Eliel Saarinen tea urn acquired by Dallas Museum of Art (2013)

ADC staff
artdesigncafé - design | 2 February 2013

Eliel Saarinen tea urn acquired by Dallas Museum of Art

Press release text by Dallas Museum of Art

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 [Silver Plate Co.] 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.