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Polishing up a legacy

August 21, 2003|Elaine Dutka | Times Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, Stella Krieger walked into a Long Beach antiques shop. "You have to buy this," the dealer said, pulling a silver bracelet out of the case. "No matter that you're not into bracelets -- it's by William Spratling, a very important designer." The piece, for which she paid $75, is worth $5,000 today.

Since then, she and her husband, Fred, have amassed a considerable collection of contemporary Mexican silver, 39 pieces of which have found their way into "Maestros de Plata: William Spratling and the Mexican Silver Renaissance," on display at Los Angeles' Craft and Folk Art Museum through Sept. 14. The exhibit, the first of its kind, serves up the work of more than 20 top designers, proteges of, or successors to, Spratling -- a transplanted American who almost single-handedly revived a moribund Mexican silver industry after moving to Taxco in 1929. The show, originated by the San Antonio Art Museum, made a previous stop at San Diego's Mingei Museum and is heading for Albuquerque, New Orleans and New York.

Meshing the sensuous swirls of Art Deco and the clean lines of modernism with powerful pre-Columbian imagery, Spratling created a uniquely Mexican style of jewelry that established the craft in the international marketplace and, after the 1910 revolution, fed the need for a national identity. Simpler than the ornate colonial, European-influenced work that came before, his hand-wrought pieces were bought by Hollywood folk such as Linda Darnell, Barbara Stanwyck, John Huston and Marilyn Monroe. Lyndon Johnson was a client of Antonio Castillo, a silver designer trained in Las Delicias, a self-governing workshop Spratling set up in 1931. By 1944 he had 600 employees on his payroll, turning out rugs, blankets, furniture and light fixtures, in addition to his trademark silver.

"It's an odd quirk of history that an American expatriate became the father of Mexican silver, as he's called," said Stella Krieger, who for the last eight years has managed the museum store.

Depending on their ability, local craftsmen worked their way up and, with Spratling's encouragement, often set out on their own. Each year he held a contest, giving the winner a cash prize and putting the winning design into production.

Among the highlights of the 400-piece exhibit are a 1956 chess set by Hector Aguilar, Spratling's right-hand man at Las Delicias; a surrealist fish sculpture by Francisco Toledo; a modernist tea set by Antonio Pineda; and a punchbowl, by Spratling, created for a Mexican president. Taxco's Wolmar Castillo is scheduled to deliver a lecture at the museum on Sept. 6

During the 1920s, Spratling taught architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans, hanging out with John Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson, Spratling's roommate William Faulkner and others in the city's literary elite. Heading south in 1926, he fell in love with Mexican culture, writing a series of travel articles and a book called "Little Mexico."

He soon became friends with other movers and shakers, including Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and American Ambassador Dwight Morrow. What a shame that, over the years, the thousands of tons of silver mined in the area never stayed in Taxco, the diplomat observed -- nor fed the local economy.

Spratling took the cue, producing items sold at upscale venues such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue and turning Taxco into a destination for sophisticated Southern Californians. His story was chronicled in a 1946 Warner Bros. documentary, "The Man From New Orleans."

Guest curator Penny Morrill, who wrote the catalog, is an authority on the subject -- and on Spratling, a friend of her grandparents, who opened Taxco's first tourist hotel during the 1930s.

"I've had to battle any scent of neocolonialism when discussing the man," said Morrill, whose book "Mexican Silver" came out in 1994. "In fact, Spratling was lionized by the Mexicans. Taxco named a street after him during the 1950s, and when he died, thousands came from the surrounding villages. The town was draped in black."

The shortage of luxury goods from Europe during World War II fed Spratling's success. But after the war, trouble set in. The cash-strapped company fell into the hands of an unscrupulous American who -- purportedly in search of tax write-offs -- drove it into bankruptcy. Spratling retired to his ranch and continued to work. He was killed in a 1967 car crash that some believe was a suicide.

Spratling's contribution is all the more remarkable given the decline in quality since his death, experts say. The introduction of large retail outlets and wholesalers led to lower quality, an erosion of the link between designer and artisan, and a decline in innovation. Many workshops, moreover, were forced to close because of union demands.

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