When a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck San Francisco on the morning of April 18, 1906, it triggered three days of fires, destroying almost 30,000 structures and leaving more than half the city’s residents homeless. Once the embers cooled, the quake spurred an equally thorough rebuilding effort, first for roofs over people’s heads, but then for the creature comforts that would transform all those new houses into homes.
Dirk van Erp was uniquely positioned to take advantage of the home-furnishings boom the earthquake inadvertently created. Considered today the leading Arts and Crafts coppersmith of the early 20th century, van Erp produced everything from coal buckets and fireplace sets to candlesticks, vases and lamps, all hand-hammered in studios on both sides of San Francisco Bay. During his 25-year career, van Erp taught several generations of coppersmiths the tricks of the trade, helping to make the San Francisco Bay Area a center for copper objects and design.
Born in the Netherlands and raised in a family of coppersmiths, van Erp arrived in the United States in 1890 and settled in San Francisco around 1891. In 1900, van Erp took a job as a coppersmith at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard near Vallejo, where he lived with his wife, Mary, and their daughter, Agatha. The couple’s son, William, was born there the following year.
By day, van Erp fabricated utilitarian pieces for the Navy, capitalizing on the skills he learned in the old country. But in his spare time, van Erp began hammering decorative vases out of spent artillery shell casings, which still bore the names of their manufacturers (“Winchester Repeating Arms Co.,” “UMC Co.,” etc.) on their bases.
“He started off making those as his hobby,” says Gus Bostrom, who has spent much of his life filling in the cracks of van Erp’s often incomplete history, using his shop, California Historical Design, in Alameda, as a base of operations. “There was probably an area or department at the shipyard where he’d just pick them out of a bin and pay for them based on their scrap value.”
Naturally, many of van Erp’s earliest forms were cylindrical, following the shape of his source materials. Some had modest, trumpet-like flares at their tops, while others had wavy, undulating openings. Surface treatments ranged from irregular grids of hammer marks to masses of “warty” bumps to columns of deep dimples. Eventually, the forms evolved to include wide, footed punch bowls and vases with gourd-like, bulbous bottoms. Within a few years, van Erp’s hobby had become a second source of income, as the blue-collar tradesman sold his handsome, decorative pieces through a prominent San Francisco art gallery.
In 1907, just one year after the quake, van Erp left the security of his job at the shipyard for the life of an artisan.
“Van Erp was not making Arts and Crafts shell casings right off the bat,” says Bostrom, who is the author of the 2014 book, “Bay Area Copper, 1900-1950, Dirk van Erp & His Influence.” “His first copper pieces were frilly, fussy, really Victorian-looking. Many had repoussé or chased designs on them. When people see these pieces today, they don’t have a clue they were done by Dirk van Erp.”
The reason, Bostrom says, is that van Erp was as much a product of his times as anyone else of that era. “He lived in a Victorian gingerbread house at the top of Ohio Street in Vallejo,” Bostrom said.
Van Erp moved his family to Berkeley and opened a copper shop in Oakland in 1909. By the following year, the van Erps had moved to San Francisco, where Dirk founded a studio. One of his first protégés was Harry St. John Dixon, who came to van Erp’s shop with little training, working for him from 1909 until 1911, when van Erp fired the young man.
The experience was productive enough to land Dixon a job working for respected metalworker Lillian Palmer (described in a San Francisco Call headline from 1907 as “An Ingenious Girl Worker In Metals”). Dixon stayed with Palmer for six years before opening his own establishment in San Francisco in 1920.
August Tiesselinck, van Erp’s nephew, sailed from Rotterdam in 1911 to work with his uncle in America. Unlike Dixon, the youth arrived an accomplished metalsmith. In fact, Tiesselinck was hired away from van Erp by Palmer, who used his designs for the curvilinear shades in some of her lamps. By 1922, though, Tiesselinck was back at his uncle’s, making his mark on all sorts of van Erp pieces, including van Erp’s flat-top lamps.
Of course, two of the most important coppersmiths to pass through the van Erp shop were van Erp’s children. Agatha was teaching metalworking at the San Francisco Art Institute by the age of 18. When the United States entered World War I, Agatha and her brother, William, who at 16 was too young to enlist, kept the van Erp shop running while their father joined Dixon, Tiesselinck, and other tradesmen at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, where they plied their skills in the service of the war effort.
William inherited the business after his parents died in 1933, and he made his mark on the business during the Great Depression by diversifying into metals such as brass and silver. He also pushed the firm into new stylistic realms, such as art deco.
After World War II, the dark, patinated surfaces of copper gave way to shinier things, as the clean lines of midcentury modern elbowed aside styles like Arts and Crafts, which were deemed too old-fashioned and fusty.
Today, though, many people are hungry again for the hand-hammered look of Arts and Crafts, which conveys an air of authenticity that can’t be found at big-box stores. Not only were Dirk van Erp’s pieces handmade, he came by his aesthetic honestly, forced to prove himself in the rough-and-tumble world of blue-collar tradesmen before being embraced by the art-world elites.
* To read the full, original July 2013 story about the history of Dirk van Erp and Bay Area copper, visit Collectors Weekly. Also, check out Gus Bostrom’s books, “Bay Area Copper, 1900-1950, Dirk van Erp & His Influence” and “Dirk van Erp.” Bostrom’s shop, California Historical Design, includes a small museum with van Erp’s original tools. It’s open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. on Saturdays; 1901 Broadway, Alameda, 510-647-3621.