Ted Muehling -Winter 2016

An artist at heart

by: Susan Simon

I can’t remember exactly when I fell for Ted Muehling’s work, but I know it was when I saw it at his sister Carol’s shop, Patina, on Nantucket.

The first pieces that seduced me were the earrings: little acorn-shaped drops of amethyst, frosted crystal and agate chalcedony, delicate, gold-filigreed, Queen Anne’s lace studded with diamonds, pearls and agate, and clusters of gold and turquoise beads.

Then came the vine-like bracelets and necklaces, the decorative objects and housewares in forms derived from nature, produced in collaboration with the German porcelain manufacturer Nymphenburg; Lobmeyr, the Austrian crystal company; Wiener Silber Manufactur; and E.R. Butler, the New York City hardware company.

I felt privileged to meet with Ted at his shop/studio in lower Manhattan. The meeting took place on one of those sweltering-hot August days that completely vaporized as soon as I entered his 52 White St. location. I was immediately transported into a cool (in every sense of the word) space, filled with his jewelry and decorative objects as well as flea-market finds, and pieces of nature that could have been in a private natural-history museum belonging to an eccentric yet noble curator of flora and fauna.

Muehling, who wears his graying hair in a low pony-tail, articulates his thoughts without hesitation. He went to Pratt Institute in the 1970s, and is a nottrained jeweler. Although his degree is in industrial design, he did take a jewelry-making class while at school, but he didn’t enjoy the way the class was taught. It was too tightly structured.

“The old way, the traditional way to make jewelry, is to draw the piece first, then make it – that’s still the way it’s done at places like Van Cleef & Arpels – but it is hard to imagine a piece without seeing the raw materials first. Until you know what the material can do, it’s ridiculous to draw it first. When I got out of Pratt I hated being in an office doing industrial design. A friend of mine from school asked if I knew about jewelry-making – you just bang it, and you get a torch and you solder it together – it couldn’t have been simpler. I couldn’t have been happier. I had an affinity for it. I could take it from that initial first step,” he said.

He goes on to talk about what he means by “affinity.”

“I’m good at making things. I can take plastic, wood, stone – I’m a self-taught cutter – and imagine things. I’m not a virtuosic jeweler like Schlumberger, who does the most exquisite mixture of pavé and stones. I have to invent ways around my limitations, but in a way that opens up a lot of possibilities. You don’t have blinders on, which I think in very formal training to be a jeweler you end up with ideas that are conventional.”

Muehling’s initial jewelry collaborations were with fashion designers. In the 1970s he worked with Issey Miyake, Vivian Westwood, Calvin Klein, Julio, and Joan Vass. Carol Muehling’s Nantucket shop on Centre Street was a Joan Vass store before it became Patina. His relationship with the fashion world ended years ago. Now he collaborates with high-end makers of housewares and decorative objects.

I wondered whether the scallop shell had ever inspired him.

“I’ve used a few shells in my design. They’re abstractions. Usually I don’t try to replicate. I try to get something essential out of the shapes. It’s the spiral, it’s the ribs. I’ve done mussel shells that are scoops in porcelain, and of course porcelain suggests whatever material the shell is made out of – calcium – grittiness. The same with silver. You can turn silver black and create an idealized, simplified form,” he said.

“The only actual realistic pieces that I do are the cast branches (spoon handles) which actually are real. Those to me are surreal because they look like a branch but it’s silver then oxidized, then we hammer on the bowls of the spoons. Generally my intent is not to replicate but to make you see the form in a new way, by simplifying it and making it in a different material. So instead of saying ‘Oh, that’s seashell,’ you can say ‘Oh, what a beautiful oval.’ You can appreciate it again. That’s just fun.”

Muehling keeps his business small. He says it’s all he can handle. It’s small, but it’s large because he’s so well-known.

The company grew in an evolutionary way, Muehling said.

“The company grew in an evolutionary way. I was doing it with my friend Tucker Viemeister who helped me with the basics of hammering and soldering, and production. Then I was in a show in Paris and needed help. Gabriella Kiss, whose work is shown at Patina, was living near me and she helped me and became my third assistant. I have 10 people now,” he said.

Muehling makes enough product to sell all over the world.

“Well, I sell to about eight different places. Carol’s store is one of the best. It’s fun because I can indulge her. She takes things that I want her to. Some stores, like Bergdorf’s – I’ve been with them for 40 years – choose what they want, and have a good representation of my work.”

Muehling’s connection to Nantucket runs deep.

“We went to the island as kids. My father loved it. I have memories of this place from when I was 7. The smell, the sense of place. My parents continued to go when I was at school. In the 1960s it was magic. Everyone was riding bikes. It’s a nostalgic and strong experience,” he said.

“We saw the changes. But it’s still beautiful and it’s still special. I have friends on the Vineyard – and it’s beautiful there – but Nantucket – it’s like the moon. Moors and scrub oak – it’s unique. I love the area. I love the history – the 18th and 19th centuries – people going out in boats.”

Now, he says, “when I’m on Nantucket Carol takes me to the beaches.”

He collects shells to make monumental accretions to hang from the ceiling.

What else does Muehling do with his downtime? Although he and his partner, the artist and illustrator Mats Gustafson, have second homes in Sag Harbor and Stockholm, he spends 90 percent of his time in his studio. He says that he loves being with the people who work with him. As he gets older, he likes making unique pieces.

“I keep myself busy with my own compulsive nature. I don’t aspire to have more than what I have. It’s enough. I’m happy with what I’m doing,” he said.” ///

Susan Simon is a freelance writer living in the Hudson Valley. She writes a weekly food column, “In the Kitchen,” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s weekly newspaper.

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