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Only the most discerning 21st-century heartbeats quicken at the prospect of silverware. Accustomed to the minimalism of ceramics or the luminosity of blown glass, why would we consider the material behind those stolid, heavy, often tarnished candlesticks and tea sets found in bric-a-brac shops or granny’s dresser?
That, at least, was my ignorant opinion before I stepped into the gallery of Adrian Sassoon in London on a sunlit September morning and discovered the work of Hiroshi Suzuki. Here I found vessels so weightless they seemed vulnerable to a passing breeze; surfaces as malleable as silk, beaten into patterns of mesh, ripples and furrows that defied the laws of physics; and pastel hues — sky-blue, leaf-green, sugar-pink — with a sharp yet delicate chromatism more often delivered by ceramics. Who knew you could create such ethereal masterpieces with metal?
Next week, Suzuki will enjoy a public vitrine at PAD when four of his vessels — two from his Aqua-Poesy Series and two from his Seni Vase series — will go on show on Adrian Sassoon’s booth.
A clutch of connoisseurs are familiar with Suzuki’s gifts. “I first saw his work 15 or 16 years ago at one of Sotheby’s craft exhibitions,” recalls Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire and owner of Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Instantly captivated, the Duke made a trip to the Welbeck Estate in Nottinghamshire, where Suzuki then had a studio. “His vessels are incredibly tactile,” he recalls. “The beakers, for example, make you want to drink, to pick the vessel up and use it. They are weighted so that the ridge and furrow are perfect for your hand.”
Rather like his work itself, the story behind Suzuki’s rise to prominence is a blend of serendipity and design. He was born in Sendai, some 240 miles from Tokyo, in 1961. With a goldsmith father and a grandfather who was a potter and calligrapher, he naturally gravitated towards craft. Speaking to Timothy Schroder, who wrote an essay on Suzuki in 2010, he said that his parents fretted about his lack of friends as a child. “It wasn’t that I did not like playing with other kids, I was [just] more interested in playing with materials.”
But after completing an MA at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Suzuki still lacked direction. In 1993, he came to the UK with no fixed plan beyond learning English and exploring the museums. A year on, he enrolled at the Camberwell College of Art in London and later the Royal College of Art.
It was at the latter that he developed his rapport with the metal that would become his muse. “It was 1998, and the Danish silversmith Allan Scharff came to give a masterclass,” Suzuki recalls when I catch up with him over Skype in his Tokyo studio. (Two fluffy cats, Margaux and Miumiu, lounge in baskets on the work table behind him.) “Until then I was more interested in copper,” he continues in his quiet, contemplative tone. “I thought silver was too expensive but Allan suggested I should try it …”
Quickly, Suzuki knew that he had found his medium. Silver gave him a fluidity that he had never enjoyed when working in copper. “Most metalwork is very precise, it requires lots of measurements, mirrors and perfect construction. I am more spontaneous.”
Silver also led Suzuki back to his family tradition in ceramics and pottery. “Ceramicists work by feel, as I do,” he explains. “It’s very intuitive. I need to feel something, otherwise I can’t enjoy it.” He pauses to search for the words while Margaux stretches out a languid paw. “Something comes from heaven. A bit more like this. A bit more like that. It’s risky but I like it.”
The remarkable, wafer-thin surfaces of his work are only possible because he works in fine silver, which is softer and more malleable than the other types, Britannia and sterling. Fine silver’s ductility allows Suzuki to pursue a rare method of working: he makes neither preparatory sketch nor model but simply forms his vessel “over air”, as Schroder puts it poetically.
The complexity of his designs, with their various reliefs and contrasting surfaces — here shining with a lunar brightness, there boasting a rough nap as if soaked in shadow — lead me to suspect Suzuki has a raft of sophisticated tools. In reality, he has just one: the hammer (although no fewer than 300 different kinds at his disposal).
Hammering, then, is the core of his working day. Given the unruffled, oneiric quality of his presence, I am not surprised when he tells me he finds the beating of silver “relaxing and meditative”. Not all agree. When he took up his studio at Welbeck, the estate suffered from a surfeit of moles; once Suzuki was resident, the velvet-furred incumbents departed.
Sleepless small mammals aside, Suzuki enjoys an innate synergy with the outdoor world. “My work has always come from nature,” he tells me. “I like to express its ever-changing forms, such as the shift from one season to another.” A turning point in his early career was the V&A’s decision to buy an Aqua-Poesy vessel from his RCA degree show for their collection. With deep, flowing undulations across their surface, many of the Aqua-Poesy vases evoke waves under a moonlit sky. But when asked to elucidate his process further, Suzuki struggles to put into words what is clearly a matter of intuition. “I start with one line,” he lifts a finger then crosses another over it. “And I build from there.”
His forays into colour, which he creates through an enamelling process, are more recent: silver itself “can only be white, black or grey,” he points out. His favourite shade is blue. “It’s a translucent colour so the reflection of the silver comes through the transparency.”
It seems counter-productive to ask Suzuki to articulate further a practice which is intrinsically interior and unspoken. Instead I express my admiration for his cats. To her disapproval, Margaux finds herself unceremoniously scooped up and obliged to wave one smoky-grey paw at me. Perhaps Margaux does not quite reflect the serenity of her master’s art but she too is nature in all her unalloyed perfection.
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