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"The Modern American" Coffee Service

1928
Designed by Erik Magnussen (Danish (active in the United States), 1884–1961), Designed for Gorham Manufacturing Company (active 1865–1961)


Object Place: Providence, Rhode Island, United States

Dimensions

20.8 x 21.4 x 9.6 cm (8 3/16 x 8 7/16 x 3 3/4 in.)

Accession Number

1996.242.1-4

Medium or Technique

Silver; black plastic handles, white ivory and plastic finial

Not On View

Collections

Americas, Europe

Classifications

Silver hollowware

The set consists of three straight-sided machine-made cylindrical vessels and a machine-made tray. Along the base of each vessel is a conforming decorative band of triglyphs that is balanced below the rim with a stamped horizontal line. Squared ebony handles, rectangular in section, are set into conforming sockets. Four flattened bun feet carry the triglyph design and support each vessel.
The coffeepot has a straight tapered spout, round in section, affixed over strainer holes near its base. The spun lid with five-part hinge tapers slightly upward at center toward a plastic and silver finial, probably an early replacement for the original ivory finial, as on the sugar bowl; there is a bezel underneath the lid. The sugar bowl has a removable lid with flange. The flat circular tray, with shallow sides and no evident center point, is machine made; it has a narrow band of decoration on its exterior edge that continues the triglyph pattern. A pair of black plastic bars is set into rim on each side of the tray, each affixed at right angles to a pair of conforming sockets.


Magnussen arrived at Gorham in 1927 with a mandate to create modern designs to invigorate the company’s line of historically derived offerings. He designed the controversial Cubic service and serving pieces, later dubbed “The Lights and Shadows of Manhattan,” which immediately drew a critical response, both positive and negative. Yet few, if any, examples were manufactured beyond the demonstration model, attesting to the difficulty in finding a market for avant-garde forms. Thereafter, Magnussen shifted to designing silver in a conservative, classically inspired modernism. The Modern American line is the best-known example of this style.
According to promotional literature, Magnussen designed the service after he had traveled throughout the country in search of a style that epitomized contemporary American life. The clean lines, simple forms, and updated Neoclassical decoration were intended to provide a smart, if rather conservative, note to the upscale modern household. The lower register of each vessel and the tray features a repeating pattern of three closely spaced vertical lines, in emulation of triglyphs of classical Greek architecture. This reductive Neoclassicism, seen in the ivory stem of his covered candy dish (cat. no. 340), was a feature of Scandinavian workshops, most notably that of Georg Jensen.
Magnussen had been hired to inspire Gorham’s designers and appeal to consumer interest in modernism. The Modern American line represented the company’s best hope for a foothold in this new style. Despite such efforts, poor sales demonstrated the public’s aversion to risking funds on avant-garde styles in silver. Cost was likely a major factor as well, for quantities of surviving chrome and aluminum table accessories fabricated after the Depression attest to the broad appeal of modern design to price- and style-conscious American consumers.
Magnussen left Gorham in October 1929 to work briefly for August Dingledein & Son of Hanau and Idar, Germany. He later worked in Chicago and Los Angeles before returning to Denmark in 1939.
The Modern American line blended historic forms in a contemporary mode. By using a simple design element drawn from ancient Greek sources to decorate columnar forms, Magnussen evoked the classical world. His rectilinear handles, derived from nineteenth-century American examples, softened the otherwise harsh machine-made cylinders that formed the modern core of the service.

This text has been adapted from “Silver of the Americas, 1600-2000,” edited by Jeannine Falino and Gerald W.R. Ward, published in 2008 by the MFA. Complete references can be found in that publication.

Inscription

“M.A.W.” in broad, shaded, roman letters engraved on side of each vessel and on tray, on expanse between handles.

Markings

“EM.” conjoined monogram above “14054 / STERLING / [lion] [anchor] G / GORHAM,” each in a shaped device, all struck on tray. “EM.” conjoined monogram above “14051 / STERLING / [lion] [anchor] [G] / GORHAM,” each in a shaped device, all struck on coffeepot. “EM.” conjoined monogram, above “A14052/ STERLING / GORHAM / [lion] [anchor] [G],” each in a shaped device, struck on sugar bowl. “EM.” conjoined monogram, above “14053 / STERLING / [lion] [anchor] [G] / GORHAM,” each in a shaped device, struck on creamer.

Provenance

First owned by Ephraim Daniel Whitty (1910-1991) and Muriel Adelson Whitty (1911-1993), who were married about 1929, and resided at 1120 Park Avenue, New York City. By descent in 1993 to their son, Richard, who consigned the set to Moderne Gallery, Inc., of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Purchased by the Museum in 1996.

Credit Line

Estate of Rosamond Sears, by exchange