Thanks to a donation from the Bengt Julin Fund of the Friends of the Museum, the Nationalmuseum has been able to acquire a steel coffee pot by Naum Slutzky (1894-1965). The coffee pot will significantly enrich the museum’s collection of applied art and modern design.
Naum Slutzky was born in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and his father, Gilel Slucky, worked as a goldsmith for Carl Fabergé (1846-1920). Anti-Semitic currents caused the family to move to Austria where Slutzky emulated his father by training as a goldsmith. In 1912 Slutzky joined the Wiener Werkstätte which had been started in 1903. The founders were critical of the imitation of historical styles that was popular at the time as well as being dissatisfied with industrialism and mass-production which were considered to have a deleterious effect on people’s appreciation of craft skills, beauty and quality.
In 1919 Slutzky moved to Germany to teach at the newly opened Staatliche Bauhaus. The design ideology initially taught by the founder, Walter Gropius (1883-1969), can be seen as a development of the ambitions of the Wiener Werkstätte and the Deutscher Werkbund. At the start, in 1919, the school maintained a rather romantic view of the role of artists and craftsmen in the industrial society. A central vision was to create a guild in which painters, sculptors, craftsmen and architects would work harmoniously together, oblivious of social class or professional hierarchies. The model for this was to be found in the craft workshops that were established on site to support the construction of Europe’s mediaeval cathedrals. But in due course, modern technology, standardization and rational mass-production proved more important stimuli. Abandoning the craft ideals of an earlier age led to controversies and to teachers and pupils leaving the school.
Naum Slutzky left the Bauhaus at the beginning of 1924. He continued to work in Vienna and Berlin and, in 1927, he settled in Hamburg. There he opened an office and marketed lamps, tea sets, jewellery for both men and women, boxes and ashtrays to his own designs. When anti-Semitism became increasingly virulent in Germany he moved his family via Denmark to exile in England.
One of a kind
The coffee pot that the Nationalmuseum has acquired was a gift to the Danish family that helped the Slutzkys flee from Germany in 1933. It is made of matt-finished steel, brass and ebony and is the only one of its kind. It is generally referred to as a coffee pot and there has been speculation as to whether it might, in fact, be a prototype for silver, silver-plated or chrome coffee pots. A very similar design with a different handle is part of a service from 1927-28.
Steel Coffe Pot by Naum Slutzky
Naum Slutzky can be regarded as a link between the eclecticism of 19th century design and the modernist design currents of the 20th century. As a trained goldsmith and the son of one of Fabergé’s colleagues Slutzky had acquired a traditional feeling for materials and quality. But his innovative designs mirror a central development in modern design history in which the Bauhaus and other reform movements sought to give expression to a radical break with aesthetic norms, material values and manufacturing processes. The objects that left Slutzky’s workshop were exquisite and exclusive.
Craft or industrial product?
At first sight the newly acquired coffee pot appears to be some sort of industrial product – a tool or projectile or something from under the bonnet of a car. Silver or silver-plate would have given a different impression. But closer inspection reveals that the coffee pot has been made laboriously by hand. This creates an interesting tension between the craft of the goldsmith and a utopian industrial aesthetic. The work shows that a designer can use traditional methods to produce something that we regard as innovative and modern. In a broader perspective the item can be seen as a link on the road to the industrial age in which design is adapted to the needs of the machine and of mass-produced goods. Both in Slutzky’s choice and treatment of steel and in the basic forms of the composition – circles, cylinders, spheres, cones – the work exemplifies the machine ethic of the modern design while its modular conception illustrates the vision of standardization and mass-production.