Recent Sightings: Functionalism

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By Bruce MetcalfMore from this author

This article series from Metalsmith Magazine is named "Recent Sightings" where Bruce Metcalf talks about art, craftsmanship, design, the artists, and techniques. For this 1996 Fall issue, he talks about functionalism.


The spirit of functionalism guided cutting-edge design and craft for about half of this century. Functionalism is "the notion that objects made to be used should be simple, honest, and direct; well adapted to their purpose; bare of ornament; standardized; machine-made; and reasonably priced; and expressive of their structure and materials." The first center of functionalist design was Germany, where the emphasis was on factory production. Hoping to create a new design sensibility for the masses, pioneers like Marcel Breuer, Le Corbusier, and Charles and Ray Eames followed the German model and embraced machine production. Many o[their designs, especially for seating, have never been equaled: Breuer's cantilevered B-32 steel tube chair and the Eames's molded plywood lounge chair are still in production today.

It was the particular genius of the Scandinavians to adapt functionalism to handwork and to give a human face to standardization. Where much German design was intended to be made in factories by semi-skilled laborers, Scandinavian designers sought a role for master craftsmen. Where German design was often rigid and geometric. Scandinavian design was softened, with sensuous curves and parts flowing into one another. Otherwise, the functionalist doctrine remained intact.

One of the greatest accomplishments of Scandinavian metalwork is the George Jensen silver pitcher Kande #992, designed in 1952 by Henning Koppel. You can see how the spirit of functionalism informs the design: there is no ornamental detail at all; the polished surfaces reveal the character of silver; and the functional needs of a pouring vessel have been imaginatively and effectively met. The Scandinavian genius has two components: first, Kande #992 is made by hand, by extraordinarily skilled craftsmen. In fact, the asymmetrical shape justified the handcraft because such irregular forms could not be made efficiently by machine. And, of course, it's beautiful. Each curve flows gracefully into another, just as the handle merges with the body of the pitcher. The combination of extraordinary craft and exceptional beauty makes Kande # 992 a model of excellence for all modern silversmiths, and a yardstick against which to measure later accomplishments.

In postwar America, silversmiths embraced the Scandinavian version of functionalism with an almost religious fervor. Many smiths thought of themselves as pioneers in bringing this new taste to America. Kande #992 itself was well-known here; it was pictured on the cover of the August 1952 Craft Horizons. The man who made the prototype for Kande #992 at the Jensen factory, Hans Christensen, came to teach at the School for American Craftsmen in 1954, and his students eventually taught and designed all over the country. By 1955, most American silversmiths worked in the Scandinavian style, or something very much like it. Their work was well-made, useful, and beautiful. Furthermore, functionalism was supposed to infallibly represent the industrial age. One might have thought the softened functionalism of such contemporary silversmithing had a bright future. What could stop it?

Instead, the Scandinavian idea of silversmithing ossified, and was pushed to the margins within 15 years. Why? Why didn't this meeting of rationality and handwork last forever?

By 1960, American silversmithing was moving away from the straightforward answering of physical needs and towards more sculptural forms. Teapots sprouted pedestals, grew ever more inventive handles, and became taller. Forms became ever more quirky and baroque, increasingly disconnected from the simplicity demanded by pure functionalism. By 1970, leading metalsmiths had turned to other pursuits: John Prip was making non-functional boxes; Fred Woell had already made his hugely influential found-object jewelry; and Brent Kington had started investigating blacksmithing. Students were producing what could only be regarded as sculpture under the guise of silversmithing. In five more years, the transition was complete.

I think that examples like Kande #992 were just too perfect: they allowed no room for any further growth. The problem of designing pleasing, utilitarian silverware was solved so brilliantly by Henning Koppel, and executed so well by the Jensen craftsmen, that additional progress was impossible. The apex of functional handmade silversmithing had been achieved. The American silversmith might aspire to the same level of technical expertise, or try to design with the same level of sophistication, but he or she could never do better. As a result, Americans lost interest in following the dictates of functionalism. Instead of seeking perfection, Americans sought expression.

In time, the historical moment for Scandinavian-modern style silverware passed. While some of the wonderful Henning Koppel designs are still produced, they are now classics, much like Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair. While these designs remain highly desirable, and they still look great in a contemporary interior, they clearly don't come from the present time. For today's designer, these designs are part of history, and are thus available for quotation and pastiche. But it is mysteriously difficult to sincerely attempt to produce new, elegant, functionalist objects. I can think of only a handful in the past decade. In addition, I have not met a single student in the past ten years who aspired to make beautiful, useful, and unassuming silverware. Their aspirations aim toward something else: usually art.

Functionalism is far from dead, however. For instance, automobile design is largely determined by functionalist principles. Cars clearly reflect changing technologies as well as various social and environmental conditions: the cost of gasoline along with front-wheel drive technology has changed the shape and size of automobiles everywhere. Functionalism also informs the design of airplanes, computers, and even sports equipment. What's odd is that no analogous changes have swept through metalworking. No radically new functionalist metalsmithing has emerged in the past quarter century.

Perhaps it's because there are few new technologies to drive the craft of silversmithing forward. Perhaps it's because the old missionary spirit is gone, after all, functionalism has penetrated to every level of mass production. Perhaps it's because the few remaining customers for silversmithing want jazzy design because they recognize that the purpose of such expensive ware is not for everyday use, but for show. But perhaps it's also because nobody gets inspired anymore. After all, it's discouraging to stand in the shadow of perfection.

Bruce Metcalf is a jewelry-maker and writer in Philadelphia. He is curating the jewelry and metalsmithing segment of the American Craft Museum's upcoming exhibitions. The Studio Craft Movement 1945 - 1965.

By Bruce Metcalf
Metalsmith Magazine – 1996 Fall
In association with SNAG‘s
Metalsmith magazine, founded in 1980, is an award winning publication and the only magazine in America devoted to the metal arts.

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Bruce Metcalf

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