The Relevance of an Ancient Craft
Whether he is engraving inspired quotations onto the gleaming walls of a state capital, carving exquisite objects from marble for private gardens, or restoring historical statues that have succumbed to the forces of time, master stone carver Marcel Mächler’s craft requires patience and precision. “The physical intensity of carving stone is a real workout and the need to remain continually focused as the work proceeds is true mental exercise. No matter what your emotional state, you have to be totally present with the stone and the tools.” In an era when the traditional trades of maker-culture are fading, artist-craftsmen like Mächler seek to maintain a lived connection with the past. “Stone carving is perhaps the oldest of the arts. When I am working on a project I often think about all of the people who have come before me. Each of them had this special connection with stone.” The relationship of a stone carver to his materials is one of deep devotion.
Growing up in Germany, Mächler was exposed to the soaring spires and intricate tracery of Gothic cathedrals. The corbeled turrets of medieval castles and the stonework of city walls were also part of his youthful experiences. But the fantastic animals, elaborate foliage and expressive faces carved into the old stone architecture stood in sharp contrast to the modern industrial buildings of Germany. On the rare occasions when ornamental elements have been used in modern architecture (whether in Europe or America), they are usually mass-produced. “There’s such a difference to the look and the feel of something that has been carved by hand. When you take the time to look at it closely you can tell the difference,” says Machler.
He says that coming to America many years ago was definitely the right choice. “Believe it or not there is more opportunity to create by hand here.” Although his main collaborations are with architects, builders, and municipalities, he is always delighted to create something unique in stone for a private client. Though members of Europe’s former ruling classes still exist, the aristocrats and descendants of the great merchant families are no longer always in a financial position to commission new works in stone. Today, private projects that call on the expertise of a master stone-carver are often carried out for celebrities.” Working on a project with JLo was lots of fun.” says Machler with a smile. Cher’s balustrade overlooking the Malibu coastline also bears his handiwork. Famous conceptual artists such as Bruce Nauman and Robert Irwin have also called on him to realize their visions in stone.
It isn’t only celebrities but clients who simply appreciate the history of great design that commission Mächler. In the category of exterior works two examples stand out: first a monumental marble grave marker in the form of a sorrowing angel, wings folded, head bowed. The figure was inspired by a life-size Victorian angel at Stanford University for which Mächler was hired to create new hands and feet after it had been damaged by vandals. Mächler’s new angel in the old style was commissioned by a mother to memorialize a daughter who had died tragically young.
The creation of a set of stylized frogs from green Vermont marble proved challenging. “That particular kind of marble is flinty. It was very tricky to work with. It required a lot of TLC.” Flanking the way to an ornamental pond like Foo dogs outside a Chinese temple, the frogs were based on a beloved antique sculpture at the San Marino Estate of Thornton Gardens. The new versions bear a high polish, the sinuous striations running like pale veins through the deep green stone, a perfect match for the verdant and leaf-shaded environment.
Mächler has created an array of exquisitely detailed marble fireplaces that draw on a variety of influences: Italian renaissance, neoclassicism, arts and crafts and art nouveau. “In the school where I learned stone-cutting, we were also taught masonry.” Fitting stones together by virtue of their natural shapes or carving them purposefully to create a pleasing whole can yield a fireplace that speaks to tastes both rustic and refined. All of these dramatic interior pieces hearken back to an era of ornamental graciousness when grand living spaces incorporated numerous stone elements. In those days, rooms and gardens and the objects they contained were meant to last for generations. A number of clients have also commissioned Mächler to create unique finials and corbels for their homes and clubhouses.
Written in Stone, Precious Metals, and Light
It is not only the near-permanence and durability of the material that attracts today’s leading architects and builders to natural stone, it is also the beauty and prestige that natural stone brings to a project. Mächler has engraved both words and symbols onto some of the most important stone structures of the past two decades including three presidential libraries, military memorials in Washington DC, one of America’s most acclaimed new museums, an internationally recognized concert hall, and over 20 municipal buildings across the states.
Although the majority of contemporary architects prefer minimalism when it comes to typographical engraving, the completion of the lettering can actually incorporate a number of interesting finishes that lend a richness and depth to the simplicity of the design. Mächler has worked twice with the renowned architect Moshe Safdie. For Safdie’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Mächler allowed the aggregated elements to be revealed by the V-cuts of the letters, making each of them into a stunning terrazzo intaglio.
Other projects have called for something stronger. Leaves of either gold or palladium-leaf are applied to make the title of a building gleam or a motto shimmer. “It’s important to consider how changes in light will impact the lettering. It can be subtle but it’s never-the-less key to the feeling one wishes to convey.”
Drawing on the Palladian tastes of president Thomas Jefferson, the builders of the new underground addition to the Virginia State Capitol called on Mächler to engrave the legendary president’s words on parchment-colored Jerusalem limestone. The recessed lighting, though subtle, creates a powerful trompe-l’oeil effect on the lettering: the characters seem at times to hover over the limestone as if they were written on air.
In former times, much of a stone carver’s output was meant to create the illusion that the stone itself was alive. The bas-relief of the great seal that Mächler carved for the Los Angeles County Courthouse is a perfect example of this. On-site and over six-weeks Mächler worked the Indiana limestone slab from initial engraved outlines into the organic forms of America’s heraldic insignia: a halo-shaped cloud encircling the stars, rippling banners and the feathered body of a resplendent bald eagle. Dramatic lighting on the finished seal further accentuates the elements in all of their three-dimensional glory.
“Not only is the history of the world recorded in the testimony of the rocks, but the history of civilization is also there engraved, marked by mallet and chisel.” So wrote the author and critic Elbert Hubbard in 1915. Marcel Mächler continues this legacy through his enduring and elegant creations.