Heikki Seppä and the Rediscovery of Shell Forms

Peacock, by Heikki Seppä. Photo courtesy Nick Felkey

Peacock, by Heikki Seppä. Photo courtesy Nick Felkey.

When master metalsmith Heikki Seppä began his career as a metalsmith, silvermithing was strongly influenced—even dominated, according to Seppä–by the silver hollowware industry. Hollowware makers had become focused on speed and mass production. As a result, the forms they used to make tea and coffee pots, candlesticks, and other silver pieces, were greatly influenced by the prolific industrial use of rotation forms—forms that can be created on a lathe.

Other forms had been used in the past when silversmithing was still largely done by hand. But Seppä discovered that the language of these creative forms, forms that emphasized the fluidity of the metal rather than the speed of mass production, was rapidly disappearing. As a result, the use of the forms themselves had declined. When he began teaching, Seppä found he could demonstrate to students how to make those forms, but the words he needed to explain the concept behind them no longer existed. “A host of terms had to be unearthed or minted afresh to teach and discuss developments properly,” he wrote in Form Emphasis for Metalsmiths. Seppä “unearthed” many of those terms from other fields such as biology and mathematics. And he had to unearth them in a language other than his native Finnish.

Seppä was so enthusiastic about his new “shell structures” idea he wrote a book, Form Emphasis for Metalsmiths. When I spoke to him in 1999, Seppä was modest about it. “My first book was written in such early innocent fervor that it all came out wrong.” Many other metalmsiths consider the work seminal.

By finding the appropriate language to describe the formal characteristics of what he came to call “shell forms,” Seppä was able to reintroduce metalsmiths to forms that would tie any self-respecting lathe into knots. The world of metal discovered anti-clastic forming. Some of Seppä’s rediscovered language is below:

  • acicular — pin or needle-shaped
  • ansate — handle-shaped
  • anticlastic — curving in opposite directions at a given point
  • byssoidal — tufted with long filaments
  • catenoid — from the curve formed by a hanging chain
  • chelate — hoof-shaped
  • conchate — spiral-shaped
  • cordate — heart-shaped
  • corniform — horn-shaped
  • cuneiform — wedge-shaped
  • dentiform — tooth-shaped
  • ensate — sword-shaped
  • falcate — sickle-shaped
  • form — a three-dimensional object
  • hamulate — hook-shaped
  • hastate — arrow-shaped
  • infundibular — funnel-shaped
  • napiform — turnip-shaped
  • peltate — small round shield-shaped
  • pterygoid — wing-shaped
  • pyriform — pear-shaped
  • rostal — beak-shaped
  • scutate — small round shield-shaped
  • shape — a two-dimensional silhouette image
  • shell — formed hollow components that, joined together, create more complex forms
  • synclastic — curving in the same direction at a given point

The right language can give any artist, such as jewelry makers, a way to analyze and understand the structure of a design and why it does or does not work. When that happens, they can begin to translate the underlying concepts into their own work rather than simply copy what they see. For example, if you can see that the arrangement of gemstones in a brooch is not random, but draws the viewer’s eye through the design, then you can begin to think about how you can guide the viewer’s eye through your own work helping them see what you want them to see, and how you want them to see it.

If you want to learn more about Heikki Seppä, rustle up an old issue of Lapidary Journal—November 2000, to be exact—in which my profile of this amazing man appears.

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