At their best, the decorative arts preserve history in fine lines, elegant form and intimate scale.
Those attributes describe the modern silver that goes on view this week at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design" includes 200 pieces of manufactured silver made between 1925 and 2000. Aesthetically, the works range from luxurious art moderne platters to late-century tableware by architects Michael Graves and Richard Meier.
There is beauty in the glowing objects, which were lent by the Dallas Museum of Art. But the compelling dynamic comes from the way the designs present a chronology of cultural change.
Candlesticks celebrate the rise of skyscrapers in the 1930s. The end of Prohibition is expressed in jubilant cocktail shakers. A tray decorated with tropical fruit motifs recalls the 1940s phenomenon of Carmen Miranda.
The glamour of art moderne silver recalls a life of luxe enjoyed by some before the Depression. After the stock market crashed, spare modernism took hold. After World War II, young families gave up silver for maintenance-free materials like stainless steel.
We haven't looked back. But "Modernism in American Silver" makes a strong case for artistry lost.