Eliel Saarinen's Architectonic Tea Urn from the 1930s recently acquired for the Dallas Museum of Art collection

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Eliel Saarinen's Architectonic Tea Urn from the 1930s recently acquired for the Dallas Museum of Art collection
Eliel Saarinen, Wilcox Silver Plate Company, division of, International Silver Company, Tea urn, Designed c. 1932-1933, Silverplate, Dallas Museum of Art, The Patsy Lacy Griffith Collection, gift of Patsy Lacy Griffith by exchange, General Acquisitions Fund, and gift of Susan and Eric Saarinen.

DALLAS, TX.- The Dallas Museum of Art today announced the acquisition of a major work for its acclaimed decorative arts and design collection, a spherical tea or hot water urn designed by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (1873–1950) for the Wilcox division of the International Silver Company. The spare, architectonic form of this tea urn reflects both the designer’s penchant for elegantly precise shapes and a trend for such boldly geometric and machine-like forms during the 1930s, when streamlining became the dominant style in industrial design. The plume-like finial and a spout handle suggestive of a bird wing also suggest the designer’s admiration for organic motifs wrought from images of nature. The urn is currently on view in a silver installation on the second floor landing closest to the Ross Avenue entrance to the Museum.

“We are extremely pleased to bring such an exquisite work into our collection at the Dallas Museum of Art,” said Maxwell L. Anderson, The Eugene McDermott Director of the Dallas Museum of Art. “Saarinen’s tea urn stands as one of the most important examples of American silver of the 20th century and is an exceptional addition to the DMA’s important holdings of modernist design.”

“In the late 1920s and early 1930s Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, arguably best known for his design and leadership at the Cranbrook Schools, explored what would be an artistically successful, if short-lived, departure into the world of industrially produced American silver,” said Kevin W. Tucker, The Margot B. Perot Curator of Decorative Arts and Design at the Dallas Museum of Art. “The DMA features one of the foremost collections of modernist silver in the world, allowing us to present Saarinen’s exceptional urn not only within the context of industrial design of the 1930s, but specifically that of American silver manufacture.”

Although the silverplated urn was ultimately intended for mass production, design variations suggest that its production was not only quite limited but may have been virtually made-to-order. A prototype version of the urn, with a companion tray, creamer, and sugar bowl in brass and silverplate, is now held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other examples were produced for the Cranbrook Schools, and one version of the urn was presented in Saarinen’s display for the 1934 Contemporary American Industrial Art exhibition, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1935 the International Silver Company offered a twenty-six-cup urn of modified design along with a companion tray. Other extant examples include one in the collection of the Cranbrook Art Museum, another at the British Museum, and yet another in the St. Louis Art Museum. Beyond this work and his Contempora pattern of flatware and holloware for the firm of Dominick & Haff (1930) and a centerpiece bowl (1929) produced by Charter, Saarinen did not create any other designs for production silver. This example of the urn, which appeared in the Museum’s 2005 exhibition Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design, descended in the Saarinen family.

Educated at the Helsinki University of Technology, Eliel Saarinen worked as an architect with Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren to design his first major work, the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris Exposition of 1900. His subsequent buildings, including the National Museum (1904) and Central Railway Station (1909), reflected a romantic nationalism that drew upon pre-industrial motifs in the vein of the international Arts & Crafts movement. In 1922 he submitted designs for the Chicago Tribune building competition and, though failing to win, moved to the United States, where, in 1925, he was tasked by George Booth to design the campus for the Cranbrook Educational Community in Michigan. After teaching at the new campus, Saarinen became its director in 1932, influencing students and future designers Charles Eames and Ray Kaiser, Harry Bertoia, and Florence Knoll, among others. In the 1930s, he began working with his son the architect Eero Saarinen, and in 1947 he received the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.

Silver at the Dallas Museum of Art
The Dallas Museum of Art began its collection of silver in 1987 with the gift of the Hoblitzelle Collection of English and Irish silver, a collection of mostly 18th- and early 19th-century silver. In 1989 The Eugene and Margaret McDermott Art Fund, Inc. established the foundation of the Museum’s now-unparalleled collection of American silver of the 19th century through the purchase of several important objects from the Sam Wagstaff Collection, including Gorham’s iconic “ice” bowl and a Tiffany & Co. Chrysanthemum pitcher from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. In the 1990s, the Museum continued the development of these holdings through the acquisition of the Stephen Vaughan Collection of 19th-century flatware, the 1889 Belmont-Rothschild humidor by Tiffany, and the Oberod Collection of Martelé by Gorham, later adding the unique Martelé dressing table made for the Paris Exposition of 1900. In 2002 the DMA acquired the most important private collection of American 20th-century manufactured silver: the Jewel Stern American Silver Collection. Over one hundred additional gifts to the Jewel Stern American Silver Collection have further refined this aspect of the Museum’s holdings. The Dallas Museum of Art has published two catalogues on its silver collection: Silver in America, 1840–1940: A Century of Splendor (1995) and Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design (2005).

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