Bits of this, bits of that add up to a revived craft: pique assiette


Van Smith leans over a box filled with what looks to the !B average eye like junk.

But he gently and lovingly draws a circle on a mottled white portion of a sad-looking broken ceramic planter and says, "Look. Right in there. The coloring is really pretty, I think."

He straightens and continues, "These were some things that I found at a dumpster at an auction yesterday that someone had thrown away. So I took them. I like finding stuff."

It's hard to imagine, looking at that box, that it contains raw material for one of the hottest new trends, snapped up in shops in New York and L.A.

But in its finished form, it's called pique assiette, a 19th-century French form of mosaic that uses shards of broken china or smashed figurines to decorate pieces of jugs or pots or pieces of furniture.

"Loosely translated," Mr. Smith says, "pique assiette means stolen from the plate, in other words, a freeloader."

In the 19th century pique assiette was a delicate thing, built of tiny pieces, each with its own precious pattern. But in Mr. Smith's hands, pique assiette has definitely joined the 20th century. Some of his works incorporate cattle horns, marbles and other found objects, even chunks of what looks like bright Fiesta ware.

He walks over to a large urn and points to the pieces that cover its surface. "Pottery, glass. There's some Bakelite. Door handles, pitchers, urns. Here's tortoise shell. These are tiles, floor tiles that were broken up."

He began making it a year ago, he says, when the renewed interest in the antique pique assiette was beginning. "I was just drawn to it. I liked it and wanted to do it."

He showed his first works to Henry Johnson of Johnson and Berman interior designers. "Henry liked them and commissioned to do some really large pots for a restaurant. And then some people saw those and liked them so then I started doing more."

It's a very time-consuming art form, he says. "It takes a lot longer than you think. I find a form first and then I work with plaster or groutings. And I have to build up armitures on some of them."

He uses ceramic items that are actually good pieces of pottery but can't be sold because they're chipped. "I'll smash it because its value is gone as far as selling it.

"One night I did take a $90 vase and smash it because I liked the color. It worked well in one that I sent up to a shop in New York. It was 2 o'clock in the morning and I was feeling inspired," he says.

He has also moved on to furniture, using pieces of broken asbestos tile on one table. On other pieces of furniture, he works just with paint, layering and sanding different coats to give the effect of an old painted finish.

"It's the old barn door thing, that primitive look. I've always loved those colors so much. But sometimes it isn't so much a thing of trying to make something look old as it is just playing with color."

Mr. Smith has worked with John Waters for 25 years, doing all the costumes for his movies and working on the makeup. He came to Baltimore in 1964 to study at Maryland Institute. Then he moved to New York and worked there as an illustrator for many years.

"Finally I just got fed up with New York and decided I wanted out. So I came back here a few years ago. And there's very little illustration work here, so I started doing . . . whatever."

He has a studio at Moderne Antique, an antiques gallery with which he's affiliated.

In addition to finding things, he gets some of his raw materials from other antiques dealers, from friends, even just people who have seen his work. "People have just called up and said, 'I've got this tea cup that I broke, do you want it?' Or they just find something and give it to me. I like that. Sometimes if somebody gives me something there's like a little magic in it. It's like it has a life again."

Mr. Smith's work is on display at Moderne Antique, 1812 Maryland Ave. The hours are noon to 5 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays.

He can be reached through the gallery's telephone number, 685-8999, which has an answering machine when the shop is closed.

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