William Spratling was an American-born silversmith and artist, best-known for his influence on 20th century Mexican silver design. He established a model for the artistic development and growth of the silver industry in Taxco and deserves the title “Father of Contemporary Mexican Silver”.
Spratling visited Mexico for the first time in 1926. He returned for summers over the next several years, and in 1929, he finally moved to Mexico. He quickly integrated himself into the Mexican art scene and became a friend and a strong proponent of the work of muralist Diego Rivera, for whom he organized an exhibition at the MoMA in New York. Using money received from commissions he organized for Rivera, Spratling purchased a home in Taxco, southwest of Mexico City. In 1931, the US Ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, suggested to Spratling that the city of Taxco had been the site of silver mines for centuries, but had never been considered a location where jewelry and objects of silver were designed and made. Subsequently, Spratling hired an experienced goldsmith from Iguala who moved to Taxco and created silver jewelry of Spratling’s design. Other craftsmen joined Spratling’s shop and produced tin ware, copper items, textiles and furniture – all designed by Spratling. These earliest designs were based on pre-Columbian motifs as well as simple themes utilizing rope borders, strap designs and other such basic ideas. He often adopted the stylized animal motifs found in Mexican pottery and incorporated native materials such as amethyst and rosewood into his designs. The workshop grew far beyond Spratling’s expectations… By 1940 Spratling employed 300 artisans and Taxco had become a major tourist destination for those seeking silverwork. He began to export silver items to U.S. department stores including Neiman Marcus, Macy’s and Saks. Ironically, the 1940’s boom in Taxco silver production ultimately led to the downfall of Spratling’s company “Spratling y Artesanos”, which by 1946 went out of business. In 1951 Spratling founded a new company—William Spratling, S.A. and continued to work throughout the 1950’s and ’60’s. His designs were also produced by the Conquistador Company in Mexico City for a couple of years. One of the last things he was working on at his ranch in Taxco was the production of furniture for Marilyn Monroe.
Spratling’s silver designs have always been copied but now, perhaps because of the higher prices Spratling’s name commands I have seen an increasing number of William Spratling attributed furniture designs.
Don S. Shoemaker is in my opinion the most remarkable representative of Mexico Modernism furniture design. Don and his wife Barbara settled down in Santa Maria Guido, Morelia in 1951. He began producing wooden items, from jewelry boxes to sculptures and stunning pieces of furniture made of hardwoods grown in the local mountains. The first couple of years were less than easy and in 1955 the Shoemakers were forced to leave the country; their small enterprise was turned over to a cooperative which 2 years later went broke. Their life project continued when the Mexican government invited them to return to Morelia and the furniture workshop SEÑAL, S.A. was founded.
Don left us an unrivaled aesthetic legacy through his furniture designs; he developed his very own identity and style which remained evolving throughout his whole career maintaining the principles of high quality hand-craftsmanship and the intensive use of native Mexican exotic woods. His organic forms were unmatchable by any other furniture designer of his time. During his more than 3 decades of dedicated work Don designed a significant number of iconic furniture masterpieces, all produced in hardwoods, which he favored for their inherent strength, durability and magnificent beauty:
•Organic designs: the most unique Sling “folding” chair (an armchair with folding braces), his Sling “Sloucher” and “Swinger” chairs.
•Rectilinear designs: the “Parsons Line” including suites for every room.
•Coffee table designs: the “Cuerno”, “Sling”, “Elephant” Lounge and “Descanso” coffee tables.
•Dining room set designs: the “Sling” dining room set, cabinets and sideboards.
•Lounge and living room designs: the “Descanso” set and the “Pernos” Lounge set.
•Progressive designs: the famous stack-laminated “Diamond” desk and tables.
Below are some pictures from my personal Don S. Shoemaker collection, a look into the Shoemaker mood when you have a home completely furnished by our master:
Don´s heir, George R. Shoemaker, takes over the company in 1990, after Don passed away. Regrettably George faced some serious problems with characters related with SEÑAL, S.A. which started producing unlicensed copies; so the company had to be dissolved and changed its name to “ARRENDADORA SHOEMAKER”. George continued reproducing Don´s designs under this new label; he improved some of Don´s furniture lines and he developed some own new furniture designs. One of George´s masterpieces are his iconic Bar furniture sets produced in cueramo, he only made a limited edition of 5 of them. However, I will not present at this time any pictures of this magnificent Bar Set to avoid future forgeries.
Unfortunately, George´s health declines extremely fast and production activity goes to almost zero. George passes away and the workshop finally closes in the early 2000’s. Many George R. Shoemaker furniture pieces are copied and sold as “Don S. Shoemaker originals” not recognizing George´s talent and contribution to his Dad´s work. He was a great designer by his own right. He had a restless mind and he also experimented in Art Nouveau, Art Deco and even English XIX Century styles.
Po Shun Leong is an artist, former architect, sculptor and furniture maker. Of Chinese origin, Leong was born in London and lived in Mexico for 15 years. He arrived in Mexico in 1964. For several years, he practiced architecture, designing a series of large furniture stores, residences and commercial exhibitions. He developed many furniture designs and was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Knoll International Furniture Competition, 2 Gold Medal Awards for fiberglass furniture in the IMCE, (Mexican Export Competition) and two 1st prizes in the low cost furniture competition.
In the early 1980’s the Leong family immigrated to Southern California. He set up a studio in his garage to produce prototypes and taught himself woodworking. He became known since the late 1980’s for his highly intricate and inspiring one-of-a-kind wood boxes that have been enthusiastically acquired and are in many museum collections. Po Shun has created at least a 1000 boxes and one-of-a-kind furniture objects. Lately he has been experimenting with bent plywood forms to produce affordable furniture.
I already published some posts on Po Shun Leong’s stay in Mexico, and his friendship with Don S. Shoemaker (see Don S. Shoemaker and Po Shun Leong Parts 1 & 2 and Mexican Design exhibition at the MAM in 1975 – Part #3).
…to be continued in part # 5
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