The Renwick Gallery's new exhibition, "Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design," glows with failed promise.
The objects -- more than 200 of them -- are beauties of industrial design. Their striking forms and sleek lines take their cues from the 20th century's major artistic forces: deco, cubism, streamlining, the Space Age, modernism, postmodernism, organic minimalism.
But as consumer products, the compotes and carafes document the downward spiral of a proud industry. In the 19th century, the American silver business, led by companies such as Tiffany, Gorham and Reed & Barton, had become the largest in the world. By the late 20th century, many purveyors of polished dreams were reduced to near irrelevance by divorce and stainless steel.
"Silver parallels the culture," says Jewel Stern, the collector who amassed most of the works before giving them to the Dallas Museum of Art, which organized this show. "Even fancy restaurants don't have tablecloths anymore."
Don't blame the designers. Early masters breathed magnificence into old forms. Danish-born Erik Magnussen created the astonishing Cubic coffee service with facets of silver and gilt in 1927. It set the high mark for 20th-century silver though Gorham lacked the courage to put the design into production. Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen is represented by a 1934 monumental sphere for serving tea. More recently, John Loring, Elsa Peretti and architects Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi and Robert A.M. Stern have freshened luxurious domestic objects with contemporary aesthetics. Lella Vignelli's pitcher from the 1970s has a striated surface, neither shiny nor dull. Ted Muehling's Queen Anne's lace tea strainer, designed in 1999, is a pale matte silver disk cut with a computer pattern of randomly placed holes. It rests on a concave porcelain cup.
The Renwick's natural focus is on the material, as befits an institution devoted to craft. (A quirk of scheduling allowed the show to debut in Washington.) Silver never had the gaudiness of gold. Smooth surfaces took well to dashes of color. Bits of jade, rose quartz, orange and green Bakelite, enamel, even pieces of toffee-hued teak turn up as decoration. Handles were swooped into elephant trunks or bent like prisms.
The silver scholar Charles L. Venable created the show with Stern while chief curator at the Dallas museum (he is now at the Cleveland Museum of Art). It is a sequel to his opulent 1994 exhibition "Silver in America, 1840-1940: A Century of Splendor." The backdrop of "Modernism" is struggle: to compete with European companies, to survive the Depression, to appeal to Levittown families, to outlast the late-'60s counterculture, to find a niche market among the new rich.
High-profile companies looked to designers for competitive edge. Designers took their cues from skyscrapers, Scandinavia and the moon landing. (The exhibit includes a sapphire-studded Celestial Centerpiece created for a Moon Room at the 1964 New York World's Fair, but, sadly, the dazzling setting of International Silver Co.'s exhibit, with a galaxy of twinkling lights reflected in clear Lucite chairs and table, was not re-created.)
Societal upheavals challenged designers to update forms and invent products. The end of Prohibition was celebrated with ice buckets, tongs and cocktail shakers. The rise of apartment living meant customers were residing in smaller spaces, so designers created compact tea sets to fit on smaller trays. Post-World War II euphoria was reflected in free-form candelabra, amoeba-shaped nut bowls and silver-plate casserole servers.
But the exhibition makes clear that from the late 1960s forward, the industry has been in "catastrophic" decline. Purchases of sterling flatware are down nearly 50 percent, while sales of stainless steel are on the rise and almost no modernist silver holloware is produced in the United States.
In the catalogue, two advertisements from Kirk Stieff of Baltimore complete the story. A 1987 ad introduced a pattern of flatware with mock art deco handles that rise like skyscrapers in a Manhattan cityscape. Trouble was, those who could afford to buy it were collecting art deco antiques instead. A second ad shows a woman telling a friend, "Richard got the BMW and the condo, but at least he didn't get the Kirk Stieff Sterling." Unfortunately for "America's oldest silversmith," households created by divorce were far less likely to expand their holdings.
In all, 31 companies whose works are on display are out of business. Kirk Stieff, like a dozen others, was gobbled up. The firm was created by the 1979 merger of two historic Baltimore firms: Samuel Kirk & Sons, founded in 1815, and the 1892 company of Charles C. Stieff. By 1990, Kirk Stieff was acquired by Lenox, which also bought Gorham, the firm founded by Jabez Gorham of Providence in 1831. The three grand brands were consolidated in a single factory in Smithfield, R.I., then shifted to a smaller plant in New Jersey in 2002. Lenox came under new ownership this month and is downsizing anew.
At the Renwick, the works are under glass, like relics from a princely tomb. Despite the artistry, silver lost its place in the mainstream of consumer taste. Cigarette boxes are no longer symbols of glamour. Silver sandwich trays have given way to cardboard boxes filled with pizza. Instead of taking coffee in an inlaid demitasse cup, we queue for paper cups of latte. Even for those rare occasions that demand formal flatware, brides have never strayed far from traditional patterns like Gorham's Chantilly, which was designed by William C. Codman in 1895, even when Saarinen's sleek Contempora was available.
"They never made money on contemporary design," Stern says of the major companies.
Kevin Tucker, curator of decorative arts and design at the Dallas Museum of Art, sees a hopeful coda. Silver became a mass-market commodity through industrial production. Now, in the hands of artisan designers like Muehling, who use technology to manufacture craft-like products in limited runs, silver is returning to its 18th-century roots as a product of exclusivity.
"Perhaps that's where the future of silver may lie," Tucker says.
Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design, through Jan. 22 at the Renwick Gallery, 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. Admission is free. Call 202-633-2850 or see www.americanart.si.edu.
A silver tea ball and stand are part of the Renwick's exhibition.