The art of craft

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

SAN FRANCISCO was a hotbed of artisans and crafters in the early 20th century during the height of the Arts & Crafts movement, and hand-hammered copperwork was among the most prized of the crafts elevated to artwork.

Dirk van Erp, arguably the greatest coppersmith of the era, created a uniquely beautiful body of art copper. He also had a profound effect on many other art coppersmiths. A new book offers a windfall of new research about these artists, including more than 200 examples of their work and dozens of vintage photographs, many not previously exhibited or published.

Included in addition to Dirk van Erp are:

• Harry St John Dixon, brother of artist Maynard Dixon and van Erp’s first apprentice, who became the Bay Area’s other most celebrated coppersmith.

• D’Arcy Gaw, Dirk van Erp’s first partner in San Francisco.

• August Tiesselinck, Dirk van Erp’s nephew, whose technical skills and creative designs were especially admired.

• Dirk van Erp’s children, William and Agatha van Erp, both of whom became accomplished coppersmiths.

• Lillian Palmer, who moved from San Jose to San Francisco to found the Palmer Shop Cooperative, an early woman-run studio.

• Plus: Fred Brosi, Hans Jauchen & Old Mission Kopper Kraft, Armenac Hairenian and the other Harry Dixon, Harry L Dixon, among others.

REVIEW: “This book has class

Dirk van Erp and the Swedenborgians

June 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Swedenborgian minister Rev. Junchol Lee admires the unusual Dirk van Erp chandelier.

LUXURY WEEK arrives this month at Christie’s in New York, and the Rev. Joseph Worcester might be rolling in his grave at the news that his beloved Swedenborgian Church will be auctioning a historic lamp from the former parsonage next door. It is estimated to fetch from $40,000 to $60,000.

But he would be pleased the proceeds will be used to restore the church’s stained glass windows designed by Bruce Porter, a key player in Worcester’s circle of artists and writers who helped create the church and garden on the corner of Lyon and Washington Streets in San Francisco. Also to be restored are the church’s iconic square-legged chairs with rush-bottom seats — said to be designed by legendary architect Bernard Maybeck to Worcester’s specifications — which inspired the Mission-style furniture that followed.

The dignified home at 2121 Lyon Street was built for parishioner Gertrude Bowers in 1894 at the same time the church was being built next door. It was intended as a parsonage, but Rev. Worcester preferred to stay in his simple wood-shingled home at the top of Russian Hill. In 1900 the residence was bought by acclaimed artist William Keith, another key member of Worcester’s circle. Keith also bought the lot beside the church on Washington Street, which is now the Swedenborgian Parish House.

In 1910, shortly before Keith’s death, he sold the residence to Isabel Baldwin, who in 1921 sold it to the Eloesser family. It remained in that family until Nina Eloesser died in December 2010. The family had arranged for the house to be deeded — at long last — directly to the Swedenborgian Church.

The church has just begun to renovate 2121 Lyon Street. But before the work could begin, the distinctive copper and mica chandelier had to be removed from the dining room. It was thought to be from the San Francisco studio of Dirk van Erp, one of the most celebrated craftsmen of what came to be known as the Arts & Crafts movement.

The Swedenborgian chandelier

Collectors and the major auction houses came calling when news of the rare and unseen van Erp chandelier began to circulate. Church officials decided to put the lamp up for auction at Christie’s in New York alongside a thicket of Tiffany lamps, many from the collection of the Eddie Rickenbacker saloon in San Francisco.

Christie’s is promoting the lamp as “property from the Swedenborgian Church,” circa 1910, “originally in the home of the painter William Keith, a friend of Dirk van Erp, until his passing in 1911.” Technically that’s more or less true, but after connoisseurs arched their eyebrows, Christie’s revised its online description to make clear that the lamp comes from property owned by the Swedenborgian Church, not from the church itself.

Likewise, while William Keith owned 2121 Lyon, it was never his home. He lived across the bay in Berkeley. Keith probably knew nothing of the lamp since he sold the house in 1910, the same year van Erp opened his studio in San Francisco.

And no one can prove definitively the lamp is by van Erp. It does not bear his distinctive windmill mark, nor was van Erp known to make chandeliers. But the lamp bears all the hallmarks of his studio’s work, and specifically that of his nephew and chief assistant August Tiesselinck, who did make chandeliers, and for a time had his own copper shop on Sacramento Street near Fillmore.

It seems likely the chandelier was added to 2121 Lyon after the Eloessers bought the residence in 1921. Van Erp continued to operate his copper shop through the 1920s, and the Eloessers also had two copper and mica table lamps marked with the van Erp windmill. In addition, van Erp created hand-hammered copper desk sets featuring the monograms of both Herbert and Nina Eloesser.

None of that diminishes the uniqueness or the desirability of the lamp. Arts & Crafts collectors and enthusiasts will be watching closely on June 14 during Luxury Week at Christie’s.


‘A coppersmith of skill and maturity’

December 1, 1996 § Leave a comment

Hand-hammered four-socket copper and mica lamp by Audel Davis


Copper, like oak, clay and linen, is an ideal medium for the expression of Arts & Crafts principles. It is a humble material, easily worked by hand and requiring no industrial technology. Its natural color is wonderfully rich, and it lends itself to an array of subtle patinas. Thus it is not surprising that copper became the material of choice among the early 20th century American Arts & Crafts metalworkers. Metalsmiths such as Marie Zimmermann of New York, Karl E. Kipp of East Aurora, Forest Emerson Mann of Grand Rapids, Douglas Donaldson of Los Angeles and — most sublimely — Dirk van Erp of San Francisco, set high standards for work in copper in the Arts & Crafts tradition.

The revival of interest in the Arts & Crafts movement of the last two decades has not been limited to collectors and antique dealers, but has encompassed contemporary craftspeople as well. Among the handful of craftsmen who work in copper, Audel Davis is a new name. Although he has been studying the craft for some seven years now, he has offered his work to the public only since 1996. In that short time, he has started to hammer out for himself a reputation near the top of his field.

Audel Davis crafting copper and mica lamps in his Berkeley workshop.

Audel’s perfectionist nature is such that he simply will not release work that does not meet his exacting standards. His insistence on rendering his own designs, rather than merely duplicating great work from the past; his willingness to experiment with new forms; and his growing ability to work with a range of patinas all mark him as a coppersmith of considerable skill and maturity. His work shows an increasing sense of sophistication and he is developing a commitment to major forms: table lamps, large jardinieres and — this year — a 62-inch floor lamp, which is by far the largest work he has made thus far.

The two aspects of Audel Davis’s work I most admire are his high standards of craftsmanship and his ability to allow his designs, informed as they are by elements from the past, to speak their own, unique vocabulary.

Q&A WITH AUDEL DAVIS: “Honesty of form, beauty of design

Honesty of form, beauty of design

December 1, 1996 § 1 Comment


Audel Davis is one of a small group of coppersmiths — probably fewer than a dozen nationwide — who lovingly follow the early 20th century Arts & Crafts movement’s tenets: utility, craftsmanship, respect for materials, appreciation of proportion, attention to detail, honesty of form and beauty of design.

Audel has a long history of craftwork, dating back to his childhood. “It’s something I’ve always done,” he says. “I can’t remember when I wasn’t working with my hands on some project.”

Born and raised in northern Santa Barbara County into a family that traces its California roots back to the Gold Rush, he learned basic construction skills from his father, a building contractor. While still in junior high school, he completed the construction of a small building in the back yard of his family’s home in Santa Maria to house his model railroad.

This ability to work with his hands was of value when Audel and his wife, Lynne, bought a turn-of-the-century house on a deep lot in Berkeley. They set out to repair and expand the house for themselves and their four children. Audel completely transformed the house, working with tile and stained glass as well as the basic carpentry, masonry and cabinetwork required for a growing family home.

It was while he was working on his home that he became interested in copper. His first work was for his home and family. What follows is a discussion with Audel about his interest in hand-hammered copper.
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