Mark of the Week – Sculptsmith’s ‘Brutalist’ Starburst Sculpture
This rather abstract, unmarked 1960s metal wall hanging with a Friedle mark, could be found at a local Goodwill with a price tag around $100. While one would be right about the era, the price tag would be off by an extra zero or so.
This rather abstract, unmarked metal wall hanging looks like 1960s department store relic that one might find now in a Goodwill store with a $100 price tag. While one would be right about the vintage, they would be incorrect about its origins, and the price tag would be off by an extra zero or so.
The reason for this perception is mainly a result of what happens with new decorative trends that catch on with the public. The designers who break the barriers with new forms of popular decorative art quickly find their limited-edition creations mass produced for the broader market within a year or two. Markets often flood with these lower-priced knockoffs and the trend dies eventually, leaving the general public to consign both the originals and the mass-produced copies to the same pile for donation or yard sale.
The style of these welded and torch-cut brass and copper pieces came to be known as “Brutalist,” coined from the French word brut, meaning “raw,” first used to describe the post-Second World War architectural style of monumental buildings in unadorned concrete. While the buildings were bulky with an impression of great strength, the sculptures are often spare and give an impression of lightness and flight.
The piece shown above is an original by Sculptsmith, a design company set up by two brothers, Bruce and William Friedle, in 1961. Their best-known New York showroom was established in 1961 and originally located at 138 West Tenth Street. Both brothers graduated from New York University, with William first coming to the attention of the designer art world when he won a design competition for a new apartment with what was to later become a signature item for him, a ceiling-hung starburst sculpture made of metal rods.
It was not long before this Starburst design took off in popularity. William was commissioned to produce this particular design for high-end clients and commercially for banks and department stores. The company went on to further recognition when it was commissioned to produce a majority of the decorative art for the Chicago Museum of Science’s “Home of Steel” exhibit.
Most of these 1960s-era metal wall sculptures were marked with a simple sticker label. If you find one with the label still attached, lucky you!
The Sculptsmith pieces were primarily constructed of copper and brass. While the Starburst patterns were very popular, the company also produced a series of other wall hangings and floor sculptures, some close to five feet in height. Just as many of the mass-produced knockoffs were, the Sculptsmith originals were marked—if they were marked at all—with sticker labels and tags assigned to their pieces sold through galleries. Signature pieces were very rare.
When new the Starburst sculptures first hit the market, they sold for about $75, which sounds cheap today, but back in 1961, it was the equivalent of $590. They now often sell at auction for more than $800 and, depending on size and provenance, and list in high end galleries in the $1,500 to $4,800 range. Other larger designs can sell for much more.
Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website Antique-Appraise.com website.
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