Interview by Tom Bowtell 2013

In the second of his interviews with makers from the floor of Goldsmiths’ Fair, Tom Bowtell talks to up-and-coming silversmith Phil Jordan about the delights of deconstructionism, the tussle between function and form, and the never-ending challenge of the silver teapot.

 

 

 

 

Still firmly ensconced in his 20s, Phil Jordan is one of the youngest silversmiths regularly exhibiting at Goldsmiths’ Fair. He is very much a member of the school of dapper-dressed designer makers; unveiling a natty combination of waistcoat and bowtie which lend his appearance more than a passing similarity to current Doctor Who, Matt Smith. As I begin talking with Phil at Stand 32, in the middle of the imposing Livery Hall, his excitement at exhibiting at Goldsmiths’ Fair is palpable from the off:

“For me, the Fair is the biggest moment of the year as it’s the best chance to sell directly to the public. But as well as the selling, the valuable thing is having direct feedback. You’ve got your new range out and you see customers’ reactions and hear them saying, ‘I like this’, or, ‘I don’t like that’, and even, ‘why don’t you try this?’, and that leads on to further designs. So a coffee measure can become a caddy spoon in a very short space of time, based on what people say and what people want.”

Phil feels that being surrounded by 90 other designer-makers is also an advantage to the attentive silversmith, as it allows them to get a feel for the market, spot potential gaps in it, and sense where it is becoming saturated:

“You might get people saying, ‘there’s a lot of salt cellars around’, and so that might prompt you might make something other than a salt cellar for your next piece.” Having heard him talk so astutely about the value of having a dialogue with Fair visitors, and creating new collections based on direct feedback, I’m intrigued to see if there are any pieces on Phil’s stand this year which were inspired by conversations he had with would-be customers at last year’s event – fortunately, there are:

 

 

Phil's sugar shovels

 

“The coffee measure and the sugar shovels are directly linked to suggestions I received from people last year about the sorts of things they were interested in. Also, the gold plating and black rhodium plating on the salt cellars I exhibited last year are a clear response to what people said they would like. ”Three days into this year’s Fair, Phil has already picked up some pointers towards new pieces customers would like to see in future Jordan collections:“A caddy spoon is clearly needed! And one will be made as soon as possible after the Fair is over…”

 

 

Now enjoying his third Fair, Phil’s journey to Goldsmiths’ Hall began as a boy in Leicester where he admits he always had a fascination with finding out how things work, and left a trail of dismantled toys, clocks and vacuum cleaners in his wake:

“I’ve always been a deconstructionist! The moment I was bought a mountain bike I had it stripped down in pieces in the garage. There’s always been a mechanical side alongside the artistic side. My granddad was a draughtsman for Rolls-Royce and my mum mastered in art and ceramics, so that mixture’s there in my genetic make-up.”Phil goes on to wonder aloud if this fascination with mechanics and how things work might lie behind his decision to become a silversmith rather than a jeweller:“Whenever I see a large piece of silver work, my immediate thought is ‘how have they done that? How have they produced that effect? What tools have they needed to make that?'”His eyes instantly light up at his own mention of tools:

 

The ewer and rosewater bowl for Clare College, Cambridge

 

“I really enjoy making tools! I could almost be a toolmaker, I make that many tools for new pieces of work. There is a new piece I have made as a commission for Clare College Cambridge (he indicates a picture on his stand’s wall of an impressive jug). It is 35 centimetres tall and raised from sheet silver, and in order to raise something that size I had to constantly design and make new, longer stakes. So that was great fun”.

 

 

By the time he reached his late teens Phil knew what he liked (being creative and exploring how things work) but didn’t really know what he actually wanted to do. He certainly hadn’t done anything one might expect a budding silversmith to have done by the age of 18, such as make something out of silver. His hazy career path was ultimately defined by two moments of serendipity, the first of which came at Leicester College during his art foundation year:“At the back of one of the college workshops I found a dusty old welding machine. Nobody at the college knew how to use it so I did a Google search for ‘how to use a welder’; went and bought some welding gloves and some scrap steel and I started making sculptures and stuff.”

 

Phil’s free-wheeling (or free-welding) sculptural experimentation took place alongside his rather more conventional training in small copper-working and jewellery-making, giving him some more concrete clues about the sort of thing he wanted to do with his talent. This inkling towards a career in metalworking was solidified thanks to the second moment of serendipitous discovery, which took place during a visit to Sheffield Hallam University:

 

“When I went to the open day, someone asked if we wanted to see the ‘M and J’ department. I didn’t actually know what ‘M and J’ stood for, but went along anyway, and it turned out it was the Metalwork and Jewellery department. The moment I walked into the workshop and saw that they were hammering silver and making silver bowls I just thought, ‘this is what I want to be doing!”What excited the young Phil most about silver was that, “it was a usable material, which had a function and I can still bash it with hammers and have a great time making it.”

 

 

A nut dish by Phil

 

This comment, and the regularity with which words such as ‘usable’ and ‘function’ crop up when Phil is discussing silver, confirm that this first stage of his career has seen him align himself with those silversmiths who believe that what they make should have a function, as well as looking beautiful:“My brain works in a very utilitarian way – I like sculpture, and I like pure artwork, but that’s not how I think in my work. At the moment I’m driven towards creating things which have a purpose and a use. For example, the Clare College piece will be in service, used at least once a week, and hopefully for 100 years.”

 

 

Phil goes on to outline the different challenges that are presented by creating a piece of silverware which has a specific function:“When I’m designing, I use CAD programmes to make sure things are in the right proportion, the right shape and size, and also the right volume: to make sure that a milk jug will hold the right amount of liquid. Other function comes as I am creating and producing the pieces – making sure that it has been made from a thick enough material, that the joints are strong enough to take regular use. If it’s going to be heavily used, making sure there’s a foot on the bottom of the piece so it doesn’t wear through – things like that.”

 

Throughout our interview, Phil has spoken with impressive, almost eerie precision and clarity about the importance of Goldsmiths’ Fair, his creative evolution and the motivations behind the objects he creates. It thus comes as something of a relief when, in the middle of his fluent outlining of why making functional objects is of paramount importance to him, he pauses, and admits that while everything he has said holds true for his career thus far, he is perhaps on the cusp of reassessing his priorities: 

 

 

Amaranthine vase

 

“Well, I think the form is starting to overtake the function ever so slightly: sometimes if it’s not quite right functionally, but it looks right, I’ll consider whether that’s the route I want to explore.”There follows a fascinating interlude where Phil basically has a conversation with himself about his priorities, and in the process gives me a glimpse of the intellectual and creative evolution which happens during the early years of a designer-maker’s career. Eventually, he comes to a compromise with himself:

 

 

“I can see myself in the future moving more towards the sculptural side of things, but still keeping some utility. Vases are a great way of producing something functional which still gives you scope to experiment with form.”

 

The smooth, entirely composed Phil Jordan quickly re-emerges when our conversation shifts to the difficulties of beginning a silversmithing career in the current tricky economic climate. Phil set up his business in 2009, right in the middle of the credit crunch and recession, making him a fascinating case-study:

 

“I was starting at the very worst time. And I actually think that was probably a good thing, because I’ve known no better. If I’ve shown that I can cope during the hardest time, if the economy comes back up and then dips again, I know I can cope with it. It’s given me resilience.”

 

The fact that Phil is still here – still making – is testimony to his resilience and talent, although he does indeed admit that:“It would certainly help if the economy were in a better place! To get by it means you have to work more hours, and take on more part-time jobs as you can’t rely on just silversmithing at the start of your career – it’s not enough to live on straight away. But you learn to deal with it.”Then, lest he be perceived as being too downbeat about his job, he adds:

 

“But I don’t do this for the money, I do it because I love it: it’s an enjoyable thing to be doing.”And for all his remarkable composure, clarity of vision and grounded realism, this last statement best sums up where Phil Jordan is right now. Three years into a career he discovered by accident, he is simply delighted to be paid to do something that he loves, and is excited – rather than daunted – by the challenges that inevitably await him. This relishing of the challenge is borne out when speaks about the piece he is most eager to create in the future:

 

“My dream is to produce a silver teapot, because the teapot is my nemesis! I’m completely addicted to tea – I love it – I love the rituals and ceremony, but every time I design a teapot I’m just not happy with it. I’ve wanted to make it for five or six years, ever since I started, but I’ve not mastered it yet… I’d also like to make a solid silver teacup, and I’m trying to work out ways to create one which wouldn’t get so hot that you couldn’t pick it up or sip from it…”At this moment, my dictaphone runs out of battery, so I don’t record what comes next, as Phil enthusiastically launches into ways of reducing the conductivity of silver to keep it cool, and the reasons why structuring teapot spouts has thus far proved beyond him. But as I leave Phil to welcome the morning’s first visitors to his stand, I have every faith that one year soon I’ll return to the Fair to see a dapper-dressed silversmith displaying a magnificently-spouted pot as he sips tea, with unburned lips, from a solid silver cup. 

 

Interview courtesy of Tom Bowtell and The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths’

© Copyright Phil Jordan 2011 - 2018.

 

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