All images copyright Don Freeman from Ted Muehling: A Portrait, by Don Freeman, text by Susan Yelavitch, Rizzoli, New York
South, below Grand Street and just above Canal—beyond the scene at the Mercer Hotel and at Balthazar, beyond those transplants from uptown (Prada, Bloomingdale’s, the MoMA store, the Guggenheim), past the chain stores and the weekend throngs and those “galleries” that remain—SoHo quiets down into a calmer, still-bohemian enclave (or at least a semi-bohemian one). There, tucked on a short stretch of the four-block, semi-hidden Howard Street—reportedly the last street in Manhattan to get streetlights—cluster some of the city’s most discerning specialty stores. Two are long-established anachronisms: E. Vogel, which has been making riding boots and men’s shoes by hand since 1879; and the Putnam Rolling Ladder Company, which has been building library ladders since 1905. Two came recently: the winningly inventive Opening Ceremony, selling pioneering, quirky international fashion—long black Brazilian capes, finely knitted German undershirts—by designers and manufacturers you’ve almost certainly never heard of; and De Vera, a sort of hyper-curated flea market—a Wunderkammer, really—where necklaces made from ancient intaglios are displayed in artfully crammed vitrines alongside antique opium pipes and Victorian mourning jewelry.
And then there’s the small, high-ceilinged store that serves as the magnet for newer boutiques—an ethereal place that draws the great fashion designer Narcisco Rodriguez when, he told me, “I need some peace or an inspirational jolt,” a store whose subdued atmosphere, invariably described as “magical,” is accentuated by the intermittent ting of a jeweler’s hammer from the studio in the back. This is the shop and workroom of Ted Muehling, whose jewelry and decorative objects have for 32 years been venerated among his fanatically devoted customers, a group that includes the most discriminating figures in the world of fashion and design. “Ted has the most refined aesthetic of any person I know, period,” says Sally Singer, Vogue’s fashion news/features director. “I’ve never heard anyone say his work is other than perfection.”
But only the cognoscenti, albeit a relatively large number of them, are familiar with Muehling’s creations. For one thing, the retiring, artistically earnest Muehling (counterculturally, he uses earnest as a term of high praise, and ironic as a term of derision) scorns the trendy. Seven years ago, he moved his shop to Howard Street from what is now the white-hot center of SoHo, because, as he explained to an interviewer, his original neighborhood “was just getting too spiffy.” (By that criterion, he may be pulling up roots again soon: in June, Jil Sander, the fashion house specializing in beautifully minimalist clothing, opened a beautifully minimalist two-level boutique diagonally across from Muehling’s shop.) He even all but eschews commerce. “It’s almost like he’s embarrassed to ask for money for what he does,” one of his closest friends, Kim Hastreiter, the editor and co-founder of the chronicle of cutting-edge fashion and design, Paper magazine, told me with a hint of exasperation. He insists on making all his jewelry—his most coveted and esteemed work—in his studio, so his production is perforce small. You can buy these pieces only at his atelier and four other places across the country (Bergdorf Goodman, uptown; Arp, in Los Angeles; Patina, on Nantucket; and Stanley Korshak, in Dallas), and even photographs of them are hard to come by, since he produces no catalog and his Web site forgoes showing any of his work.
|PRICELESS: "Olive branch" bracelet
Ted Muehling: A Portrait (Rizzoli), a long-awaited collaboration with the renowned photographer Don Freeman, is therefore a significant contribution to the literature on style and design, for it’s easily the largest collection of images of his work available. It’s far from comprehensive (Freeman includes no pictures of Muehling’s thick-to-thin earrings or his graceful, twisty cuff links, to name two of his most enduring designs). But here, in the juxtaposition of photos of the scavenged natural objects littering Muehling’s studio—antlers, fossils, shells, stones, pinecones, tree trunks, feathers, coral, branches, bird’s nests—with those of his highly refined, flawlessly proportioned creations, readers can apprehend how Muehling, who was trained as an industrial designer at Pratt, pares down and streamlines natural forms to create jewelry that’s at once delicate and austere, organic and abstract.
More important, Freeman’s photos cumulatively reveal the restraint and deliberation of Muehling’s pieces—adornments that are paradoxically, as the uncompromising virtuoso designers Isabel and Ruben Toledo put it to me, “anti-decorative,” which is really the key to their appeal. Notoriously shy, Muehling shuns the overwhelming in all forms and has, since he began making jewelry in 1976, explored the power of the diminutive and subtle. Attuned to how women want to be seen—and how they see each other—he rejects the notion of jewelry as an appendage or independent decoration and instead designs “a bit of punctuation,” as he calls it in the book, to elliptically call attention to the woman and not the jewelry. (Nuanced and almost intentionally unspectacular, his jewelry tends to beguile women who’ve reached a certain emotional, or at least aesthetic, maturity.) As Hastreiter—who introduced Muehling and Freeman 25 years ago, and to whom they each dedicate this book—explained to me, Muehling says his work as a jeweler is animated by “the idea of seeing a woman walk down the street, taking in the way she strides, and then noticing something catch and reflect a little sparkle of light as it naturally dangles from her ear and frames her face.” (His commercial policies, aimed at ensuring that not just the rich can buy his work, reflect that dedication. He sets the prices for his classic pieces—his “rice,” “berry,” and “chip” earrings; his “simple” bracelet—deliberately low, and despite constantly increasing costs, he hasn’t raised them.)
Women return that devotion. During the holidays, Hastreiter says, Muehling’s shop is jammed “from the moment it opens until the moment it closes with bewildered-looking cute husbands and boyfriends wandering around with crumpled pieces of paper in their hands with the drawings women made of the earrings they want their men to buy them.” By Christmas Eve, “his massive amount of pains-takingly handcrafted precious merchandise has been eaten up as if by termites.”
To be sure, part of Muehling’s allure among his initiates transcends the aesthetic achievements so richly displayed in this book. Although Muehling’s work is quiet, it’s also, as Lynn Yaeger, the fashion critic for The Village Voice and a great admirer of Muehling’s artistry, wryly told me, “readily identifiable.” There’s no more efficient and cost-effective way for a woman to telegraph her rarefied taste than to hang a pair of Muehling’s rice earrings ($110 in silver) from her lobes. The wearer signifies her supreme stylishness and her disregard for all things trendy; she’s utterly tasteful and knowing, while maintaining, as Yaeger archly puts it, her “downtown cred.” That’s a crucial but near-impossible balancing act for a socially and culturally vital swath of Manhattan womanhood—editrixes in chief, politically progressive litigators, principal curators and museum directors, executive producers. In a spot-on urban-anthropological essay, the artist Christopher Russell noted that when people ask him about his son’s Greenwich Village elementary school, with its “ridiculously competitive” admissions, “studied casualness,” and smug “neighborhoody specialness” (it’s got to be Grace Church School), he tells them that “all the mothers wear Ted Muehling,” and the inquisitors—“or those in the know, anyway—immediately understand.”