Starting in the early 1950s, Gerda Flöckinger worked to change the face of British jewelry. Others joined her fledgling crusade, only to drift off to other fields, or to other countries, where the contemporary jewelry movement was more established. Only she persevered, relentlessly urging British jewelry into the modern age. Today, 37 years after she first began to study jewelrymaking, she remains a creator of influential work.
Gerda Flöckinger, a native Austrian who came to England in 1938, was introduced to contemporary crafts while on a trip through Italy in 1952. Two years after she left St. Martin’s School of Art, where she studied painting, she saw modern ceramics and furniture at the Biennale in Venice and suddenly realized there was something really new in crafts. Later in Ravenna, it came to her in a flash that she must learn to make modern jewelry. “I was very modern in my thinking,” Gerda Flöckinger says today. “I wanted to change the face of everything, to create a whole new imagery in England.”
Upon returning to London, she enrolled in jewelry classes at the Central School of Art and Design. Fortuitously, a unique experiment in teaching had begun there. Once a week, artists, including the painters Richard Hamilton, Mary Kessell, Victor Pasmore and Partick Heron, were to teach the otherwise technically oriented jewelry course for students apprenticed in the trade. The artists were quite successful, translating their abstract visions into jewelry. According to Gerda Flöckinger, a student exhibition in 1952 contained “a terrific explosion of interesting work.” But for the apprentices, the lessons taught in this course proved ephemeral. As soon as they returned to the trade, they were forced to abandon their experimental designs. However for Gerda Flöckinger, the effect of these teachings was profound: “Without this class I don’t know whether my own ideas would have developed in a similar way.”
This period of experimental teaching lasted only two years. By 1954, several of the original artist-teachers had left to pursue other goals, and the program began to flounder. This same year, Gerda Flöckinger left the school and took a job factory designing fashion jewelry (“Mind blowingly boring” is how she describes it). She only lasted eight weeks, at which time , she set up a bench in her kitchen and began the long struggle to establish herself as a studio jeweler. She continued to take classes at the Central in order to have access to the tools and equipment that she could not afford to buy. Slowly, commissions trickled in as well as opportunities to exhibit. In 1955, Marv Quant asked several of the Central’s jewelry students, including Gerda Flöckinger to design contemporary pieces for the new boutique she was opening. Liberty department store bought some of Flöckinger’s enamel dishes, and her work was included in a Christmas show at the ICA (Institute for Contemporary Arts). But her most significant breakthrough came in 1958 when Graham Hughes, Art Director (1951-1980) of the Goldsmiths’ Hall in London, purchased her jewelry for the Hall’s collection.
At this time, her work was very influenced by Scandinavian design. She Favored smooth, polished surfaces and simple hard-edged Forms. She was aware of the jewelry being made in America’ as she was given a subscription to Craft Horizons. Although she was not directly influenced by what she saw in it, she admired the work of Sam Kramer and many others.
Her reputation continued to grow to such an extent that, in 1960, the Victoria and Albert Museum bought two of her pieces. These were the first pieces of contemporary jewelry the museum acquired. In 1961, six of her pieces were included in the “International Exhibition of Modern Jewelry 1890-1961” organized by Graham Hughes at the Goldsmiths’ Hall. According to Gerda Flöckinger, this show received much publicity and by focusing attention on modern jewelry, was the start of the British revolution in this field.
The following year, Gerda Flöckinger was invited to teach at the Hornsey School of Art in London (now Middlesex Polytechnic), where there was a newly appointed, progressive thinking principal who wanted to turn Hornsey into a major center for art education. Unlike the Central and a few other schools, where the concept of art was introduced into traditional trade classes, this was to be Britain’s first intentionally experimental jewelry course. Because it was not a degree granting program, Gerda Flöckinger was given free reign to do as she pleased. Thus, studio work was augmented by drawing of natural and life forms, projects dealing with color, etc. To learn stone setting, engraving and other highly skilled techniques the students were sent to evening classes at a trade school. It took a few years before the students’ work began to show promise, but by 1965 the work had improved to such a degree that Graham Hughes bought the entire contents of a student exhibition for the Goldsmiths’ Hall.
Hornsey provided Gerda Flöckinger with a forum from which she could espouse her ideas about contemporary jewelry. She only taught for six years, but in that brief period her influence was far reaching. David Poston who, along with Charlotte de Syllas, is probably her best known student, chose to attend Hornsey because Gerda Flöckinger was there, even though it had no degree status. As late as 1967, when Poston entered Hornsey, she was the lone alternative to what Poston describes as “saw it up and stick it together” modern jewelry. It was her integrity, her absolute standards and her passionate engagement with her work that influenced her students, not the style in which she was working. “I was keen that nobody should work like me at all,” she recalls. According to Poston, her influence was “as a master who broke barriers.”
It was while teaching at Hornsey that her jewelry began to move away from Scandinavian design. Quite by chance, she discovered fusing, which radically changed her work. “One day in 1963 my work was going very poorly and I was depressed,” she says. “I was mucking about with pieces on the bench – strands of silver and rectangles which I twisted up into a bead. Then I fused bits of all different sizes onto it. I thought it was awful. But I continued to work and finally threaded the beads up and thought, you can’t possibly work by melting things together. But today I still use fused beads, only now they’re more developed and refined.” For a number of years fusing was an experimental process for Gerda Flöckinger . “I didn’t know what the metal would do,” she says. “I made a terrific load of mistakes. I didn’t have sufficient control over the process. In 1974, I started a necklace for the Royal Scottish Museum. I made two disc pieces with diamonds, pearls and opals, fused silver details and gold dust. But then, the next discs I made failed. I couldn’t repeat the process and didn’t know why. So I made a completely different necklace for the museum in three weeks. I wasn’t until the mid 70s that I actually figured out how to control fusion. And I realized that it was quite easy.”
Gerda Flöckinger left Hornsey in 1968, when a rebellion by the students caused the school to temporarily shut down. She now had the necessary time to do her own work, something she had neglected while teaching. In 1968, Graham Hughes offered Gerda Flöckinger her first solo exhibition at the Craft Centre of Great Britain (now Contemporary Applied Arts), where he was the chairman. In this show, she exhibited her fused pieces as well as some work done in her old Scandinavian-inspired style. She incorporated rough, semiprecious stones and stone that she cut and carved herself. To Ralph Turner, this exhibition appeared to mark a turning point in her career, and Gerda Flöckinger agrees. “It was the first time in six years that I devoted myself exclusively to my own work,” she says, “and I guess the results did prove to be a turning point for me.” Despite Gerda Flöckinger’s claim that she lacked control over fusing at this time, Turner felt that her technique had developed considerably since her first efforts in 1963. He characterized her work as having a visual, poetic tranquility.
It was shortly after this exhibition that she abandoned the Scandinavian style and devoted herself completely to fusing, her hallmark. The inspiration for these fused pieces arose from the pieces themselves – from watching the metal and observing what would become of elements when they were heated. Her approach has always been more instinctive than intellectual. She worked in isolation and was not influenced by other artists.
This show led to an offer from the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1971, for its first solo exhibition of work by a living jeweler. This exhibition proved a resounding success and was reviewed in several influential journals. Apollo described her designs as characterized by “a complex intertwining of sinewy linear movements, rather like tendrils from an exotic climbing plant with a prehensile enclosing grip.” In Connoisseur, Caroline Shaw observed that the “Scandinavian edges have softened into romanticism with a wealth of precise but extravagant detailing. There is nothing vulgar or flashy in her new work…She fuses or solders gold with silver and sometimes oxidizes it with different metals to get a lovely radiance.” Design noted that the turning point to her work was when she started fusing. “Her jewelry at once discarded its rather tight, formal appearance and began to take on a much more subtle life of its own. The once smooth, regular surfaces have become pitted and scarred – often overlaid with gold dust or garnished with fine scrolls of wire in a manner recalling the decorative work of Klimt and Viennese Art Nouveau.” Gerda Flöckinger acknowledges this affinity with Art Nouveau, although she leans toward the abstract rather than the stylization of natural forms.
Until 1975 Gerda Flöckinger continued to explore different directions in her work. But then she felt it was time to refine what she had already done. For the past 15 years she has been producing jewelry that is highly sophisticated and refined in the style of her early, more primitive fused pieces. Because the fusion process can never be totally controlled, her work maintains the spontaneity that gave her earlier pieces such life.
“I work on evocation,” Gerda Flöckinger says of her creative process. “I try to evoke certain emotions, certain feelings. I’m looking for a sense of excitement or zing. This is very difficult to achieve and I always feel while I’m working on a piece that it dies many times. But with luck, when it’s all finished and all the elements are there and all the colors are finally put in, it will have zing.”
It is ironic that today this woman who virtually invented contemporary jewelry in Britain is sometimes accused by her younger peers of being too traditional. Gerda Flöckinger dismisses these charges, although she confesses that they anger her. “Very early on I tried using materials other than silver and gold, so during the late 70s when people started using alternative materials it didn’t tempt me. I worked in acrylics in the 60s but it was more for projects than an end in itself. When titanium first came out, I thought it was terribly pretty but it has just become a fashion – a fashion which has already past.”
Today, Flöckinger’s philosophy towards contemporary jewelry may seem out of place in a world where trendiness reigns supreme, but it is well worth contemplating. “I have always felt that if you’re putting a lot of effort into a piece it should be something where you will get a lot back. But you’re not going to get much back from a material like acrylic. You’ll get what you see. Whereas, from a complex gold or silver piece, there are many aspects or facets that you don’t see in a constant way. I strive to create things which beguile the eye, that make the eye and mind travel so you can’t ever quite make out or remember everything that’s there. And one fine day you come upon an element which you never saw before.”
Deborah Norton is a contributing editor to Metalsmith living in London.