From the St. Louis Modern catalogue: Modern Silver in St. Louis

By | October 1, 2015

stl Modern front cover onlySt. Louis Modern is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue featuring a comprehensive essays on architecture and design in St. Louis that expand on themes explored in the exhibition, including in-depth examinations of the city’s embrace of modern aesthetics in sculpture, silver, stained glass, murals, and textiles.

In the excerpt below, exhibition co-curator David Conradsen profiles Maria Regnier and Dwight Dillion, two midcentury artisans whose St. Louis workshops produced striking works on view in the exhibition.

 


 

Siegfried Reinhardt, <em>Portrait of Maria Regnier</em>, 1957; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Maria Regnier 103:1994

Siegfried Reinhardt, Portrait of Maria Regnier, 1957; Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of Maria Regnier 103:1994

Although midcentury modern design in St. Louis manifested itself primarily through either custom designs or mass-produced objects, the small-scale workshop production of silversmiths Maria Regnier and Dwight Dillion made important contributions as well. While Regnier worked to refine a Machine Age aesthetic, Dillion would go on to work in a mode that reflects the organic, biomorphic aesthetic of postwar design.

Regnier was born in Hungary but immigrated to St. Louis when she was around the age of twenty. She studied at Washington University, where she first encountered metalworking and jewelry-making through classes taught by Ruth Barry and Noemi Walsh. She continued her study at the Rhode Island School of Design in summer 1935, at New York’s Dixon School in 1939, and privately under the Swedish metalsmith Alex Hammer.(1) Regnier exhibited frequently in shops and craft galleries, advertised her wares in magazines, and even produced handmade silver wares for national retailers such as Gump’s, Marshall Field’s, and Georg Jensen, Inc., USA.(2)

Dwight Dillon, <em>Chalice</em>, 1958; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by the Decorative Arts Society in honor of Lynn E. Springer 65:1981; © Dwight Dillon

Dwight Dillon, Chalice, 1958; Saint Louis Art Museum, Funds given by the Decorative Arts Society in honor of Lynn E. Springer 65:1981; © Dwight Dillon

Regnier worked in a variety of metals, including copper, pewter, and brass, but she favored silver for useful wares and gold for jewelry. She occasionally ornamented silver articles with enamel, but more often her hand-wrought wares were “starkly simple,” distinguished by geometric form and fine finishing.(3) Staples of Regnier’s craft production were jewelry and small items, such as the jigger, cigarette case, matchbook case, and telephone dialing stick made for her friend Joan Gardner, each particularly evocative of its midcentury moment. She also made large hollow ware forms such as tea sets, bowls, and dishes. The precise cylindrical bodies, circular lids and finials, and square-section handles and spouts of a silver tea-and-coffee set from the 1940s exemplify the Machine Age aesthetic. Another coffee set, with square bodies, is without ornamentation save for the raised monogram R on the knop finials. An identical coffeepot appears in the 1957 portrait of Regnier by St. Louis artist Siegfried Reinhardt.

More than a decade after Regnier attended Washington University, Dwight Dillon entered the school to study metalwork as well, enrolling in January 1946 under Walsh and her assistant, Mary Lischer Drewes. After graduating in 1949, Dillon would go on to teach art in public schools in Michigan and in St. Louis while at the same time practicing his craft, producing jewelry and hollowware forms.

David Conradsen

David Conradsen

Works that Dillon produced in the mid-1950s, like the sleek ovoid pitcher with angular rosewood handle, so impressed the noted Danish silversmith Karl Gustav Hansen during a workshop at Indiana University that he invited Dillon to serve a one-year apprenticeship in his firm, Hans Hansen Silversmiths. During his year abroad, Dillon produced a Hansen teapot design of flowing organic form with an exaggerated looped handle.(4) In contrast to Machine Age or streamline design of the 1930s and ’40s, the asymmetrical biomorphic silver of the postwar period revealed the handwork of the artisan because these dramatic fluid forms could not be manufactured by machine.(5) Dillon also became involved in the 1950s with the Art Committee of the Commission on Religion and the Arts of the Metropolitan Church Federation of Greater St. Louis. Commissions for liturgical silver followed, including a host cup of simple angular form with a fish motif worked into the foot ring and finial and a chalice, whose simple, graceful, and soaring form epitomizes design in the late 1950s.

  1. Jeannine Falino and Gerald W. R. Ward, eds., Silver of the Americas, 1600–2000: American Silver in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 2008), 439.
  2. Janet Drucker, Georg Jensen: A Tradition of Splendid Silver (Atglen: Schiffer, 1997), 52.
  3. Joan Gardner to Maria Regnier, March 2, 1981, copy in document files, acc. nos. 53–56:1981, Saint Louis Art Museum.
  4. Lynn Dillon Buck, “Dwight Dillon, Silversmith: A Personal Reminiscence” (unpublished manuscript, 1977, research files, Saint Louis Art Museum), 7.
  5. Bruce Metcalf, “Accommodating Modernism: Midcentury Silversmithing and Enameling,” in Crafting Modernism: Midcentury American Art and Design, ed. Jeannine Falino (New York: Harry N. Abrams, in association with the Museum of Art and Design, 2009), 185.

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