Drawn mainly from RISD’s vast Gorham holdings, along with 40 important loans, the massive show is not just a blockbuster display of craftsmanship but a reminder that Rhode Island, where the American Industrial Revolution began, was once a manufacturing hub with a global reach.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Just how big a deal is the RISD Museum’s blockbuster show of Gorham silver?
For starters, it’s a rare look at the largest collection of objects from the Rhode Island-based company that was once the world’s biggest manufacturer of silver.
Or you can measure its scope this way: It took an army of 80 trained volunteers three years just to polish the more than 600 tea sets, place settings and assorted items on display through Dec. 1.
Drawn mainly from RISD’s vast Gorham holdings, along with 40 important loans, the show is not just a dazzling display of craftsmanship but a reminder that Rhode Island, where the American Industrial Revolution began, was once a manufacturing hub with a global reach.
There was a time when the Gorham name was synonymous with excellence, a time when America looked to Gorham to mark important milestones such as births and weddings. Meals were not complete without a setting of Gorham silver.
In its heyday, Gorham occupied 37 acres in South Providence, a home for innovative design and state-of-the-art techniques that took silver-making to a new level. Gorham was also a marketing pioneer. As early as the 1850s, salesmen made the rounds armed with dozens of photos of product lines.
But, like all of Rhode Island’s manufacturing giants, Gorham fell prey to changing tastes and cheap labor abroad. In a culture that no longer valued craftsmanship and had lost touch with the history of design, stainless-steel flatware that could be tossed into a dishwasher ruled.
What remained of this once-proud company was sold to Textron a half-century ago, then sold again 20 years later. That’s when Textron gave the Rhode Island School of Design Gorham’s corporate collection, numbering 2,500 pieces of silver and an equal number of design drawings.
Just in terms of spectacle, “Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970” is a winner, filling two spacious galleries with jaw-dropping entries, including an 8-foot-high vessel commemorating Adm. George Dewey’s exploits in the Spanish-American War. It’s ornate, weighs 200 pounds, and was fashioned from 70,000 dimes donated by children from across the country. Many of those coins appear as scales on fish frolicking at its base.
Other show highlights include an elegant silver dressing table showcased at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, as well as a special pavilion housing an 816-piece dinner service commissioned by a wealthy industrialist. One tray alone cost $3,000 in 1876.
The silver dressing table, a celebration of sweeping Art Nouveau lines, has blue ribbon written all over it. But in this show, it takes second place to one of RISD’s most revered treasures, the 1903 writing table and chair created for the St. Louis World’s Fair by English designer William C. Codman.
Codman was also responsible for the silver Paris desk but took on much bigger challenges for the St. Louis counterpart, pulling together an incredible mix of styles and materials to make a masterpiece.
It took Gorham’s skilled craftsmen 7,000 man hours to complete the desk, in part because its surface is covered with sinuous floral inlays in mother of pearl. There is silver to be found, but ebony, redwood, boxwood and mahogany also find their way into the mix, along with ivory used as pads for ball-and-claw feet that hark back to Chippendale and furniture from the 18th century.
But Gorham did not build its success by courting the elite. It catered to a public with endless and ever-changing tastes. The Gorham drawings in the RISD collection contain Japanese designs as well as images from the Italian Renaissance.
Danish designer Erik Magnussen produced an angular coffee service in the 1920s that reflected painting’s cutting-edge Cubism movement. This is on display next to “Circa ’70,” an airy, buoyant tea and coffee service intended for the Space Age.
It is true that Gorham fashioned a tea service for the Lincoln White House, but, as one modest display attests, it also produced more mundane objects, such as yo-yos, baby rattles and grape shears, albeit in sterling silver.
The show, which took two months to install, covers Gorham’s 120-year reign, starting with its modest beginnings as Jabez Gorham’s small spoon-making workshop in the heart of Providence.
The shop took off under Jabez’s son, John, who wasted no time in turning to steam power in the 1840s and traveling to England to purchase a steam-driven drop press, the first of its kind.
John Gorham’s recipe for success? Embrace the latest in mechanization while maintaining a commitment to hand craftsmanship. You get a sense of how Gorham’s 3,000 workers pulled this off from a workbench display filled with the tools of the trade and videos of silversmiths at work, turning a piece on a lathe and forming patterns with a drop press.
The show is the brainchild of decorative arts curator Elizabeth A. Williams, whose love affair with Gorham started when she was smitten by a copper-and-brass flecked vase in Kansas City’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She went on to write her doctorate thesis on Gorham, and ended up getting a job at RISD — the mother lode when it comes to all things Gorham.
Williams has carved the collection into five sections that explore Gorham’s impact on the fields of manufacturing, design and marketing, as well as on social and cultural change.
“If Gorham could make it in silver,” said Williams, “they made it.”