Collection

Ergonomic assortment

Collection: When modernism goes bad

Category: Ceramics

Date: 1939 - 1959

Designer: Russel Wright

Nationality of Designer: American

Manufacturer: Steubenville Pottery

Manufacturers Location: Ohio, Jefferson County (USA)

Material: Ceramic

Dimensions: Between 10cm & 25cm

Purchase Price: $40.00

Abstract:

An assortment of tableware from the American Modern range.

Provenance:

Purchased from the Roosevelt Island Seafarers Mission thrift store, New York City during the Grizedale project Romantic Detachment.

Personal history/nominator:

In the 1960’s this multi-coloured series of domestic wares seemed to typify diner style and American taste or rather lack of it - gross in form and colour, crudely produced. They now seem rather chic and modern, an ergonomic new world vision that draws from classic European style and is a precursor of 1980’s design.

Adaptions/renovations:

None

Why it's in the Collection:

These items were purchased and used within Grizedale Arts Romantic Detachment project in NYC and were used in conjunction with Jeremy Deller’s Tea Urn at PS1 and other tour venues. The pieces represented a Euro-US fusion of influences, a theme that was the central premise of the project - the romantic longing with which cultures view one another.

About the Designer/Maker:

Russel Wright (1904-1976) was an American designer who initially trained under the painter Frank Duveneck at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, but followed the family tradition and studied Law at Princeton University. However after he won several Tiffany & Co. prizes for outstanding WW1 memorial sculptures, design became his focus.

Being born into a family with strong political and moral views (two relatives on his mother’s side signed the Declaration of Independence and his father and grandfather were judges) may explain his dedication to changing the way Americans lived and the belief that the table was the most important place in the home. Much of his career concentrated on tableware designs.

His successful, mass-produced and inexpensive designs, Informal Serving Accessories, American Modern, Iroquois Casual China, were all created with his simple aim in mind, “easier living”. With the business knowledge of his wife and partner, Mary, Wright preached his new vision for American homes through exhibitions, books, articles, advertisements, radio interviews, and department stores, all the time developing his signature into a trademark.

It is argued that Wright’s designs and the way he marketed them paved the way for contemporary (if a bit dubious) lifestyle brands such as Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren. It seems to be a sad fact that the innovator with ambitions to change and improve life always spawns the monsters - sort of the theme of this Collection. Whether the enormously successful Lauren and Stewart have changed anything is debatable.

About the Manufacturer:

Steubenville Pottery was founded in 1879 by local painter and decorator Thomas Haden and the English manufacturer of majolica, A. B. Beck. Initially just a small factory producing white graniteware and majolica, by the 1920’s the Pottery began to expand by building a new factory "overlooking the beautiful Ohio River costing $75,000 (a huge amount of money, especially in the time leading up to the Great Depression).

As a result of producing popular and innovative pieces in the 1930’s such as Trend and Normandie (which were hailed as being “in tune with the streamline age” at the Pittsburgh Fair in 1936) the Pottery continued to grow and by the 1940’s employed two hundred and sixty people.”

In 1941 the Pottery launched Woodfield, a dinner service with plates shaped like leaves that proved a huge hit across America. A group of dinnerware patterns designed by the industrial and glass designer, Scott Wilson, were introduced by Steubenville in 1942. Although this grouping of floral designs was described as “modern traditional”, trade ad depictions made these designs appear much more appealing to the traditionalist than the modernist.

Blamed on competition from ‘foreign imports’, by 1959 the Pottery was in trouble. Harry Wintringer, Jr. the president of the Pottery, attempted to prevent the company's closure for the sake of his employees, many of whom had two or three generations of family members that had worked for the company. Wintringer ordered the very last pieces to be fired on the 15th December 1959 and morbidly marked each piece “Final Kiln”.

A myth has grown up around Wintringer's death, when only six weeks after the Pottery’s closure he collapsed playing a round of golf, many believing he died of a broken heart.

The rights to the Steubenville designs were sold to the Canonsburg Potteries where Vincent Broomhall, the well-known ceramic designer, was made president and sales manager of the Steubenville division of the Canonsburg Pottery Company, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania.

Bibliography & Further information

Guide to Easier Living, Wright, Mary & Russel, ISBN 1586852108

The Russel Wright Center

Russel Wright Archives: advertisements, editorial and product literature