Virginia Hamill, one of the first American women in the field of industrial design, called herself a “decorative art consultant.” Under this broad title, she gained prominence as an exhibition organizer and designer, retail merchandiser, product stylist, and interior designer and educator. She was influential in her use of department store exhibitions to introduce European modernist design to mainstream American consumers. Hamill may be best known as the Executive Director of R.H. Macy and Co.’s 1928 International Exposition of Art and Industry, for which she scouted, selected, and organized hundreds of examples of furniture and objects by a wide range of international designers. [i] Hamill also recognized the practicality of collaborating with American designers and manufacturers as they modernized their products.
This compact fitted tea service—teapot, creamer, sugar bowl, and tray—was part of the Dinette line of tea sets geared for the modern-minded woman. Considered revolutionary, the sets were created by the International Silver Company’s Wilcox Silver Plate division as a modern line, space savers for the small rooms common in city apartments of the time. The Dinette set was first developed by Wilcox staff designer Jean George Theobald, whose background was in jewelry design, but the company engaged Hamill to refine and modernize the forms. Hamill was one of the few women practicing product design in the 1920s and 30s, the early years of industrial design. This set characterizes an emphasis on function and process by utilizing clean and simple cylindrical forms with flat, circular, tightly fitted lids and trapezoidal ebonized wood handles that are easy to grasp and hold. The teapot, sugar bowl, and creamer nestle together in the shaped tray. The set could be easily carried as a unit and required less storage space in the apartments of design-savvy urbanites.
While the Wilcox Silver Plate Company produced Dinette sets in silver-plated metal, this example by Old Colony Pewter is made of polished pewter, a cheaper alternative to silver-plate. Durable and easier to clean than silver, polished pewter also has a soft luster. The Dinette set's smooth, pristine surfaces lent themselves to personalization through the addition of a monogram: here a bold block letter G is prominently engraved on each piece in the set.
The level of sophistication demonstrated by this design is not surprising given Hamill’s extensive exposure to European modernist works. One contemporary art critic and journalist considered the Dinette set “a fine example of what can be done…by an American commercial firm when it decides to appoint a modern designer of good judgment and sound taste.”[ii]
[ii] Douglas Haskell, "A Fine Industrial Design," Creative Art, December, 1928, 51, as quoted in John Stuart Gordon, A Modern World: American Design from the Yale University Art Gallery 1920-1950. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011. 201