Dining by Design: Silver 1925-2000

Did you know that cocktail parties and casual dining killed off the American silver industry? What we eat and how we eat is reflected very quickly in how we entertain our friends. The upcoming show Dining by Design: Silver 1925-2000 traces the radical changes that happened on our tables during the 20th century.

As many of you will recall, the elegant Lilly House at Newfields was the backdrop for another recent silver exhibition, Tiffany, Gorham, and the Height of American Silver, 1840–1930. This earlier project traced the development of the silverware industry in the United States from the early 19th century, when rich and middle-class Americans developed highly ritualized dining habits that included endless etiquette rules and hundreds of specialized implements for eating food. By 1900, a fancy dinner party could last hours and include countless silver objects, from seafood forks to dessert spoons.

While this new exhibition will also take place in the Lilly House, the story could not be more different. In fact, the shimmering silver featured will instead speak to the decline of silver’s popularity in the home, starting with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 and the rise of casual dining over the ensuing decades. In 1954, when my mother got married, she registered for full sets of china, crystal and sterling flatware. Today my 29- year-old daughter wouldn’t think of doing such a thing, because formal dinners have given way to informal gatherings at restaurants, in the backyard around the barbeque pit, or around the kitchen table. Silver just seems out of place these days!

But despite the persistent decline in silver’s popularity, massive companies like Tiffany, Gorham, and Reed & Barton tried to hang on by producing new styles that reflected contemporary cultural trends and that demanded multipurpose objects for the table for entirely new dining rituals like cocktail parties and buffet suppers. In the late 1920s, for example, the sophisticated French Art Deco style with its sharp angles and geometric shapes invaded American silver design only to be followed in the 1930s by streamlined pieces that looked as if they could fly or speed around the race track. Companies quickly applied these simpler styles to new types of silver, like cocktail shakers for mixing alcoholic beverages at parties where guests now stood glass in hand while nibbling on hors d’oeuvres, or for multipurpose dishes where lids could instantly be transformed into bowls for the buffet table.

World War II brought a halt to silver production as critical raw materials like silver were diverted to the war effort. When the industry revived in the 1950s, the use of silver plating, a process by which a thin coat of silver is deposited on a cheaper base metal, became more widespread. This and other methods, like substituting plastic for wood and ivory parts, brought the price of silver down in hopes of making the medium more popular. Manufacturers also introduce new styles in an effort to seduce consumers. Overall the so-called “Scandinavian Modern” design with its soft curves and plain, polished surfaces was utilized the most during the postwar years. In the late 1950s and 1960s, some daring designers worked within this aesthetic to create tea sets like Circa ’70 that looked as if they could be used on the moon. In fact, the 1964 World’s Fair in New York had a “Moon Room” featuring a floating, clear plastic dining table bedecked with cool space-age silver by the International Silver Company. If man could step foot on the moon by 1969, perhaps silver could too?

Alas, that was not to be. Although colored enamels were added to silver to make it more interesting to shoppers, and plastic replaced ivory for handles to make silverware easier to take care of, its use continued to decline during the 1970s. In an attempt to stop silver’s retreat from the American table, some firms hired famous architects and fashion designers to create pieces they hoped might seduce the public. Of all such efforts, those by Nan Swid and Addie Powell were the most remarkable. These savvy, ambitious women formed a company in 1982 and hired a wide variety of famous architects like Michael Graves, Richard Meier, Robert A. M. Stern, and Robert Venturi, as well as Calvin Klein, to design for them. The beautiful pieces of silver Swid Powell sold did appeal to highly sophisticated customers, but that was not enough to sustain the company, and it went out of business in the mid-1990s.

Dining by Design: Silver 1925-2000 features exceptional examples of silver that chronicle the many twists and turns in the story of American silver. While many of us may think that using silver is too much trouble in an age of automatic dishwashers and tiny houses, this exhibition will introduce you to many great objects and may be a source of many fond memories of those special occasions at your grandmother’s house, when she pulled out all her best dishes to make her table shine. 

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