Gorham Manufacturing Company Erik Magnussen
Cubic Coffee Service
Erik Magnussen, designer
Gorham Manufacturing Company, manufacturer
Cubic Coffee Service, 1927
Silver with gilding and ivory
24.1 x 54.6 x 34 cm (9 1/2 x 21 1/2 x 13 3/8 inches) (overall)
The Gorham Collection. Gift of Textron Inc. 1991.126.488
Edited ByWoolsey, Ann, ed.
Publisher & DateMuseum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 2008
TypeMonographs and Collections
Gordon, John Stuart. “A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery, 1920-1950”. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, 2011.
Kirkham, Pat and Susan Weber. “History of Design: Decorative Arts and Material Culture, 1400-2000”. New York: Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture, 2013.
Janet Koplos and Bruce Metcalf. Makers: A History of American Studio Craft. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill. 2010.
About the work
In 1925, Erik Magnussen, a Danish silversmith, was hired as a designer for Gorham, the Providence-based silver manufacturing company, to develop modern styles to add to their traditional silverware lines. In a radical departure from the soft, curving lines, surface ornamentation, and nostalgic feel of the Colonial Revival styles that dominated Gorham’s production and American furniture and decorative arts in the 1920s, Magnussen created the Cubic coffee service two years after his hire. Handmade coffee service sets, first acquired by wealthier buyers and later available to middle class users, had been popular for use during social gatherings since the 18th century. Magnussen designed the surface and forms to evoke bright lights and city living while preserving the functional coffee service popular with American consumers. The angular shapes and varied colors of the piece are reminiscent of paintings by Cubist painters such as Pablo Picasso and abstract works by leading modern artists like Kasimir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. Unlike other designers at Gorham who would pass on their designs to be made by artisans, Magnussen both designed and executed this work himself.
Founded in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1831, Gorham Manufacturing Company specialized in products made from silver. For the first 20 years of its existence, the company produced small household wares, such as spoons, forks, thimbles and combs. Technological innovations, starting with the steam-powered drop-press, allowed mechanized production of flatware utensils; the subsequent growth of the silver market in New England, the United States, and beyond fueled the company’s expansion. From 1850 to 1940, the heyday of American silver manufacturing, Gorham was the largest maker of sterling silverwares in the world. As advanced technology brought down the cost of manufacturing silverware, more people in New England and other parts of America found themselves in a position to affordably purchase silver for regular use in their homes. Gorham and other silver company flatware that had previously been luxury items for the wealthy became more commonplace.
Discuss how the form of this coffee service reflects light. What geometric shapes are visible? What do the reflections remind you of? The triangles that form this set are made from both gilt and oxidized silver, creating different colors and effects. How does this treatment contribute to the overall work?
Discuss Magnussen’s decision to design the shape of the tray the way he did. What is the effect of the pointed edge? How does this decision relate to the overall impression of the coffee service?
Ask students to compare Cubic coffee service with a coffee and tea set made by the Gorham Company 40 years earlier, in 1886. Consider the shapes, surfaces, and the function of the different containers included in each set. What type of person might have purchased the service from 1886? The service from 1927?
Show the Cubist painting Seated Woman with a Book (ca. 1910) by Pablo Picasso next to Cubic coffee service. What similarities in terms of shapes and color do you notice? What do these two objects tell us about the 1910s in France? The 1920s in America?
The design process requires that the designer carefully consider the needs and habits of likely users in order to develop an appealing product. While fulfilling its intended use to hold and serve coffee, the coffee service also pushes the limits of function and stands out as an interesting example of the Cubist style. To understand how the designer has been inventive with the basic requirements of a coffee service, ask students to list all the functional parts of the set (e.g., the handles, spout, lid, tray, etc.). Next, beside each part, write a description of the liberties the designer took in terms of form, detail, color, and other qualities.
To encourage them to think about the essential parts of their container, ask them to sketch from the Cubic coffee service first, paying attention to the different parts such as the handles, the spout, and the lid. Then ask students to design a vessel that can be used at a social event to hold a warm beverage. They can start by brainstorming the type of event, drink, and possible participants.
To explore the object as a functional coffee service, have your students write a skit about a party in which the guests are served coffee from the Gorham service. Working in groups of three or four, they should describe the setting, the reason the characters have gathered, and the dialogue between them.
Magnussen’s coffee service was produced by a company that started small and local and over time achieved national and international recognition. Its success was tied to factors such as the availability of highly skilled designers and craftsmen recently immigrated to the United States as well as to technical innovations. What are some companies near where you live that have produced aesthetically interesting, functional objects? Ask students to research the history of a local company and some of its products.
Charles H. Carpenter, Jr. Gorham Silver 1831–1981. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1982.