Jewel Stern interview: Modernist silver from Meriden-Wallingford (2016)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - design | Design Meriden | DM 1(2) | 28 September 2016
This interview took place in April 2016.

Specialists and enthusiasts of Modernist silver design definitely know her work. Jewel Stern, curator, writer, and collector showed the topic in its fullest form in her book Modernism in American Silver. The accompanying exhibition that she curated with the same title originated at the Dallas Museum of Art (2005) and travelled to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach, the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis, Tennessee.

The book and exhibition feature the Jewel Stern American Silver Collection at the Dallas Museum, which comprises over 400 works showing Modernism. Many of these designs were made in Meriden and Wallingford, Connecticut, as well as Providence and New York.

Concerning the Meriden-Wallingford area specifically, Jewel Stern’s work helped to document and show the downtown Meriden area and beyond as an important center of Modernist silver design and production. To learn more, R. J. Preece interviewed Stern for Design Meriden at artdesigncafe.

R. J. Preece: How did you go about collecting Modernist silver, and over how long? When did it start to get "very serious" as you might define that?

Stern: I collected silver beginning in 1986 and continued actively through about 2010. Since then, I occasionally find a piece that I have not already acquired. I was serious about it from the very beginning. I searched for objects at antique fairs, established dealers, and antique shops, especially in New York City, and in Miami, but also in other places throughout the country when traveling.

In those pre-Internet years it was footwork! I also began researching so that I would know what to look for and not make mistakes.

Preece: Your impressive exhibition catalogue / book is very thorough and organized. I get the feeling that that research took place over decades, and you had to piece many things together yourself. If you hadn’t done this research, I sense a lot of it would be unknown today. Am I right?

Stern: I began researching silver in 1986 in tandem with collecting. When I began collecting there were very limited resources for reference on modern American silver. I had to do the research myself.

Preece: When do we start to see articles about it?

Stern: In the 1920s and 1930s, there was a great interest in silver for the home and entertaining and many articles were published in journals directed to homemakers such as House & Garden, House Beautiful, Home and Field, etc. These articles were contemporaneous. In other words, as soon as new, modern designs were in the marketplace they were featured in journals.

Preece: Would you say that there was a gap in the coverage on the Modernist silver between the time it was made and then when you started writing about it?

Stern: This is a complex question. I assume by “Modernist” you mean the 1920s, often referred to as Art Deco, and 1930s streamlining. After WWII there was a reduction of interest in silver for the home because of casual entertaining and lack of household help. It actually began during the Depression when chromium-plated wares became acceptable for entertaining. Wood and stainless steel accessories for the table became popular after WWII when Scandinavian modern was the rage. After the war there were fewer published articles specifically on silver in general.

With the Art Deco revival in the 1970s and 1980s, silver from the 1920s and 1930s became more interesting and collectible. I am sure this played into my collecting silver from the period beginning in 1986. However, there was no single comprehensive resource on silver of the 1920s and 1930s until the Dallas Museum of Art exhibition and publication, which actually covers the balance of the 20th century.

Preece: Is there particular information regarding Modernist silver that you hope to see in future, if it becomes known and available?

Stern: I am always interested in new material that may surface. Not only archival material, but also in actual objects that I know were produced but have never come to light. Objects may come to light for which I never found documentation. These new discoveries are exciting.

Preece: Regarding the International Silver Company, was their Modernist work a small fraction of what they produced? Was it geared towards a more urban market with higher pricing? Smaller editions?

Stern: Modernist designs in the 1920s and 1930s were a risk for silver manufacturers and ISC was no exception. I cannot say what fraction of production was modern, but it would have been small. There was the luxury market and the so-called mass market. The former would have been in sterling silver alone or with semi-precious embellishments or enamelwork and geared to a wealthy, urbane clientele. The editions were small, perhaps 25.

Mass-produced modern hollowware in those years might have been 100-150! These were generally in silverplate to reduce the cost to consumers. Although Modernist silver receives more attention, the bread and butter of the industry was traditional silver.

Preece: In the developing compilation of Meriden design objects visible in museums, it seems about half or more are the result of your work via the Dallas Museum of Art. What do you think about this?

Stern: The 2005-2007 Dallas Museum of Art traveling exhibition Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design, and the publicity surrounding it brought a lot of attention to the subject. The accompanying catalogue became the go-to resource for individual collectors and museums. Of course, this outcome is gratifying.

Preece: Within the museum contexts, it seems too many objects are not on view. I’d of course prefer to see them listed as on view. Do Tiffany’s and Gorham across America face the same situation?

Stern: Museum exhibition space is always at a premium. Unfortunately, many objects in all categories are in storage and may rarely be seen in the galleries. I am not sure what you mean by Tiffany and Gorham. If you mean "are their objects favored more for exhibition", that may be true, especially with 19th and early 20th century material. Both companies were very strong in those years.

Preece: Do you by any chance think this is a quality issue or a communications / funding issue? For example, if historical ISC were more out there, more accessible, with some base funding on offer, do you think we would then see more ISC?

Stern: Quality is always a priority. I think it, too, it is primarily a question of allocation of space and the hierarchy of fine and decorative arts in a particular museum. It is my impression that in order to have more space allocated for any area in the arts, or any special collection, it would require a significant endowment.

Museums have different collecting priorities. Some may favor the decorative arts, contemporary painting or sculpture, etc. As far as ISC, it would make sense to target a specific museum, or museums, to learn if there is interest in silver, and, if so, perhaps funding might make a difference.

Preece: How would you like to see the discourse on Modernist silver develop in future? Are there particular areas that you think are ripe for development?

Stern: Fostering an exchange between collectors and museum curators is interesting. Auction houses might also participate. Also, bringing to light pieces that are privately owned, that have been in families for generations but are previously unknown is also interesting.

Preece: Did you grow up with Modernist silver around you?

Stern: My mother had a Jensenesque sterling silver tea and coffee service on the dining room buffet that she and my dad purchased on a trip to Mexico. She also had traditional American sterling flatware, but in general, there was not a great interest in silver objects.

Jewel Stern is an independent scholar and curator specializing in twentieth-century modern architecture and design. She lives and works in Coral Gables, Florida, and received her BA and MA degrees from the University of Miami. Her exhibitions and catalogues include Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design (Dallas Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2005) for which she received the 2006 George Wittenborn Memorial Book Award from ARLIS/NA; and, with Rachel Delphia, Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk (Carnegie Museum of Art and DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2015). She is co-author with John A. Stuart of Ely Jacques Kahn: Beaux-Arts to Modernism in New York (W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), recipient of the 2006 New York City Book Award for Architectural History.