Master Metalsmith Alan Adler
14 Minute Read
I first discovered Allan Adler's Silversmithing Shop about 23 years ago when I arrived in Southern California to begin my metalsmithing teaching career at California State University, Long Beach. His shop was located on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood; and I must have gone in numerous times to admire the work on display.
A Revisit with Allan Adler
His clean, unadorned and well-crafted style was strongly influenced by the traditional work of early American silversmiths and the contemporary work then being done in the Northern European countries of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. It was a unique and one-of-a-kind style of silversmithing.
Eventually I introduced myself to the shop personnel and asked if I could bring my students in for a tour of the shop and studio work area. I don't remember meeting Allan himself, but there was always somebody there to show us around and take us into the work area where one of the skilled craftsman always forged a spoon for us from a bar of sterling silver.
What I remember most vividly is the large collection of silversmithing hammers hanging on the wall as you would come down the narrow cellar stairs into the workshop. Those hammers always stuck in my mind. When I learned of the tragic fire that destroyed the showrooms and workshop five years ago, all I could think of was those hammers. What does one do after a fire destroys one's shop and studio? Allan salvaged what he could and waited with the hope that the shopping complex owner would rebuild. After a year went by with no sign of reconstruction, Allan decided he would build a studio and small showroom in his home. Trying this arrangement for a year he realized he wasn't getting his work done because of the proximity of the work space to his living space. Finally Allan decided to move the workshop to a home formerly owned by his father-in-law, located in the San Fernando Valley.
The nondescript house surrounded by a four-feet high chainlink fence sits on a quiet residential street. Behind this fence roam two barking Alaskan Huskies. On the day I went to visit Allan Adler, I was greeted by these two barking dogs, but knowing Allan I decided they couldn't be dangerous, so I opened the gate and walked up to the door. The entry led directly into a living room, concrete-floored workshop. The first to greet me was Jimmy Nadasi, a European-trained craftsman, originally from Hungary. As in years before, Jimmy was later asked by Allan to demonstrate the forging of a baby spoon from a sterling bar. Allan came out to greet me, and we got right into a conversation about the fire of five years ago and what he had done since that time. Allan often excused himself to answer the phone and deal with the various problems that came up. I wandered around the shop watching two younger craftsmen working on the jewelry side of the business.
Allan Adler's shop does both traditional and contemporary silversmithing and jewelry. At first I thought there wasn't enough equipment here to do the traditional Allan Adler line of holloware and flatware. However, later, on a more extensive tour conducted by Dorien Lobmeyer, the shop's manager, I was taken into the heavy equipment room that was once a two-car garbage. There, salvaged from the fire and rebuilt, was a large power rolling mill, a power flatware blanking press, a drop hammer used to form the bowls of spoon and an old-but-adequate belt-driven spinning lathe. The walls were lined with shelves of steel blanking dies used to create the many flatware patterns that Allan has designed and still makes. Unfortunately, the large collection of wooden maple spinning chucks had been destroyed in the fire. At present, though, as the need arises new ones are being made.
Allan rejoined me at this point, showing me the special features of the outboard rollers designed to roller forge parts of flatware patterns he still gets orders to reproduce. Previously, out in the workshop, I couldn't help noticing a written order for a flatware service for 12 that was sitting on a bench with the estimated cost in the five-digit range. Allan's fine silverware commands a price befitting its quality.
Allan remarked his biggest problem in production was finding people who could spin silver. He is currently training a retired friend, who, at 70, things it would be fun to learn a new trade.
We left the studio at noon to visit his home. Over a pleasant lunch, we talked about his recent trip to Mexico, where he discovered beautiful, raised copperware forms. The forms are made in the area surrounding Villa Escalante, a small town in the state of Michoacan; the town is sometimes referred to by its old name of Santa Clara del Cobre. We also talked of hid method of casting silver ingots. Allan uses oak charcoal to cover the silver while it melts, then adds a small amount of phosphor copper to the silver scrap and pours the molten metal through an annealing flame into a pre-heated, tallow-coated ingot mold.
His family, his love of the time spent on his boat and dreams of the future occupy Allan's thoughts these days. He would like to someday rebuild his shop and showroom on its present two-acre site in the form of a living museum so that his daughters and sons-in-law could continue his business and craft after he is gone. He would like to show how a silversmith worked in the latter part of the 20th century. (The concept of a living museum is one that should be seriously considered by craftsmen in this country as a means of preserving the history and technique of their craft. Japan has many such opportunities to visit the home and studio of past national living treasures.)
Among Allan Adler's many awards and distinctions is his recent selection to be part of an exhibition entitled "Living Treasures of California," held at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. Allan was one of four metalsmiths chosen among the 19 California craftsmen so honored at this exhibition.
We had to end this pleasant visit as Allan had to attend to some pressing business and I had to select photo from his photo archives (they miraculously survived the fire.)
There aren't many dedicated silversmiths like Allan Adler. I was pleased, honored and delighted to have become, once again, acquainted with him. —Alvin Pine
Alvin Pine is a professor of metalsmithing and jewelry at California State University, Long Beach
As a young man of 19, right out of high school, Allan Adler worked as a lathing contractor with his own crew of men in association with his father who was a plastering contractor in Burbank, California. At about this time, 1937, we first met and nine months later we were married. Since my father, Porter Blanchard, a well-known silversmith, had no sons and wanted someone to carry on the craft, he urged Allan to come to work for him and learn the trade of silversmithing. Allan and I gave it a lot of thought, because it meant living on a much smaller income, but finally we decided to give it a try and he went to work learning all phases of the trade. In no time he developed a burning desire to do his own designing, with strong leanings toward the unconventional, and the opportunity soon presented itself when his father-in-law decided to give up his retail store and do only wholesale business. Allan felt that it would be great mistake to give up the retail operation, which was located on the famed Sunset Strip in Hollywood. So, with Porter's approval, Allan took over the store, starting in business for himself with lots of enthusiasm and very little money.
As a young craftsman, beginning his own business on a shoestrings, he would attack problems head-on. His ingenuity made it possible, many times, to accomplish a task with a makeshift tool when he could not afford to buy the specific tool that he needed. These tools were usually small ones and were eventually replaced with a new one. However, the method of grade-rolling silver he developed was useful for the rest of his life. The actor, James Gleason, came to Allan to study with him and to learn silversmithing as a hobby. He became aware of Allan's ability to devise his own tools from things at hand and to accomplish a job without having to lay out the money for a new tool. He dubbed him "Tools Adler," and every once in a while he would surprise Allan with a gift of a new tool. Margaret Sullavan, the actress, was also a student of Allan's at his Sunset Strip workshop. Allan only took a few private students into his shop to learn jewelrymaking or silversmithing, because he was actually too busy making a living for himself and his family.
The Second World War catapulted the Adler business from a one-man operation into a much larger one with about 25 fine craftsmen. Because of his expertise in silver, Allan was approached by the Gilfillan Company to bid on the job to make a highly classified silver item. He was awarded the contract and this put him in a deferred class, keeping him out of the military service. The contract lasted until we dropped the H-bomb on Hiroshima and Japan surrendered. After the contract was cancelled, Allan was promptly drafted into the Army. He was only in the Army for about six months, due to a health problem that caused him to be medically discharged. It wasn't until after the war that Allan learned that the item he made for Gilfillan was a part of their highly secret new radar equipment.
In the early 40s, Allan began designing flatware, which were seen as new and simple, even though he was influenced by the traditional three-tine fork and the oval bowled spoon. His designs were esthetic but always functional. He approaches the design by creating an image in his mind long before putting it down on paper. He feels that there is a fine line in design between the good and the ugly. In order to achieve the former, he often makes a wooden model of the item he is planning to make and then sets it on a bench in the shop so that he and the various other craftsmen can study and discuss it at length.
After the war, stores throughout the country, like Nieman-Marcus, B. Altman, Marshall Fields and Garfinckels were clamoring for his merchandise. This enabled Allan to gather together a group of the finest craftsmen in the country, men who had learned their trade in Europe and had come to the United States seeking work with large companies here, as well as craftsmen who had established their own businesses, not needed by the military. With this fine group of craftsmen, he was able to design and produce, and this capability, in a sense, allowed him to explode upon the scene, becoming more and more well known as he designed for the "Hollywood Greats." Many custom pieces have been designed for people, such as a sterling silver baby potty for Jascha Heifitz's firstborn. He had Allan engrave a musical staff around the potty with a special tune he composed.
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard had Allan make a dozen tall, slender pewter mugs, especially monogrammed and with ebony handles that the gave to Jack Benny and Mary Livingston for a Christmas gift. Shirley MacLaine was give one of Allan's tea sets as a Christmas gift and Julie Andrews and Petula Clark both have his flatware service. Another movie couple Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck have had things designed for gifts, as did Dinah Shore, who loved working out ideas with Allan.
Frank Sinatra has been a special customer, over the years, giving a flatware service to his daughter and designing special picture frames as gifts. When he and Barbara were married, they ordered frames to hold their wedding pictures and sent them to friends, as gifts, all over the world. Making special pieces for actor Paul Newman, who has been a customer for many years, has been great fun for Allan. Paul loves to do special gifts for his wife, Joanne Woodward, and for friends and relatives. Two more movie greats customers Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood also loved working out original ideas for gifts.
During Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaign, Life magazine printed a picture of him on the campaign trail, relaxing with his legs crossed and the sole of his shoe facing the camera, with a big hole in it. The Democratic party had Allan design a campaign button for them: a sterling silver sole of a shoe with a hole in it.
Governor Pat Brown and his wife had Allan design a special pattern of flatware for the Governor's mansion that had the state's official seal on each handle. Katherine Hepburn also loved working personally with Allan and over most of his career he has cherished her as a customer. Director George Cukor used to bring in a long Christmas list that he had Allan furnish gifts for, as did another director, Arthur Lubin, who was famous for the Abbott and Costello movies, The Francis and Mr. Ed series.
A different facet of Allan's career was his love of jewelry, silver and gold, and he went all out on designing things never before attempted, such as his pioneering idea of setting a diamond to hang on the side of a ring band instead of the traditional setting in the center. Although his desire to have semiprecious stones cut in unconventional shapes led him to lapidaries, they maintained that what he requested couldn't be done. Allan preserved, however, and finally got a lapidary named George Huston to cut some for him. They were stunningly set and a huge success with customers—Mrs. Gary Cooper had one of the first ones and she said that she loved it above all of her other jewelry. This freedom cut developed a trend that was widely followed by other jewelers in the 40s and 50s, and Allan always considered it a compliment, inspiring him to move ahead to newer ideas.
One of his most exciting commissions came from Convair Aviation Company when they asked him to design a pin to be worn by the first seven astronauts chosen to go into space. It was designed after the symbol of one of the planets, and the design is also used at the entrance of NASA headquarters in Florida.
Among the many honors bestowed upon Allan was the Good Design Award in 1956 by the Museum of Modern Art for his Sterling Water Pitcher. In 1982 he was invited to participate in the "American Metalsmithing and Jewelry in the 1940s and 50s" conference, sponsored by the Renwich Gallery, The Archives of American Art and Metalsmith magazine.
Allan Adler never had any formal art education, learning his skills of craftsmanship from his father-in-law and his association with other master craftsmen, while his own flair for design was a totally natural ability. Ancient cultures fascinated him and he looked to pre-Columbian art for inspiration, as well as our own Paul Revere's clean lines and workmanship.
Allan feels strongly that simplicity is a plus, that "gingergbread" is out and that design must always be functional. His personal philosophy is that anyone can live elegantly. For example, a hamburger patty cooked with wine and herbs, candles for light and soft music for background can make for gracious living and a world of wealth that can fit into anyone's budget. A craftsman or artist need not be rich in dollars but can be rich in talent and often will be much happier and more satisfied.
Allan is still designing and working at his craft because he is the kind of man who must be creative and active to be truly happy. He is training people, especially one young woman, Dorien Lohmeyer, to handle all aspects of the work, thereby passing down his knowledge just as his father-in-law did before him. He still has a retail store in LaJolla, California, a studio where he sees people by appointment in Studio City, California, and his workshop in the San Fernando Valley. Retirement is not in his future, but spending more time at sailing on his beloved Shawnee is.
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