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Silver Spoon: "Designed by Architects"

Margo Grant Walsh wasn't born with one, but she collected her own

"Designed by Architects: Metalwork from the Margo Grant Walsh Collection" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is filled with beautiful, desirable objects drawn from Walsh's more than 800-piece collection. Looking at them on a scorching Houston summer day, you want to reach inside the MFAH's vitrines, touch the cool, smooth silver and hold it to your brow. Walsh probably wouldn't mind — she's a down-to-earth collector. Pretentious, ornate decorative metalwork isn't her thing; these objects were designed to be used. Walsh is an acclaimed interior architect, and you can see her professional sensibilities and her pragmatic Midwestern upbringing in her collection. The objects are practical and functional as well as beautiful.

"I'm interested in things that are utilitarian," Walsh said when we spoke about the show. "I'm not interested in table sculpture — how would you use it? I couldn't justify owning it because I couldn't use it to hold candles or pour wine."

Charles Robert Ashbee's muffin dish is seemingly almost spun from silver.
Courtesy MFAH
Charles Robert Ashbee's muffin dish is seemingly almost spun from silver.

The most appealingly tactile work in the collection is a 2003 coffee and tea service designed by Japanese architects Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishiwaza. Made by Alessi, the pieces of the set are chubby and rounded, irregularly shaped and reminiscent of pieces of fruit — pears, peaches, little melons. Clustered together on a rounded tray like a still life, these are definitely objects you want to hold. Walsh donated the piece (and many others) to the Portland Museum of Art, but you can tell she misses it. I don't blame her — they'd have to pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

Also included is an Arts and Crafts period muffin dish by British architect and designer Charles Robert Ashbee, who established the Guild of Handicraft to train workers in silversmithing and to encourage new designers. The dish has an elegance of line similar to the Alessi piece, but a more handwrought feeling. Seemingly almost spun from silver, it's adorned with a simple turquoise stone on the top lid. The surface of the finely hand-­hammered dome of the dish looks like rippled water in sunshine.

While the coffee service and the muffin dish display their architect/designers' fascination with volume, other pieces in the exhibition are more architectonic. George Henry Walton's 1910 copper Arts and Crafts mantel clock resembles the facade of a building. There is a slightly domed roof and three columns on either side of the clock face. They end as footed legs supporting the beautifully patinated rectangular clock body. It exemplifies the handwrought feeling of the period.

Architect Ettore Sottsass's 1981 silver-plated Murmansk Fruit Stand feels like a prop from the 1982 cult classic Blade­runner. A large bowl is held aloft by gleaming zigzagged columns — the object is a dynamic '80s riff on Art Deco with a futuristic feel.

Organized by Cindi Strauss, MFAH's curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts and design, this tight, beautifully installed show was made possible by the skilled eye and dedicated vision of Margo Grant Walsh, a collector as interesting as her collection. Walsh is a kind and engaging woman with a fascinating life story. Lovely and elegant in her seventies, the Interior Design magazine Hall of Fame inductee wears her silvering hair stylishly cropped and sports a pair of tortoiseshell Le Corbusier eyeglasses. A workaholic, Walsh collected silver as a way to relax and distract herself from her long hours at international architecture, design and planning firm Gensler. She joined the then-fledgling firm in 1973 and retired in 2004 as Vice Chairman/Emeritus, having helped the firm expand from a handful of employees to more than 2,000.

Walsh's biography makes her extremely impressive professional accomplishments and collecting skills all the more remarkable. She spent her early childhood on a North Dakota Indian reservation. Her father, a Chippewa, was a handsome young man with a dance band when he met and married Walsh's mother, a schoolteacher with Scottish parents. Growing up, Walsh had to deal with the poverty and the prejudice against Native Americans that was endemic to the Midwest. (Her mother's own homesteader parents eventually resigned themselves to their daughter's union.) The one-room schoolhouse where her mother taught was so remote that Walsh and her mother would live there during the week. Her father would come to pick them up on weekends. As a tiny girl, Walsh sat in the classroom while her mother taught children of all ages.

I asked Walsh if there was metalwork on her North Dakota reservation. "No, there's a lot of beadwork on a reservation — beads, beads, beads..." she said, her voice trailing off as she remembered. Even so, she "decided the true American silversmiths are the American Indians and ­Tiffany."

When her parents moved the family to Portland to take wartime shipyard jobs, more opportunities eventually opened up for Walsh. "When I got out of high school, I couldn't afford to go to college, so I worked at a bank full time," she says. "I took courses at night school in art and design. I went from an all-girls Catholic school to night classes with Korean war vets." She eventually transferred to the University of Oregon, where she was the only woman in her architecture classes. She cooked and cleaned house in exchange for room and board while attending the university.

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