Images of cats from the British Museum collection, £9.99
Diameter: 168.000 cm (base)
Width: 274.000 cm (max.)
Prehistory and Europe
Eliel Saarinen, a tea or coffee urn
Designed in Michigan, and produced by Wilcox Silver Plate Company, Meriden, Connecticut, United States of America, 1934
This tea or coffee urn is widely held to be the greatest example of American Modernist metalwork of the 1930s. Saarinen's urn was included in the industrial art exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1934, one of a series that aimed to form collaborations between artists and manufacturers.
Saarinen (1873-1950) was one of a number of influential European emigrés who helped to disseminate progressive ideas in design. He had a distinguished early career as an architect in Finland and in Germany, moving to America in 1923. By 1932 he had been made President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, for which this urn was designed. The European influence was strong at Cranbrook, whose organization owed much to the Bauhaus, with workshops for metal, textiles and ceramics.
The urn was designed to be suitable for industrial production: the sphere is spun, the pierced gallery is stamped and the use of silver plate placed it within the economic reach of many. However, the urn was in fact made in very limited numbers. The American consumer possibly considered it to be too avant-garde, preferring their silverware to be of a more traditional form and design. The urn might have found more favour if it had been produced in chrome or aluminium, nonetheless it remains a classic of twentieth-century design.
R.J. Clark and others, Design in America: the Cranbro (New York, 1983)
J. Rudoe, 'Architect-designed coffee urn', British Museum Magazine: th-14, 35 (Autumn/Winter 1999)
C.L. Venable, Silver in America 1840-1940: a (New York, Abrams, 1995)
A. Duncan, American Art Deco (London/New York, Abrams, 1986)