COLLECTOR'S PASSION SHINES IN MUSEUM EXHIBITION:
By: Leslie Sternlieb
Throughout her life, art historian Jewel Stern has shuttled regularly between her native New York and Miami Beach, cities where the eye-popping elegance of the 1920s and ’30s were manifest in the sensuous and geometric rhythms of the Empire State Building, the Roxy Theatre, Radio City Music Hall and rows of stylish South Florida beachfront hotels.
The modernist creed reached deep into the psyche of this Miami-based independent scholar. “I was born into that world,” Stern says. “It was the dominant aesthetic of my childhood.” And her habits as a collector evidenced this halo effect: she acquired candy boxes and graphic tins of the period and was likewise enchanted by the Deco-inspired quilts and pink gold watches of the 1940s—“like my mother had”—but none of these collections really took off.
Nothing stuck, until Stern was seized in 1986 by “a confluence of facts and circumstances,” as she describes it.
What finally kindled her passion was how the precious metal silver—striking for its luminous purity and as reflective as a full moon—could be variously rendered as gleaming tea and coffee sets, serving dishes, trays, compotes, flatware, candelabras and cocktail shakers. They were not crafted by hand but produced by the likes of Reed & Barton, Gorham, Wallace, Tiffany and the International Silver Company.
“I just couldn’t stop,” she confesses. “I still can’t stop.”
What came to be known as The Jewel Stern American Silver Collection, spanning the years 1925 to 2000, is considered to be the most significant of its type in the world, and is now the focus of Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design, an exhibition on view at The Wolfsonian–FIU through March 25, 2007. Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, the array of some two hundred industrially produced objects vividly portrays how social, economic and cultural currents influenced silver design, manufacture and marketing.
The exhibition includes pieces by a host of widely recognized designers such as Eliel Saarinen, Erik Magnussen, Robert Venturi and Elsa Peretti, as well as those by designers whose names are seldom known by the general public. Modernism in American Silver also includes works on loan from The Wolfsonian and the Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Private Collection.
What inspired such a noteworthy compilation began with a
simple question that most people would have answered with a shrug of the
shoulders, and nothing more. In the midst of getting ready for a catered home
dinner party, a waitress asked where she kept her serving trays. “I don’t have
any!” Stern suddenly realized. Only recently had she disposed of her traditional
wedding silver, which she considered too overwrought for her more streamlined
taste. Soon after, as she was strolling through New York’s Second Avenue
antiques marketplace, a sterling silver hors d’oeuvre tray caught her eye. The
Reed & Barton tray, made in 1936, matched her penchant for Art Deco, and, she
would later discover, was designed by Belle Kogan, whom she would later come to
It wasn’t long before the inveterate collector started to think “one tray isn’t enough, I really need another tray.” When she returned to New York the following spring she saw the Sam Wagstaff Collection of American Silver, an assemblage of nineteenth-century objects, at the New-York Historical Society. The show prompted her to imagine similar possibilities for modern American silver. “Something clicked,” she recalls. “I got hooked on silver.”
As an art historian (she received her master’s degree in art history from the University of Miami), Stern brings a scholar’s love for detail and documentation to her collecting habits. Thoroughly intrigued, she relished the challenge of exploring an area where few serious references existed. While she made the rounds of antiques shows and met with dealers in New York and Florida, Stern also examined advertisements in dozens of consumer magazines, interviewed industry executives, salesmen and designers, visited manufacturers’ archives, and thumbed through U.S. design patent books “page by page.” “I love the detective work,” she says. “I have the patience, and I liked the idea of exploring new territory.
“As soon as I built a body of research,” she continues, “I knew what I was looking for. I basically had a shopping list.”
And so Stern patiently began acquiring hundreds of pieces of silver and archiving her findings. As she learned more, her preferences evolved from one era to the next. “In the 1920s material there is a very strong preponderance of sterling. With the Depression there was a downturn in sterling and more silverplate,” she observes. “When I first started, I was collecting only sterling. Then I was advised that the more avant-garde pieces were done in silverplate, which was less of an investment by manufacturers, particularly in the Art Deco period.”
After about a decade of acquiring the 1925–45 period, she expanded her sights to include the 1950s and, finally, finished out the twentieth century. “I’ll let somebody else do the twenty-first,” she says.
Stern had already earned a reputation for rigorous scholarship by 1990 when Wendy Kaplan, the former chief curator, hired her to document The Wolfsonian’s collection of modern American silver. “I knew that if there was any particular fact that could be uncovered about this material, she would in fact uncover and document it. Her attention to detail is nothing less than remarkable,” Kaplan, now curator of decorative arts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, comments.
The assignment led her to meet Charles L. Venable, then the curator of decorative arts at the Dallas Museum of Art, who recognized that the exceptional collection and meticulous research had the makings of a future exhibition and catalogue. In 2002, the museum acquired Stern’s collection (her voluminous archives are promised). A 392-page hardbound catalogue, published by Yale University Press in association with the Dallas Museum of Art, accompanies the exhibition, and has itself proven to be a prize-winner. The handsome volume garnered the 2005 George Wittenborn Memorial Award, and Stern received the Robert C. Smith Award from the Decorative Arts Society, as its author, for her comprehensive approach and writing style.
Her dogged pursuit of the silver trail also enabled her to make some astonishing and unpredictable connections.
Most poetically, Stern located and befriended Belle Kogan, the woman who designed the prophetic hors d’oeuvres tray. Kogan was known by industry insiders as “the Silver Lady” for her prodigious output of work and her extensive writings about silver design. “She had a lot of gumption,” Stern says admiringly. “She tackled an area that excluded women, and she made a big success very quickly.”
Researching Kogan in 1990, Stern came upon her listing in Who’s Who of American Art as a member of the Industrial Designers Society of America. What’s more, an industrial designer named Helen Rice wrote her master’s thesis, titled “Belle, Who?,” some years earlier, for the University of Illinois. Rice led Stern to the pioneering industrial designer, then 88 years old and retired in Israel. The collector and designer would come to correspond and talk regularly on the phone.
Stern acquired three Reed & Barton pieces from Kogan, including a double vegetable dish that Stern describes in the catalogue as “the apogee of her power as a designer in the medium,” merging “the modern classic and streamline styles.”
“I promised Belle that I would give a piece by her to a major museum,” Stern recounts. “In 1992 I gave a centerpiece to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The Dallas Museum of Art now has the double vegetable dish and several other pieces by Belle in my collection.” Kogan died in 2000, several years before the exhibition and catalogue would give her the recognition she deserved.
In fact, unless you were a celebrity, many silver producers did not acknowledge their designers, Stern explains. “I’ve always thought it was important to recognize the unsung designers in the industry,” she adds.
Stern’s ability to peel back all the layers engenders the admiration of her museum colleagues. “Jewel sees beyond the beauty of an object,” notes Wolfsonian curator Sarah Schleuning. “She possesses the unique desire to understand the greater meaning and impact of its design, and impart that information to others.”
Even after twenty years, Stern still thrills at those moments when a sought-after object presents itself, “something you had only seen illustrated in a catalogue and then you see it materialize.”
And yet, despite her consistent patrol of shows and antiques shops, and even the occasional peek at eBay, there remain a few elusive pieces. Among them: the sleek and classically inspired “Dorian” candlesticks by the Watson Company, made in 1935. Jewel Stern is too matter-of-fact to be wistful, but clearly she seeks completion: “They are handsome, and I’ve never seen them. Maybe one of these days….” For this silver sleuth, it’s only a matter of time.
Modernism in American Silver: 20th-Century Design continues through March 25, 2007, at The Wolfsonian–FIU, 1001 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach. For museum hours and more information, call 305-531-1001. www.wolfsonian.org/exhibitions/current
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