Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Prototype tea service

Designer:
Eliel Saarinen (American (born Finland), Rantasalmi 1873–1950 Bloomfield Hills, Michigan)
Manufacturer:
International Silver Company, Wilcox Silver Plate Company Division (Meriden, Connecticut)
Date:
ca. 1933–35
Medium:
Electroplated nickel silver, brass, and Bakelite
Dimensions:
Tea Urn, 1a-c: H. 14-1/2, D. 11 in. (36.8 x 19.7 cm) Tray, 2: H. 5/8 Diam. 17-5/8 in. (44.5 cm) Creamer, 3: H. 3, W. 6, D. 3-7/8 in. (7.6 x 15.2 x 9.8 cm) Sugar Bowl, 4a,b: H. 6-3/4, W. 6, D. 3-7/8 in. (17.1 x 15.2 x 9.8 cm) Large Tray, 5: H. 1/2 Diam. 20-3/8 in. (51.4 cm)
Classification:
Metalwork
Credit Line:
Purchase, Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Saarinen Swanson and John C. Waddell Gifts, and Gift of Susan Dwight Bliss, by exchange, 1999
Accession Number:
1999.27.1a-c-5
Not on view
The architect Eliel Saarinen began his career in Finland, where he gained international acclaim as the designer of the Helsinki railway station (designed 1904, completed 1914). He came to America in 1923 and in 1925 was asked by George C. Booth to develop the Cranbrook Academy of Art at Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Thereafter, though he was responsible for many important projects elsewhere, Cranbrook became the focus of his life.


Saarinen used this tea service in his own house at Cranbrook. The designs of the prototype urn and small tray were slightly modified when they were put into very limited production by the International Silver Company. One example was prominently displayed in the "Room for a Lady" that Saarinen designed for The Metropolitan Museum of Art's important 1934 exhibition "Contemporary American Industrial Design."


The concept is remarkably sophisticated. On the one hand it relies for its effect on the pure geometries of the modernists. The spherical urn surmounts a palisade of struts forming a cylinder; the tray is a plain circular sheet of metal with a simple raised edge. What might in other hands lead to austerity, however, is offset by the fine proportions of the pieces and given great elegance, through the exaggerated height of the finial and the warmth of the brass plating that Saarinen insisted on for his personal pieces. (The other versions of the urn and tray were all finished in silver.) Illustrations of Saarinen's tea urn and tray have been published repeatedly, and over the years they have assumed iconic renown. The prototypes, together with their matching creamer, covered sugar bowl, and larger tray — which were added in 1935 and never put into production — are an excellent examples of work by the pioneer generation of industrial designers in America.

Marking: [underside of urn stamped]: WILCOX S.P.CO. / E P N S / INTERNATIONAL S CO / N5873 / IS;
[underside of small tray stamped]: WILCOX S.P.CO. / E P N S / INTERNATIONAL S CO / N5875 / IS;
[underside of creamer scratched]: 31190;
[underside of sugar bowl scratched]: 31190
Mr. and Mrs. Eliel Saarinen, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (until his d. 1950); Mrs. Eliel Saarinen, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (1950–d. 1968); her grandson, Ronald Saarinen Swanson, Bloomfield Hills, Mich. (1968–98; to MMA)

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Recent Acquisitions of Twentieth-Century Design and Architecture," June 29–November 14, 1999, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age," May 16, 2000–January 7, extended to February 4, 2001, unnumbered cat. (p. 106; tea service in New York venue only).

Newport Beach, Calif. Orange County Museum of Art. "American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age," May 25–August 19, 2001, unnumbered cat. (tea urn and tray only).

Flint, Mich. Flint Institute of Arts. "American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age," September 14–December 16, 2001, unnumbered cat. (tea urn and tray only).

Philadelphia. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age," January 11–April 7, 2002, unnumbered cat. (tea urn and tray only).

Charlotte, N. C. Mint Museum of Craft and Design. "American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age," May 3–July 28, 2002, unnumbered cat. (tea urn and tray only).

Tulsa, Okla. Philbrook Museum of Art. "American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age," August 23–November 17, 2002, unnumbered cat. (tea urn and tray only).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "A Curator's Eye: J. Stewart Johnson, 1990–2004," March 1–November 6, 2005, no catalogue (tea urn and tray only).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Modern Design: Selections from the Collection," May 30–October 5, 2008, no catalogue.

Albert Christ-Janer. Eliel Saarinen. Chicago, 1948, fig. 164 (tea urn and tray).

R. Craig Miller in Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925–1950. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. New York, 1983, pp. 99–100.

J. David Farmer in Design in America: The Cranbrook Vision 1925–1950. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, 1983, p. 163, colorpl. 32 (tea urn and tray; Cranbrook Academy of Art version).

Richard Guy Wilson in The Machine Age in America, 1918–1941. Exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum. New York, 1986, p. 88, fig. 3.27 (tea urn and tray; Cranbrook Academy of Art version), dates it 1934.

J. Stewart Johnson in "Recent Acquisitions. A Selection: 1998–1999." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 57 (Fall 1999), p. 63, ill.

J. Stewart Johnson. American Modern, 1925–1940: Design for a New Age. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2000, pp. 34, 173, ill. p. 106 (color) (tea urn and tray).



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