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Discover Mid-America— December 2010

America’s Grand Modernism Silver

A distinguished but relatively short reigned area of 20th century American silver has been given renewed recognition in the 21st century.

Sleekly sculptured Art Modern silver, given the royal treatment briefly during the 1920s and 1930s in the United States, is back in the nation’s spotlight.

Modernism in American Silver was a major exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. Later it was scheduled for the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas; the Wolfsonian at Florida International University in Miami, Florida; and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee.

All this national attention served to reintroduce a rather dramatic style of silver design which presented itself in a variety of fashionable items including cocktail shakers, candle sticks, tea sets and even water pitchers.

There is also a nod to a host of remarkable and historic designers who provided the inspiration and originality for the so-called modernism or Art Modern reign of silver showpieces. Among them were Ilonka Karasz, Helen Hughes Dulany, A. L. Barney and Jean Theobald.

Ironically, the singular event to have the greatest effect on the modern design movement in America was the 1925 International Exhibition held that year in Paris. Historians note that the United States passed on an opportunity to showcase items among “the modern decorative and industrial arts” on display.

In the years that followed, however, designers and manufacturers, as well as department stores, museums and American enterprises joined in the widening trend of modernism. In the United States and a few notable European countries, there was a gradual but distinctive departure from the so-called French luxury style then known as Art Deco.

Some experts put the origins of modernism even earlier. Noted silver authority and author Dr. Charles Venable suggests, “Modernism in American silver design grew out of the reform movement that has given rise to the arts and crafts style.”

While the earlier Art Deco was considered by some to be downright flashy, the newly emerging Art Modern was looked upon as cleaner and crisper in form. Art Modern’s entrance stressed sweeping geometric lines instead. At first it may have been somewhat confusing.

In 1927, for example, “The whole idea of modern design was so new that distinctions could not be readily be made between (existing) Art Deco and modern design,” according to author J. Stewart Johnson in the volume, American Modern: Design For A New Age.

Moreover the new style was not adverse to appealing to the marketplace — at least to the upper levels of it. Having the grand geometric lines connected to machine-made materials was no problem.

The magazine Good Furniture commented in 1928 that the new design, as it appeared in a New York department store might not be so bad after all. They concluded:

“The summer wholesale markets seem to have increased considerably the manufacturer’s suspicion that his aloofness from the modernistic was probably a mistake and that he could safely embark on the new design slant.”

Dr. Venable indicates much of the core movement was based on British ideology. However, he also in his writings acknowledged the influence of central European sites in Austria and Germany.

Modernistic designs from Germany’s so-called Bauhaus school strived to create objects in the Art Modern image which were “both attractive and affordable” for significant numbers of consumers foreign and domestic. In 1933, the Nazi reign forced the closing of the Bauhaus school and a number of their leading teachers fled to the United States. In America these remarkable talents continued their careers and in doing so extended a profound influence on entire generations of American designers.

American designers, despite the economic influence of the Great Depression, aspired to produce striking modernistic designs which also could be machine-made and ultimately mass-produced.

Clearly silver was the coin-of-the-realm in the movement. Objects styled from silver appeared both breathtaking and beneficial. Everything from beautiful bowls to tantalizing trays appeared like magic at the sites of leading manufacturers. However, other media could be involved as well.

Hungarian-born designer Ilonka Karasz was equally adept at creating a silver plated tea ball and stand as she was producing cone-shaped bowls made with electroplated nickel silver. Helen Hughes Dulany meanwhile could work with stainless steel and Bakelite in crafting a coffee service or excel with an entirely silver plate candelabra.

Karasz emerged as a versatile modernist artist providing accented advertisements and especially designed wallpaper before moving on to milestones in book illustrations, ceramics, furniture and ultimately silver and its related metals. Johnson described the transformation in Karasz’s work as being finally “characterized by much sleeker, abstract patterning.” Eventually her evolvement as a designer led to further work in textile designs with Kem (Karl Emanuel Martin) Webber.

Dulany was American born and was particularly active as artist and designer during the 1930s in Chicago. Dulany gained some degree of prominence for creations in glass and metal tableware. At one point she collaborated with glass designer Maurice Heaton for additional memorable works.

Immediately outside of the modernistic crafting of silver other designs were arriving. Webber offered so-called “Airline” armchairs, and Lurelle Guide created a fabulously futuristic Electrolux Model 30 vacuum cleaner. There were also chrome-plated clocks by Gilbert Rhode along with both spherical and square glass objects fashioned by Walter Dorwin Teague. Additionally there was the brass plated spherical tea urn and tray designed by Eliel Saarinen.

It continued with a delightful red-capped thermos bottle and combined enamel and aluminum thermos carafe with tray, the work of Henry Dreyfuss. And then there was the Patriot Radio complete with a stars and stripes American flag motif designed by the legendary Norman Bel Geddes.

Dreyfuss continued his efforts with the ultimate “user friendly” kitchen utensils ranging from the basic spoon to the potato masher. J. Robert Swanson produced maple and stainless steel nesting tables as part of the Flexible Home Arrangements line. Elsewhere, the creative Russel Wright produced his own line of American Modern earthenware dishes starting in 1937. Economic depression or not the dishes eventually sold more than 80 million pieces.

For all of their glamour and glory most of the modernist items did not endure. With the exception perhaps of Wright’s dishware, most of it proved to be too expensive for the economical minded consumer. Despite their charm, modernist silver items remained relatively low in production and high in retail cost.

For a time, especially during the 1930s, there was a significant number of startling modernistic designs produced. But they remained luxury items.

“For most Americans,” concludes Dr. Venable, “modernism was simply too risky to try during a stressful economic period, especially where something so symbolic and lasting as silver was concerned.”

After the 1930s

A review of the Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2006 by Marbeth Schon in Modern Silver Magazine touches upon silver design after the 1930s.

Schon notes the “new aesthetic of the 1950s” in organic or “biomorphic” shapes and designs. Also, during this post-World War II period, many returning GIs “turned to crafts and especially metalworking as a way of life.”

The Cold War and Space Race, Schon recounts, had “stars, planets, moons, orbit” and other space related objects depicted in silver design.

Color entered silver design in the 1960s as a reaction to enameled metalware coming from Scandinavia, writes Schon.

In the postmodernism of the 1980s and 1990s, two American women, Nan Swid and Addie Powell, and the company they formed, Swid Powell, “assembled a group of designers to create the inaugural collection of architect-designed crystal, china and silver” in tableware, writes Schon, quoting from the exhibit’s catalogue. The aim was “to create ‘beautiful, functional pieces that can be lived with and used.’”

Swid Powell creations were sold during the 1990s in hundreds of American stores and overseas.

Robert Reed can be contacted at Bruce Rodgers also contributed to this article.

Other resources

The Silver Antiques Insider, a blog from New York City-based Nelson and Nelson Antiques

Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks & Makers’ Marks

Spencer Marks, Ltd Fine Antique & 20th Century Sliver, Southampton, MA

Modern Silver Magazine, Natchez, MS

• For excellent tips on buying and caring for silver, visit the web site of London-based Sanda Lipton Antique Silver.

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