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Touching base

Copper, iron, bronze and steel are inspiring craftsmen to rethink the artistic potential – and value – of metalwork. Emma Crichton-Miller reports.

October 20 2010
Emma Crichton-Miller

It was while studying in Tokyo that Coilin O’Dubhghaill realised what he was after. As a student silversmith in Kilkenny, Ireland, and then Edinburgh, O’Dubhghaill chafed at the restrictions of working just in silver. Inspired by Iranian incense burners he had seen in museums, his degree show contained brass pieces, simple beaten forms, richly coloured, with lines drawn on the metal – a way, as he explains, “to bring drawing into metalwork”, to focus equally on form and surface.

But it was some years later, at the prestigious Tokyo University of the Arts (Tokyo Geijutsu Daigaku), that he discovered the ancient metalworking traditions of Japan, with a kindred excitement about the whole gamut of metals, and their different challenges and potential, that he’d found lacking at home.

“They don’t have the same historic tradition of silversmithing and jewellery as in the west,” he explains. “Wealthy people did not show off their wealth with silver but with ceramics or lacquer. Instead, there is a variety of works in different metals and an excitement about the qualities of materials – copper, iron, bronze – that is a bit like talking to a chef about different kinds of pastry.” Above all, O’Dubhghaill was fascinated by the handmade alloys and patination techniques through which Japanese metal craftsmen generate subtle variations of colour. “They use a whole palette of alloys, and although the ways they taught you to use them in the university were quite traditional, I’ve experimented with them through my work ever since.”

As a maker, his process starts with the creation of a unique alloy, custom-cast from two or more metals (copper and gold, or copper and silver, for instance) and then forged by hand to the desired thickness using traditional silversmithing hammer techniques. From this sheet O’Dubhghaill constructs beautiful, simple shapes, which he then selectively polishes.

The task is only half-accomplished, however. It is the alchemy of patination – when the bowls are exposed to a traditional Japanese patina solution, reacting differently according to the distribution of metals throughout the alloy – that transforms each piece into a lustrous, richly patterned, individual creation. Other forms are made not through raising but welding, with the copper then being patinated to achieve a range of colours. His pieces are priced from £600 and will be available at Contemporary Applied Arts from November.

O’Dubhghaill is just one of a number of contemporary craftsmen and designers inspired to make beautiful, highly crafted, highly valued objects from what have conventionally been regarded as base metals. Cheerfully disregarding hierarchies of value set up by commodity markets and the institution of the hallmark, these artists and designers experiment with different metals, from gold and silver to aluminium and tin, inspired by their intrinsic qualities and how well they lend themselves to different creative purposes. Far from fine work only being valued when it is in silver or gold, now some of the most beguiling and original objects are made from metals previously only encountered in factories or forges.

O’Dubhghaill is not alone in his appreciation of the Japanese way with base metals. Japanese masters are also bringing their traditional techniques into the present day, making them serve a contemporary sensibility, responsive to other cultures and creative disciplines. Metalworking artist Koji Hatakeyama stays close to tradition, producing exquisite painterly boxes, cast in bronze and then polished and patinated to achieve an astonishing, swirling variety of shining browns, reds and blacks (£1,000 to £4,500). Takeshi Mitsumoto, meanwhile, works with iron and copper, sometimes deliberately rusted, patinated or plated with silver, producing strong, uncompromising forms inspired by natural phenomena – leaves, branches, pools of water (£4,200 to £5,200).

At every turn, the unique virtues of the different metals – their textures, colours, strength or malleability – are exposed and exploited to the full. For Hiroki Iwata, by contrast, the metal (usually copper) from which he shapes his beautiful vessel forms is simply a base to which he then applies the enamel that transforms his pieces into artworks, as if a corner of a Monet painting had turned in on itself and become three-dimensional (£2,000 to £3,500).

Chien-Wei Chang, born in Taiwan, spent some years in the commercial jewellery sector, working for Tiffany. Since 2000, however, he’s been a silversmith in the UK, creating distinctive pieces, often inspired by Oriental themes – bamboo, ceremonial vessels or cooking implements – but taken out of context and transformed into something entirely sculptural. Flow gallery currently has a range of his works (£550 to £6,000) in its The Shape of Things exhibition. While silver holds a special place in Chang’s heart (“the making process is a kind of ritual; you have to use fire, then annealing, then purifying, like a baptism”), he also loves gilding metal and brass, sometimes mixing these with silver.

Gilding metal is much cheaper than silver, and is “much harder, so it is easier to keep the form steady.” Chang also likes brass. “It has a character; just like a cat, it is unpredictable, but if you can control it, you can pretty much do anything.” These alternative metals allow him to experiment. “I don’t want people to buy my work because of the value of the material. I want to make an adventure. This base metal gives me a wider range of material and allows me to challenge myself.”

Simone ten Hompel, winner in 2005 of the Jerwood Applied Arts Prize for her metalwork, is another artisan primarily known for silver who also uses other materials (£1,835 to £4,125). “I don’t use silver because it is a precious metal, but as one metal in a palette of metals, each with its own symbolic weight and value. I know within the context of each piece which is right – and whether I’m using silver, copper, brass or steel, they’re all equally precious to me.”

Ten Hompel has a solo show currently at Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery, her first in the UK for five years (£500 to £3,000). Called The Stuff of Memory, it summons her life so far through her distinctive, daring way with metal. Silver is used for many of the pieces, but others – including many of the 108 spoons she has arranged in “paragraphs” – are made from different metals, plastic, alabaster, steel and silver soldered together, paper covered in gold leaf and so on: “There is no hierarchy.”

For maker Helen Carnac, an interest in the economics of metal and how we trade in it plays a significant part in the choice of materials. Intriguing, beautiful bowls (from £400) are spun to her design from steel and then covered with industrial enamel, usually white or black (“a wonderful material to scratch into”). Afterwards, she works at the surface, scratching and drawing, fascinated by the interplay of the three-dimensional vessel form with the two-dimensional marks and patterns she cuts into them. The bowls are fired at a high temperature, after which Carnac grinds them by hand to reveal the metal and oxides that appear along the marks. “I grind until I get a soft, matte surface, so you can see some of the metal. The pieces are really about the metal.” The natural process of oxidation is a key element. “I try to encourage rust to come through the surface in a sort of organic growth.”

While most of these makers trained as silversmiths, Junko Mori trained as a blacksmith. “At university, doing industrial 3-D design, I had to choose a craft. I’d done all the other materials and found metal the most challenging, especially steel, because you have to practise a lot.” It was while working as a welder in a metal factory in Tokyo, however, that Mori recognised the potential of her techniques for art. “I was eating my lunch in a park and the contrast between the huge factory and this beautiful tree in front of me made me question, ‘Where does beauty come from?’ And I realised that each of the leaves is individual.”

She had already made spiky, hand-forged sculptures for her degree show, but whereas her goal had been uniformity, now she focused on enhancing the individuality of each component. “This freer way of working made forging much more interesting.” Further studies, first at Camberwell, then as artist-in-residence at Liverpool Hope University, enabled her to extend this work. “By then, I was able to learn from the growth process of plants.” Mori’s primary material is forged mild steel, though she also uses stainless steel, silver and other metals. “What I love about forging steel is the immediate response. You can develop quite amazing speed in forging.” It may be this speed that gives such vitality to her pieces, including sea urchins, sweet chestnut shells or hybrid creatures of the sea or forest floor, exquisitely realised but curled and twisting with pent energy (£800 to £12,000).

If makers have an especially passionate intimacy with particular metals, some contemporary designers are inspired too. This spring, British designer Max Lamb made an entire collection of furniture and objects out of electroplated copper, quite surreal in their redness and the contrast between their chunky form and actual lightness – they are hollow, as a result of using the lost wax technique ($2,500 to $45,000). At the same time, Dutch designer Aldo Bakker launched his wonderful Copper Collection at Milan (mixing bowl, €2,970; soy pourer, €3,850; watering can, €2,310; candle dome, €3,110; tonus stool, €14,300; candle holder, €120; and saucepan, price on request).

Each of these pieces, mostly made in numbered editions of 15, rethinks the object’s use from the ground up. The sleek forms are ingenious, but it is the material that astonishes, as the collection exploits copper’s capacity not just to gleam and glower (from within the lacquer of the gorgeous stool), but also to darken, as in the candle dome. As Bakker put it to me, “What I love about copper is the colour and the fact that it ages – the watering can, for instance, if you polish it, is salmon pink, but if you keep it by the window, as you should, it will turn brown, and then the last drip will turn the lip green.” It was the properties of the material that ultimately inspired him. “The emotional aspects of copper, and also the weight, the colour, the smell – all these qualities I gave a central place in the design.” And he adds, whether copper, steel, brass or iron, “These materials are too precious just to dabble. The longer you think about a material and work with it, the more it yields.”