The work of the American artist and designer Howard Smith, who turns ninety April 17, emanates exuberance. It affirms that, despite the odds, good cheer is the only rational option. ‘I am always trying to emphasize the more joyous, the more positive aspect of being,’ he says. This conviction also springs from the blood: he is New Jersey-born of an African heritage that has resolutely transmuted deracination and slavery into a joyful noise. It also stems from the abiding pleasure Smith takes, both as a creator and collector, in the ably hand-wrought object.
This pleasure in collecting and assembling objects was manifested at an early age and encouraged by teachers at the progressive black school he attended as a child. He would indulge it later while serving with occupying US army forces in postwar Japan, Korea and Germany, scouring his favorite haunts – museums and antique shops. Upon his return to the States in 1955 he enrolled in the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, but, distressed by academic conservatism and the death of his father, quit his formal studies and in 1962 accepted an invitation to visit Helsinki to represent the United States at an international youth festival.
Only much later did he learn, to his amusement, that his visit was part of a propaganda campaign by the CIA to counter the much larger Soviet-sponsored Helsinki World Festival of Youth and Students. But the event offered an unprecedented opportunity to meet Finnish artists, designers, architects and musicians, many of whom – among them, Stuart Wrede, Iso and Mysi Lahtinen, Chrisse Schwindt, Aarno Ruusuvuori, Sakari Laitinen, Juhani Pallasmaa, Armi Ratia, Maija Isola – remained lifelong friends and allies. Encouraged by an offer of work and access to Galleria Pinx from Matti Viherjuuri, Smith decided to stay and he remained until 1976, when he returned to the States for a decade to teach, lecture and to seek, as he puts it, ‘the spiritual input of black people.’ His move back to Finland in 1985 was permanent.
What initially attracted Smith was the generous reception he received, but what kept him here was the signature Finnish design aesthetic of less as more and the venerable tradition of competent craft – the admirably widespread capacity to improvise, with an economy of effort, from the materials at hand. It is a mode of operation close to his heart. He employs whatever strikes his fancy – paper, pigments, wood, clay, fiber, metal, glass – and has come to possess an exhaustive technical expertise. He was soon not only regularly exhibiting his own prolific output but carrying out commissions, many of them color schemes for corporate offices and public buildings. He has also created textiles, tableware and decor objects for, among other firms, iittala, Artek, Arabia, Wärtsilä and Hackman. He also delights in metamorphosing the castoff – the tatty garment, the rusted machine part, the scrap cardboard. The intrinsic visual and tactile qualities of these objects trouvés are often burnished by a history of human use, an attribute he cherishes and preserves by working around it. With a few deft changes he recycles the workaday as whimsy. Much of his work gently contests the disjunction, prevalent in art establishment circles, between art and craft, between head and hand. It is an oeuvre singular in its imaginative scope, technical virtuosity and sheer volume.
Since 1996 Howard Smith has lived with his wife, the ceramist Erna Aaltonen, in a rehabilitated apple barn overlooking Fiskars. The house, its furnishings and the surrounding sculpture park constitute a consummate Gesamtkunstwerk that may be considered in itself a signal achievement. Despite years of progressive glaucoma, he continued to produce work until very recently, but now near blindness makes this impossible. In 2003 he was granted a Finnish state artist’s pension, an acknowledgement of Howard Smith as a national treasure.
Tim Steffa 17th of April 2018