Pepper shaker (from "The Modern American" service)
Object Place: Providence, Rhode Island, United States
14.4 cm (5 11/16 in.)
Medium or Technique
Not On View
The tall, cylindrical shaker has a stepped base. The lower step is decorated with a repeating pattern of three incised vertical markings. The second step, of equal size, is unadorned. The incised pattern reappears on the body where it connects to the base. The removable lid has a radiating pierced pattern that rises to an antennae-like finial at center.
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.
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.
Each stamped "EM." / 14076 / STERLING / GORHAM / [lion] [anchor] [gothic "G"].
Purchased by the donor from Lillian Nassau Antiques, New York City, in January 1986 and made a gift to the Museum in 1999.
The John Axelrod Collection