There's something special about a Whiting & Davis handbag. Manufactured in Massachusetts, by hand at first, the metal mesh bags shimmered and moved, as generations of sophisticated ladies carried them to big band dances and cocktail parties in hotel sky rooms.
"During the 1920s," Hillary Miles wrote in the online publication Savvy Examiner, "no respectable flapper would be caught without a cute Art Deco mesh handbag."
The silver- and gold-plated brass bags still have fans today, though one of their biggest rarely carries one. Rather, she takes the bags apart.
Maral Rapp, a San Francisco designer who crafts an increasingly popular line of "modern vintage mesh works," uses as her raw material old Whiting & Davis handbags.
Her earrings, necklaces, and bracelets remain reverential to the material, and to the Whiting and Davis heritage, while striving for something different.
"I wanted to take these iconic bags and make something modern out of them," says Rapp, a fan of modern design who once enjoyed living in "an Eichler knockoff in San Jose."
While she works in a variety of styles, some suggesting Art Deco, when she hits the town she prefers wearing "the simpler pieces—which is what I want to be promoting."
Rapp, who began as a graphic designer, got into the metal mesh business, ironically perhaps, when she was unsuccessfully seeking to buy a rare Whiting & Davis long purse. Unable to acquire one, she made her own, taking apart and reconfiguring a different Whiting & Davis bag.
There was something about the way the material looked, its texture, its movement, its endless possibilities. "I became obsessed with it," she says. "I just went crazy."
A collector of vintage fashion since she was nine, Rapp says that disassembling her first vintage purse gave her pause. "Listen, I had my qualms," she says. "It was difficult to do, the first."
"I don't want to be too cavalier about it," she says. "There are certain [collectable] bags I haven't been able to take apart."
But the feel and look of the mesh is so beautiful that it deserves to get out and about again. All too often, she says, the vintage bags simply "sit in drawers."
Rapp's work is unique, says Giselle Gyalzen, who runs the design shop Rare Device in San Francisco. "I have actually not seen another designer that uses vintage mesh and transforms them into this specific look that Maral's pieces have," she says.
"Her jewelry is something so unique that you will not find it anywhere else. If I see someone wearing it on the street, I can definitely tell that's it's a Maral Rapp piece."
Using tweezers to open the tines that connect the mesh, edging the mesh to provide structure, and adding hardware to control its shape, Rapp finds, involves "a ridiculous amount of math." Not to mention intense labor.
"It all has to fit exactly."
By itself, the mesh has no shape. But on the body it comes alive.
"I really like the way they feel," says Victoria Smith, a San Francisco blogger who helps run a workspace for crafters. "They're very tactile. They feel very nice in your hand, a little like a fish lure."
"I like the combination of vintage and modern," she says.
Rapp's work is available at Bay Area shops and through her website. She hopes to get into stores in New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, and envisions moving beyond her current workshop with a couple of assistants to a larger production house—but local, she insists.
Rapp is trying to balance the business of production with the thrill of creation.
"I'm always discovering what the mesh can do. It's endless what you can do with it," she says. "It's just a sheet of articulated links. You could build anything with it."
See Maral Rapp's wearable-art product line at maralrapp.com
Photos: David Toerge; and courtesy Maral Rapp