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"Contour" beverage service
Object Place: Newburyport, Massachusetts, United States
Pitcherl: 26 x 17.8 x 8.4 cm (10 1/4 x 7 x 3 5/16 in.) Sugar bowl: 8.8 x 8.6 x 7 cm (3 7/16 x 3 3/8 x 2 3/4 in.) Creamer: 10.8 x 8.6 x 7 cm (4 1/4 x 3 3/8 x 2 3/4 in.)
Medium or Technique
The 1940s and 1950s (Gallery 336)
The silver beverage service is composed of a pitcher with lid, covered sugar bowl, and creamer that has a biomorphic shape and flat base. The pitcher handle is a translucent turquoise plastic.
Towle Silversmiths has its roots in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where William Moulton II (b. 1664) first practiced his craft and where, for nearly two hundred years, at least one or two Moultons were engaged in the trade. The Towle name was introduced in 1857, when Anthony F. Towle and William P. Jones, apprentices under William Moulton IV (1772 – 1861), established Towle & Jones; over time that firm absorbed the Moulton business. The company underwent several name changes but had become generally known as Towle Manufacturing Company by 1882 and, soon after, as Towle Silversmiths.
When Charles C. Withers was hired as president, the company diverged from their well-respected and large line of historically derived flatware and hollowware. Withers sought to inject a contemporary line into their silver offerings, and about 1949 he hired John Van Koert as head designer, based on the recommendation of Margret Craver (see cat. no. 335). Van Koert set Towle on a path toward contemporary design as competition for modern-minded consumers grew among American and Scandinavian manufacturers.
The Contour pattern was the company’s first foray into contemporary silver. Designed by Robert J. King (b. 1917) under Van Koert’s leadership, it was launched with great fanfare in 1951. In a most unusual marketing strategy, Contour was featured center stage at an exhibition entitled “Knife/Fork/Spoon,” held that year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The show was sponsored by the company, and (as might be expected) competing firms were not represented. Its stated mission was to consider the role of utensils from a wide range of cultures and periods to chart “the story of our primary eating implements and the development of their form.” Historic and ethnographic objects were borrowed from leading American fine-art and natural-history institutions.
The exhibition arranged objects chronologically, from prehistoric stone knives and Pacific island horn spoons to sixteenth-century English flatware and, finally, Towle’s Contour, which had been released about 1950. The pattern appeared on several pages of the exhibition catalogue, positioned as the apex in the evolutionary development of utensils. It was compared favorably to an unnamed floral flatware pattern, from the viewpoint of “good design,” and was also featured in a table setting with Museum dinnerware designed by Eva Zeisel and glassware by Josef Hoffman, two high-profile artists whose inclusion conferred further status upon the flatware. To emphasize the Contour pattern’s modernity and relationship to international art, it was compared with Konstantin Brancusi’s sculpture titled Bird in Space; the text emphasized the “elimination of non-essentials” and “guarded use of ornamentation” expected of contemporary flatware.
Towle’s sponsorship of the exhibition, while exclusionary, was related to a trend in American museums that stretched back to the 1920s, when the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston had actively sought relationships with industry to improve or promote good design. Indeed, Towle initiated a number of silver exhibitions during the 1950s in an effort to educate consumers while drawing attention to the firm’s products.
This beverage service was released in December 1953, more than two years after the flatware was introduced. The beverage server was described as suitable “for coffee, for cocktails, for water, for any liquid, hot or cold.” At a time when many tableware manufacturers were reducing the number of elements in their services to attract busy consumers, the pitcher was an elegant form that could serve several purposes. It could be purchased singly for $200 or complemented by a sugar bowl ($75), creamer ($50), salt and pepper shakers ($50), or candlesticks ($35).
The advertising copy for the service stated that Contour provided a “contemporary buffet ensemble for the connoisseur.” For the consumer, the message was clear: Contour was the ultimate pattern of choice for the sophisticated American home.
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.
“TOWLE / STERLING / 128 / T / 350” on pitcher
Original owner unknown. Museum purchase from Argentum - The Leopard's Head, San Francisco, California.
Museum purchase with funds donated by The Seminarians in memory of Nathaniel T. Dexter