I514

Erik Magnussen for Gorham Prototype Sterling Silver Nut Bowl and Tray, Providence, RI, 1926


An exceptional example of art deco design by one of the most famous American designers of the style, this is a rare prototype item with its original detachable lid and under tray. The use of plain surfaces and sections with scored lines give the piece a stylish design with subtle movement. The lines around the edge of the under tray and the bowl flare outwards while the lines on the dome lid become narrower heading up to the steeple-form globular finial adorned with a floriform, carved ivory disc. The under tray is raised in the center and fitted with a band which secures the bowl. Underneath the bowl, where it is concealed, the tray is monogrammed 'FMG' in a block format.

Radiating scored lines, geometric shapes and naturalistic decoration became the hallmark of Magnussen designs at Gorham. After the Paris 'Art Deco' exhibition of 1925, Gorham sought to develop a line of silver in the 'moderne' style popular in Europe and they found an accomplished Danish silversmith Erik Magnussen to do so. He was given his own workforce and great leeway in designing objects.

The original documents from the Gorham Archives provided by Samuel Hough state that the costing slip for this prototype nut bowl was marked 'Mr. Magnussen's Sample' (an internally generated special order) and was one of only two examples ever made. This nut bowl and stand is a very early experimental example of his work, marked with Gorham factory sample codes. Later, Magnussen's product lines were assigned their own model numbers and production was often limited to 25 or so pieces.

Magnussen found inspiration for this type of design in European objects made during the art deco period. A strikingly similar sauce tureen by the French firm Tétard Frères dating to 1925 is illustrated in Modern Art of Metalwork by Dedo von Kerssenbrock-Krosigk, (1990; Berlin: Brohan Museum, p. 441). Interestingly, in Modernism in American Silver by Jewel Stern, the author notes that 'Several photographs of holloware by the French maker Tétard Frères that were found in a scrapbook in the Gorham archives at Brown University attest to the attention paid to French design by an important manufacturer.' (p. 56).

The model F/YZ nut dish was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 10th annual American Industrial Art Exhibition of 1926-27.(1) Many thanks to private scholar W. Scott Braznell for this information.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art held annual exhibitions of American Industrial Art to promote items in their collection. Manufacturers would use items in the Met's collection as inspiration for the objects they displayed. For the first time in 1926, the Met allowed items not based on objects in their collection. This was due to the Paris 'Art Deco' exhibition and the Met's new desire to promote 'modern' design in America. Further, the 1926-27 exhibition was the only one that traveled.(2) Clearly, the Met felt it was an important exhibition.

The F/YZ model bowl was included, along with 10 other Magnussen designed pieces, in Gorham's display at the Met that year.(3) Gorham chose this to be one of the very first modern designs it showed the world. Gorham displayed one of each of the ten objects at the Metropolitan Museum's American Industrial Art exhibition and another at their flagship store on Fifth Avenue. This bowl, or its twin, was displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the other concurrently at the Gorham store.

It is very rare to find objects as well documented as this one. This piece was literally on the vanguard of modern design in the United States, promoted by its maker, prominent institutions and taste makers alike. The American public did not warm to modern design until years later and very few early modern items like this were ever made. They are uncommon today. It is serendipitous and extremely rare to have one reconnect with its roots, especially one as well documented and important as this one.

This rare sterling silver and ivory nut bowl and tray are marked underneath with Erik Magnussen's 'EM.' mark, Gorham's trademark and 'GORHAM/ STERLING/FYZ'. The tray measures 8 inches round and the height of the pieces is 5.5 inches to the top of the finial. It weighs 22.70 troy ounces and is in excellent condition.

Endnotes:
  1. Private conversation and correspondence with W. Scott Braznell, May 2006.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
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