The Arts and Crafts Movement that started around 1860 countered the dehumanizing ugliness of the industrial revolution by encouraging craftsmen to make beautiful objects for use in everyday life. Such objects ranged from clay pots and wood furniture to silver tableware and gold jewelry.
The movement spread from Europe to the United States, and included such master designers and craftsmen as William Morris and his Morris chairs in England and, in America, Louis Comfort Tiffany and his stained-glass lamps and windows, Gustav Stickley and his mission furniture and Albert Hubbard and his Roycroft craft guild.
Evanston’s own sterling proponents of the movement are saluted in the current exhibit at the Evanston History Center, 225 Greenwood St.: “Art, Craft & Argental: The Cellini Shop in Evanston, 1914-1978.”
Guest curator Mary B. McWilliams has put together a gleaming exhibit of silver, pewter and aluminum trays, casserole, candy and butter dishes, boxes, finials, handles, spouts, candlesticks and silverware designed and made by Cellini craftsmen. The show also mixes in Cellini pottery, tiles and gold-and-glass costume jewelry and a stunning Episcopal bishop’s cope morse – the fastener that holds together the cope, or ceremonial cape. The gold-washed sterling silver cope morse is covered in Celtic designs and studded with amethysts, turquoise and topaz.
Ernest J. Gerlach (1890-1978) founded the shop in 1914, naming it for the great 16th-century Italian goldsmith, artist and writer Benvenuto Cellini. The Cellini
Shop was located at the northwest corner of Davis and Chicago. Co-proprietor
Margery Woodworth was a designer and co-founder of the Evanston Tre-O Shop where Mr. Gerlach had worked after training as a silversmith at the Marshall
Field & Company Craft Shop.
Ms. Woodworth stayed only until 1917. After she left, Mr. Gerlach turned to Walter and David Mulholland for much of the Cellini Shop silversmithing, even though they had opened their own Mullholland Brothers Shop in 1916. They lasted only a short time, closing their Evanston shop in 1919 and leaving town.
In 1924 Walter Gerlach (1894-1977), a former Art Institute of Chicago student, joined his brother in the Cellini Shop as designer, jeweler and business manager. They enjoyed the big-spending days of the Roaring Twenties but soon faced the financial strictures of the Great Depression. The brothers began to explore the potentials of other materials for making less expensive pieces and settled on an aluminum alloy. “The poor man’s silver” was brittle, less malleable and harder for the metalsmiths to handle.
“Working with aluminum is challenging,” the exhibit points out. “Hit a sheet of aluminum with too much force and it shatters into a thousand tiny shards. Get the welding torch too hot and the aluminum vaporizes in a shower of sparks.” Nonetheless, it was the new line of handwrought, tarnish-resistant aluminum products that enabled the Cellini Shop to survive the Depression.
Walter Gerlach hired Hans Grag, a metalsmith from Germany, and together they developed and made the new line of less expensive and less formal designs, starting Cellini Craft Ltd. in 1933. Eventually, it employed some 30 workers, both tool and die makers and silversmiths. Cellini Craft’s Argental line continued as a mainstay for the Cellini Shop, except during World War II, when aluminum was in demand for war work.
That was okay with the Gerlach bro-thers who had war work to do, too. Like so many other Evanston businesses, from 1941 to 1945 the Cellini Shop switched to war production. It made machine-gun gear sectors out of brass scraps to use in B-51 and Hellcat airplanes.
This war work was conducted at 1508 Elmwood Ave. in an old car-repair garage, which functioned as the Cellini Shop workshop from 1933 to 1954. The sophisticated shop was equipped with a hammer press, a drop forge, a casting machine, two centrifugal casting machines, two kilns and two burnout ovens. Previously, the workshop had been in the Orrington
The Cellini Shop itself moved all around downtown during its time in Evanston, landing at six locations in 64 years. It left the northwest corner of Davis and Chicago in 1917, moving kitty-corner to the southeast where Giordano’s Pizza is now. In 1920, it was on the move again, this time to the English shops at 622 Church St. When that building was torn down in 1925, the Cellini Shop wound up at the Orrington Hotel and stayed for 21 years.
In 1946 the shop moved back to the southeast corner of Davis-Chicago and stayed there for 21 years. 1967, however, was the beginning of the end.
Already in 1957, big changes were under way. The Gerlachs no longer sold Cellini Craft items because they had sold all the Cellini Craft patterns to the Randahl brothers, who took the patterns and many of the Cellini workers to Skokie. Ten years later, the Randahls sold the patterns to Reed & Barton and also bought the Cellini Shop from the Gerlachs. They moved the shop into a smaller space in the Carlson Building annex at 616 Church St. The store stayed there 11 years, closing at the end of business on Dec. 30, 1978. Founder Ernest Gerlach died the next day.
The Cellini Shop exhibit at the History Center continues through January 2015.