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FLEET LIBRARY | Research Guides

Rhode Island School of Design

Every Pretty Leaf - Selections from the Gorham Design Library: Exhibit

May 8-September 6, 2019 - First Floor, Fleet Library at RISD


Every Pretty Leaf: Selections from the Gorham Design Library also includes items from the Library’s Reed & Barton Collection. This is a companion exhibit to the RISD Museum’s Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850–1970 on view May 3 - December 1, 2019.



Claudia Covert 

Ariel Bordeaux - prep, install, poster design, label production

Ellen Cummings, 2020 MLIS URI - assisted with item selection

Sarah O'Brien, 2020 MFA Ceramics - selected Reed & Barton drawings

Cita Devlin, 2020 BFA Textiles - assisted with prep and install

James Kim,  2020 BFA Industrial Design - assisted with prep and install

Exhibit Cases

Gorham Manufacturing Company was founded in 1831 in Providence, Rhode Island. Originally manufacturing only spoons out of coin silver, it grew to be a leader in the American silver industry. John Gorham, whose father founded the company, traveled in Europe during the 1850s and began buying books and periodicals that founded the Gorham Design Library. The Design Library served as inspiration for Gorham’s designers until 2005 when the Lenox Company donated the collection to the Fleet Library at RISD. The collection consists of hundreds of books on design, architecture, and decorative arts.


In 1868, James Parton of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine visited Gorham Manufacturing and described the Gorham Design Library in this poetic manner:


...the visitor is surprised to find himself in an apartment which has the appearance of a library. It is indeed well stored with books, and with illustrated works of the costliest description. All beauty is akin. A designer may get from an arch of the Cologne Cathedral an idea for the handle of a mustard-spoon, and infuse the spirit of a gorgeous mosque into the design for a caster. He may borrow from the gnarled branch of a brave old oak a crook for a pitcher-handle, and imitate the droop of a vine in the bend of its spout...It is interesting walk about the warerooms and see how the whole realm of beauty has been despoiled for decoration of human life. Every pretty leaf, tendril, bud, blossom; every arch, groin, and pinnacle; every pleasing bird, animal and fish; every hideous monster and reptile; all that ancient art, tradition, and literature of elegant, grotesque, or curious, as well as all that modern life has to suggest of striking and novel - here you behold it, in brilliant silver…



Nature is a prevalent theme in the Gorham Design Library. Examples of everything plant and animal, from sea to field, found their way to inspire Gorham designers. John Gorham collected many important publishers of the time, including Gerlach & Schenk. Martin Gerlach was a publisher and photographer who created numerous pattern sources for artists and designers. He also employed many artists, including a young Gustav Klimt.

While almost all of the Gorham Collection is printed materials there are a few exceptions including this seaweed scrapbook and ten pencil and watercolor sketches of seaweed. Often when looking through Gorham items one can find pin holes and see the wear and tear. It is easy to imagine these plates and books in an artist's studio. Occasionally, a sketch can be found tucked in a book.


The Gorham Design Library acquired Japanese books as well as books on Japanese art in the 1860s and 1870s. Gorham designers were influenced by Japanese metalworks and prints. Examples of the direct influence of Katsushika Hokusai’s Manga, in particular the crane and samurai images in the 2nd ramp case, can be seen in the RISD Museum’s Gorham Silver exhibit, and the accompanying catalog.


Gorham produced many trade catalogs and marketing materials employing illustration and photography to sell their goods. Gorham was an early adopter of photography and had their own in-house photography studio. Often the trade catalogs were not dated so they could be used for longer and vendors would be sent new price lists every year. Items such as The Art of Table Setting were"...designed to serve both as a reminder and a ever useful aid to the hostess...a guide to the housewife who senses the importance of little things in the social standards of her home."


Exhibitions, expositions, and fairs were significant events for Gorham. Gorham exhibited at many of these and produced show-stopping items like the Inlaid Writing Table for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco in 1915. Numerous official exhibition records detail the awards they won. Gorham’s Century Vase for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition contained 2,000 ounces of silver.


Reed & Barton was a neighboring silver manufacturing company in Taunton, Massachusetts. It was founded in 1824, a few years before Gorham. Like Gorham they produced all makes of silver items ranging from flatware to holloware. They started making goods out of Britannia also known as white metal. In his book The Whitesmiths of Taunton (1946), George S. Gibb described the company as follows:


Reed & Barton is a century and a half old but it is up to the minute in its work. Its walls are heavy with solid brick but its machinery is working with brisk nimbleness. Many of it workers are old or aging but it products are fresh and shiny. A stream divides the plant but there is not breach in the goodwill of workers and management. Leadership is expected from the experts but is found burning brightly at the bench as well. There is not strife except the struggle for creative production, and each man plays his part and is honored for this work.


The Reed & Barton archive of sketches, blueprints, and presentation drawings was donated to the Fleet Library at RISD in 2015. The archive contains hundreds of sketches showing all phases of silver design from the early 1900s to the 1970s.


The Reed & Barton archive of sketches, blueprints, and presentation drawings was donated to the Fleet Library at RISD in 2015. The archive contains hundreds of sketches showing all phases of silver design from the early 1900s to the 1970s.