Although he's made candlesticks, vases, and jewelry, silversmith Tom Penn is at the top of his game with Karamojong, his new handmade sterling flatware.
"This pattern has an almost Puritan classicism," says a prominent architect who recently bought a service for 12. "But what I admire most is its heft, sleek finish, and the way it fits the shape of your hand."
It doesn't take the trained eye of an architect to appreciate the minimalist audacity of the Karamojong design, which Penn started working on four years ago. (The name comes from a tribe in Northern Kenya famed for highly sophisticated crafts.) "I wanted to create something that would endure and that would hold its own with traditional and contemporary tableware," says Penn, a lanky man in his forties who chisels and files and grinds all day in his Long Island City, New York, workshop.
Although he has the piercing gray eyes of his father, the photographer Irving Penn, the son's style of working is closer to that of his mother, the sculptor and model Lisa Fonssagrives Penn, who died five years ago. "Even when she was eighty, I remember her out at dawn, working on a ladder polishing her monumental bronzes. She was a perfectionist," Penn remembers.
The same could be said of her son. Working in bronze, he created prototypes for 127 pieces of cutlery, striving for purity and practicality. "My aim was to come up with a design that was well balanced and felt solid in either your left or right hand," he says.
From asparagus tongs to corn-husk holders, "Tom Penn really looks at function," says Cookie Levine of Levine Linens in Phoenix, a firm that handles an enormous range of porcelain, crystal, and silver for designers, architects, and their clients. Levine encourages her customers to take a place setting home overnight. "Then, it's love at first use, since even the tines of Tom Penn's fork are made in proportion to the handle."
Even more impressive than how Karamojong looks and functions is how it's made. Penn's silverware is fabricated at Old Newbury Crafters of Amesbury, Massachusetts, the only company left in North America which still makes sterling-silver flatware totally by hand. (Only the stainless-steel knife blade is machine tooled.)
Starting with Penn's hand-carved bronze prototype and a solid bar of sterling, master craftsmen pound on blacksmiths' anvils and forge each piece into shape. Grinding, hand-filing, and endless polishing are the last steps in a process that can take up to 10 weeks from start to finish.
It was working in film that gave Penn his start in the visual arts, which led to graphic design, custom furniture, and finally silver objects—"I love the material," Penn says, "the color and natural watery surface that hand-grinding and polishing bring out."
Karamojong, sold as a five-piece place setting for about $1,820, is available at: Cardel, New York, 212-753-8880; Gump's, San Francisco, 800-766-7628; and Old Newbury Crafters, Amesbury, 800-343-1388.