By Bill Van Siclen
Journal Arts Writer
April 10, 2009
John Axel Prip, a Danish-trained silversmith and longtime Rhode
Island School of Design professor whose ability to mix traditional
craftsmanship with new ideas and influences made him a major force in
20th-century design, died Wednesday of complications from Parkinson’s
disease. He was 86.
The son and grandson of silversmiths, “Jack” Prip was born in
Yonkers, N.Y., but raised in Denmark, where his father owned a
silversmithing factory. Prip’s own metalsmithing career began at age
15, when he entered an apprenticeship program offered by a local high
school. The training, which consisted mainly of copying 19th-century
neoclassical designs, didn’t leave much room for creativity. But it
did give Prip a strong technical background, a trait he would rely on
throughout his career.
In 1948, Prip returned to the United States to take a job at the
newly opened School for American Craftsmen, in Alfred, N.Y. At the
time, few colleges offered courses in fine metalworking of any kind,
regarding it mainly as a field for hobbyists. With his Old World
training, Prip brought a new level of artistic and academic
respectability to the medium.
At the same time, Prip’s exposure to America’s more freewheeling art
and design scene helped unlock his own creativity. “Coming here
really had an enormous impact on Jack,” said longtime friend and
former Maine College of Art professor Tim McCreight. “Had he stayed
in Denmark, I’m sure he would have had a great career. But being
exposed to the kind of multi-layered, multi-ethnic,
make-it-up-as-you-go-along culture he found in America, really helped
him find his own artistic voice.”
It was a “voice” that found expression in a wide and often whimsical
array of forms - bowls decorated with playful abstract patterns,
pitchers that zigged and zagged like Cubist paintings and tea sets
that looked like a collection of miniature space ships. Yet Prip
rarely crossed the line into pure sculpture, preferring to combine
form and function.
That was especially true of the dozens of designs he created for
Reed & Barton, the Taunton-based tableware company where he served as
"designer/craftsman in residence" and where some of his most popular
pieces are still in production.
In 1950, Prip moved to the Rochester Institute of Technology. While
there, Prip and several other artists (including the Danish
furniture-maker and future RISD professor Tage Frid) opened Shop One,
an artisan-run gallery that became one of the first to specialize in
cutting-edge American craft.
In the early 1960s, Prip taught briefly at the University of
Southern California and at the Museum School of the Museum of Fine
Arts in Boston. He joined the RISD faculty in 1960, retiring two
Prip is survived by his second wife, Judy Skoogfors Prip, of
Cranston, and two children from his first marriage - Peter, 61, of
Cranston and Janet, 59, of Jamestown. Both are accomplished
silversmiths. A public memorial service will held on Saturday, June 6
at 2 p.m. in the Woods-Gerry House, 62 Prospect St. in Providence.