included interaction with clients. The challenge for him was to find a design that the customer was pleased with while also satisfying his own artistic sensibilities. He eventually shifted his concentration from hollow ware to the design of custom jewelry, with a particular interest in “intaglios.” Miller traveled with some frequency to Europe and Scandinavia as a buyer for the company, searching for lines of jewelry, hollow ware, and flatware as well as crystal for the store. Miller evidences great pride in the work he did for this unique establishment.
Above all else, it seems Fred Miller enjoyed the material: sterling silver. He felt it could do anything, and to this day he loves the stretching method of raising, which is one of the most rigorous of the silversmith’s techniques. Fred was widely credited with re-establishing the stretching technique in America in the 1950s. He has been cited in a number of publications, and he wrote a technical article on the process for Craft Horizons. Fred has also made two technical films in which he demonstrates the stretching process.
As much as he was attracted to the technique, however, he would hardly claim to have rediscovered it. In fact, the artist gives credit for his inspiration and knowledge to Baron Flemming, who led the second Handy and Harman workshop in 1948. Miller had declined Margaret Craver’s invitation to attend the first workshop, feeling it was not the right time to go. A technical film by William Bennett, who led the first conference, helped Miller decide to attend the later workshop, and it was there that Baron Flemming completely changed the artist’s outlook on design and technique. It was, perhaps, due to Miller’s lack of formal training that he so readily absorbed the technical and philosophical suggestions Flemming offered. “Baron Flemming was the most inspirational teacher I have ever known and the short contact I had with him gave me a clearer insight into the potentiality of the material than I’m sure I could have obtained from any other teacher.”
Looking back from the vantage point of the 1990s, Miller’s style and forms seem traditional or Modernist. However, in the 1950s, he was pushing the style and content of metalsmithing toward new boundaries. Chief among these developments was his exploration into the use of asymmetry. Before the Handy and Harman conference, all Miller had known was cylindrical and even form: the “logical” form for seamed hollow ware. Yet after his experience with Baron Flemming, Miller allowed raising techniques to aid in establishing the shape of the form, enjoying the concept and practice of more free-form design. He also enjoyed the freedom of not making sketches, which he never really cared to do. These newly learned skills allowed the artist to participate in the contemporary art world by creating – within certain functional boundaries – artistic abstractions which were becoming prevalent in the artistic crucible of the 1950s.
By the beginning of the 1950s, the artist had received national acclaim through exhibitions, awards, articles, and films. At that time, he was a mature artist in his forties and he was included in many of the early exhibitions that sought to define a new craft era, including: Contemporary Form in Hand-wrought Silver at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1950; Fiber–Clay–Metal, 1953, and 1954; the Wichita Nationals; and Objects USA. Two important early solo exhibitions were held at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in 1961 and at the Henry Gallery of the University of Washington in 1968.
Miller is best known for silverwork that consists of free-form bowls; a series of bottle forms; elegant, candlestick groupings; and a variety of water pitchers, vases, and coffee and tea services. The free-form bowls are of special significance as they appear to have broken some of the rules of design and decorative applications in hollow ware which were then in place. Going beyond the lack of a predetermined profile or shape, and in an unusual partnership between technique and design, Miller applied a field of flowing engraved lines to the interior of the bowl. This accentuated the overall undulating form, extending the aesthetic depth of the bowl and creating a new dimension in silversmithing.
Miller was largely unaware of the existence of any narrative content in these works, however, a case may be made that they reveal his love of nature and its processes: a love which was developed through years of wilderness trips in the Western regions of the country. Miller did not work at Potter and Mellen in the summers as it was simply too hot, and at that time, there was no air conditioning at the store or at the school. The academic schedule also allowed for time off in the summer and Fred and John Paul often took that time to venture into the untrampled wilderness. Just as it seems obvious that John Paul’s jewelry represents a deeply felt love of nature, so too do Fred’s bowls remind one of rivers, rocks, trails, flowing water, and lakes. It is this author’s theory that Fred’s love of free-forms was derived from these trips into nature, and the strenuous technique of stretching metal, used for much of Fred’s personal works, gave access to the spirit of solitude and rigor he so enjoyed in nature. This technique thus provided the balance to offset a full schedule of teaching and of working for Potter and Mellen.
The bottle forms are also reminiscent of more free-form aesthetics, even though they were designed via actual scale models. These models, which were carved in wood and layered with plasticine, allowed calculations for a suitable amount of metal to be made. The bottles were asymmetrical and severely necked-in and applied, decorative elements were used to add distinctive interest to the relatively small forms.
It can be said that Miller’s vases, pitchers, and candle sticks are as classically elegant now as when they were first created. All of Miller’s silverwork is well made, structurally strong and respectful of the material. It is a mistaken conception that works by silversmiths such as Miller and Hans Christensen, prominent in the fifties and sixties, were designed to be purely modernist and functional. Fred Miller contends that, above all else, the material must be worked with integrity. With this admonition in mind any artist may push the boundaries of form, content, and function. John Marshall, a former student of Miller’s, is just one whose creativity in silver continues to celebrate this noble material and the legacy of Fred Miller. Marshall remembers Miller as “a real craftsman, possessed of a dedication that makes him unable to accept anything less than the best. He was a mentor par excellence.”
Fred Miller’s influence is important not only because of his forms and techniques, but also because of his passion for his work and the way he has lived his life. In both his life and his work one can see an ethic based on the balance between prudent decisions, work, personal creativity, family, and the value of nature. Keeping the sparks of creativity and personal integrity alive, as Miller has done, provides lessons that are still relevant to other artists working today.
“I’d like to believe that the most important aspect of my own work would be a consistency of feeling I try to give each piece….I cannot feel that [the] cultural or physical environment is unimportant, but I do believe that any creative person is largely motivated by something much more personal and intangible, and perhaps not definable.”
It is symbolic that on one of Fred and John Paul’s earliest vacations to the Western wilderness they observed a young fellow across a lake, climbing a rock formation, and taking photographs with a bulky camera. They learned later that the photographer was Ansel Adams, an aspiring artist. Adams embodied the courage of a true pioneer, using his vision to celebrate nature and to reshape American society while practicing respect for his chosen medium, At 80 years of age, Frederick Miller continues to enjoy nature and to hold on to his vision in his chosen work of jewelry and silversmithing.
William Baran-Mickle is a writer and metalsmith living near Rochester, New York.
All personal information is taken from a taped interview between Fred Miller, John Paul Miller and William and Nancy Baran-Mickle on July 30, 1992 at the Miller’s studio in Brecksville, OH.
I’d like to thank Sarah Bodine, former Editor of Metalsmith, for encouraging me to pursue this article; Betsy Douglas who generously shared her own research on Mr. Miller from 1987; and Jim Mazurkewicz who was a student of Mr. Miller, taught along side him for five years, and who now works as a jeweler and silversmith at Potter and Mellen, Inc. Finally, I greatly appreciate John Paul Miller’s invaluable advice and recollections in support of his colleague.
For a biography of John Paul miller which includes a discussion of his relationship with Fred Miler see: Roland Crawford, “Master Metalsmith: John Paul Miller”, Metalsmith, 1984, vol. 4, #4, pp. 22 – 25.
Taped interview between Fred Miller, John Paul Miller and Betsy Douglas, 1987.
One of Miller’s assets has been that he has always sought out techniques of interest to him. For example, after art school he learned metal spinning and he “picked up” rudimentary engraving from a brother-in-law. Before assuming duties at Potter and Mellen, Miller visited a number of East Coast silver manufacturers, of these, Stone Associates of Massachusetts was most influential.
For important statements concerning the relationship between crafts education, career, and industry, see: Arthur J. Pulos, “Metalsmithing in the 1940s and 1950s: A Personal Recollection”, Metalsmith, Spring 1983, pp. 20 – 23. (Miller met Pulos in 1948.)
Most of Miller’s hollow ware was raised using the stretching method. A technical account of this process may be found in, “Fred Miller Makes a Silver Bowl”, Craft Horizons, 1956, vol. 16 #6, pp. 37 – 39.
The National Silversmithing Workshop Conference was sponsored by Handy and Harman Co. of New York, between 1948 and 1951. The 1948 conference was lead by William Bennett, who concentrated on English methods of crimping and angle raising. The 1949 conference was lead by Baron Flemming, silversmith to the King of Sweden. He concentrated on the stretching method. For an article that describes the 1949 workshop with process photographs of a bowl by Fred Miller, see: Margaret Craver, “An ancient method goes Modern”, Craft Horizons, Winter 1949, vol. 9, #4, pp. 15 – 17.
Irvin Whitaker, Crafts and Craftsmen, Dubuque: Michigan State University, 1967, p. 89.
“John Marshall: A Conversation with Patterson Sims”, Metalsmith, 1991, vol. 11, #3, p. 16.
Whitaker, p. 90.