Thursday, June 3, 2010

Heikki Seppä

Last week, I learned of the death of a talented metalsmith and innovator. Finnish-born artist Heikki Seppä, died May 18th at age 83. His work first came to my attention in 1978 when I was in college studying metal crafts. That was the year his book Form Emphasis for Metalsmiths was published, introducing new ideas and a new vocabulary to metalsmithing. In one of my classes, we were working with raised forms and practiced making various synclastic and anticlastic curved forms in metal. We were moving metal in ways we hadn't even considered before. Seppä developed these forms to create his shell structures–lightweight hollow forms that were curved, graceful, and just plain amazing. The sinusoidal stake is his invention, too. It's a wobbly looking tapered metal stake designed to facilitate the shaping of these unique forms. 

Seppä is also credited with pioneering work in metal surface reticulation, something he brought to the United States after training with a former Fabergé artist. The technique was developed in the late 1800's in Czarist Russia and used by Fabergé and other court jewelers to create textured objects.

Reticulation, an unpredictable organic-looking torch-created texture, is usually done with a silver alloy (also possible with a gold alloy). The technique is based on the fact that a pure metal and an alloy have different melting points and rates of expansion/contraction. A layer of pure metal is raised to the surface of the sheet of metal by depletion gilding (a repetitive process of heating and pickling to remove the copper oxide from the surface layer). The resulting sheet is then heated with the torch to a point at which the interior alloy begins to melt but the surface "skin" is only softened. As the piece cools and the alloy contracts, the surface becomes covered with ridges. Reticulation silver sheet can be purchased from jewelry suppliers like Rio Grande. It is not sterling. Its higher copper content lowers the melting point of the alloy, creating less risk of melting the surface layer and a more dramatic effect.

Another contribution credited to Seppä is his work with roll-printing. This is transferring a texture onto a metal surface using a rolling mill (not unlike what metal clay artists do to transfer a texture to the metal clay without the rolling mill).

A great book for both the anitclastic raising and reticulation techniques is Metals Technic, from Brynmorgen Press. Heikki Seppä contributed the chapter on Reticulation, and artist Michael Good, who studied with Seppä in 1979, contributed the Anticlastic Raising chapter. Good has developed and expanded the techniques in this form of metalsmithing and his work is simply stunning.

It's been ages since I've tried either of these techniques, but in the past few years I have thought often about trying my hand at the raising techniques again. I can make some time to do that, right?


  1. You're such a good write Cathy. Thanks for this wonderful memorial and explanation of his impact on the metals world.

    You continue to surprise me with your experience. You've been working with metal much longer than I had thought. No wonder you're so good.

  2. Thanks Lora, you're so kind. I'm glad you appreciated it. The news brought back a strong memory of being really awed by the forms when we were introduced to them (way back when...).

  3. This breaks a little bit off my heart.

    Vick Cook

  4. Cathy thank you for this post'. Heikki was not only a friend but was my mentor for many years, Your post tells the story of a devoted artist to his craft. So many tears have brought back memories of hard work and lots of fun. When he passed through JFK on his way back from a visit to Finland, he would break up his trip home and spend the night with us. Most people would bring the hostess a gift but Heikki would bring back a Merrimeko shirt for my husband and tucked away was a hammer that he created for me. It is one of my most prized objects. He created a beautiful brooch that my husband gave me for our 25th anniversary. Just a little walk down memory lane with an outstanding craftsman and superb man who gave his all to the metal community.We will all miss his dedication to the use of the English language and to his craft.

  5. I've wanted a rolling mill for a few of years now but I don't have anywhere to put it so I have gone up to the Mendocino Art Center for lab time on Thursdays and they let you use all their stuff.

    Reticulation is something I want to do too.

    Thanks for telling us where these things came from. May he rest in peace.