- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Ever since the days of Paul Revere, American silver has been valued for its practicality and preciousness — so much so that the nation’s silverware industry grew during the 1800s to become the largest in the world.

Silver, however, became less of a household fixture during the 20th century.

Requiring arduous polishing to keep its shine, the traditional metal didn’t suit the casual modern age. Maintenance-free aluminum, steel and plastics became the preferred materials for designs pushed in new directions.

Well, not altogether. A new exhibit at the Renwick Gallery reveals that silver could be shaped into objects as stark and sleek as a Barcelona chair or Airstream trailer, even while its popularity declined.

This striking array of manufactured candlesticks, coffeepots and candy dishes made from 1925 to 2000 highlights the sculptural possibilities of the metal and, for museums, a new frontier in silver collecting.

“Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design” literally gleams with a display of more than 200 objects lent from the Dallas Museum of Art’s holdings. The force behind the show is co-curator Jewel Stern, a scholar based in Miami who spent two decades collecting the unusual manufactured pieces, which were acquired by the Dallas museum in 2002.

This is not your mother’s silver. Skyscraper-shaped tea sets, cubistic creamers and boomerang dishes are a far cry from the historical styles associated with the medium. While not exactly innovative, their geometric facets and streamlined curves mirror the ongoing changes taking place in architecture, art and industrial design during the last century.

Impetus for these specialty designs came from manufacturers of traditional silver seeking to win back customers in the shrinking market of the 1920s. Old-line companies such as Gorham Manufacturing Co. of Providence, R.I., began emulating the blend of modern and traditional elements pioneered by Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, who by 1923 already had opened a New York store.

This Scandinavian influence would continue to shape modern American silver, which rarely achieved true originality. Gorham went so far as to import its own Danish designer, Erik Magnussen, to develop new lines of contemporary silver. His hand is evident throughout the exhibit in a variety of elegant vessels that reveal skill and versatility.

Magnussen’s most radical design is the “Cubic” coffee service, a 1927 Gorham showpiece. Fractured into angular planes, the fantastic gold-and-silver trio resembles a cubist still life by Picasso brought to life. Its design proved too extreme for consumers and was never mass-produced, although, as the exhibit shows, it spurred less exuberant imitations.

In the 1930s, during the Depression, the American silver market took a nose dive, but as shown in the exhibit, those who could afford a dish or compote were treated to the same streamlined shapes as applied to trains, cars and planes.

Pitchers and salt and pepper shakers incorporated newly developed plastics, some masquerading as ebony or ivory, to keep pace with the times. Cigarette boxes were decorated with colorful enameled deco patterns in the spirit of the jazz age.

Cheaper silverplate of the period also assumed a modern flair. Architect Eliel Saarinen and jewelry designer Paul Lobel turned their respective tea urn and coffee service for the Wilcox Silver Plate Co. into shiny orbs. Other tea and coffee sets were designed as modular, geometric blocks that neatly fit into trays for space-conscious apartment dwellers.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, silver manufacturers responded with whimsical cocktail shakers shaped like penguins, roosters and milk cans. By the 1940s, they were decorating platters and trays with tropical motifs to entice a public infatuated with movie star Carmen Miranda.

After World War II, silver makers catered to the spread of suburban living with dishwasher-friendly stainless steel. High-style modern silverware became more casual, too, assuming the free-form, organic shapes prevalent in the era’s fiberglass and plywood furniture.

Silver candelabra, once formal and ornate, became movable and modular. Among the 1950s designs are bendable, serpentlike candlesticks by Marion Anderson Noyes, one of several female designers featured in the show; Robert Ramp’s futuristic, rotating prongs; and Gorham’s stacking “Trend” candleholders.

Scandinavian design, particularly the curvy silverware of Danish designer Henning Koppel, continued to exert a heavy influence on postwar American silver. Teak and rosewood handles often were added to silver utensils to harmonize with imported Danish modern tables and chairs.

One of the stars of the show is John Prip, who synthesized this Danish influence into spare, elegant pieces for Reed & Barton during the 1950s and ‘60s. To create contrast, he combined silver with black plastic and ceramics.

By the 1960s, uptight silver had fallen out of style, but manufacturers still persisted in making modern shapes reflective of the Space Age. Goofy but intriguing is the electric coffee urn designed by Richard Huggins for the USS Long Beach, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered missile cruiser. It resembles a flying saucer with an atomic finial stuck on top.

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the science-fiction theme took off in International Silver Co.’s “Moon Room.” A clear plastic table, suspended from the ceiling, was set with the “Celestial Centerpiece,” a one-off design that beckons from the exhibit’s back gallery. The glittering piece rests a sapphire-studded satellite in a circular silver dish ringed by tubular candleholders.

Surveying the 1970s to the end of the century, the last section of the exhibit brings American silver full circle with ornamented, traditional pieces by contemporary architects and fashion designers. These boutique items do little to advance the medium and are the least interesting objects in the show.

An exception is the small tea strainer by jewelry designer Ted Muehling, who used a computer to develop the lacy patterning across the strainer’s silver lid. His piece suggests that digital technology might be used to reinvigorate the design and fabrication of silverware — and perhaps to find ways of making its tarnished surfaces easier to clean.

WHAT: “Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design”

WHERE: The Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street NW

WHEN: Through Jan. 22; 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., daily

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: www.American Art.si.edu

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