Senses of Living® Décor

November-December 2006
© 2006 by Bret S. Beall


For me, it all started about 15 years ago with a curvaceous white dish. I have always haunted thrift stores and resale shops, looking for whatever caught my eye. This oddly organically curved dish certainly caught my eye. I eventually learned that this was a celery dish that was part of Russel Wright's American Modern line of dishware, and that began my infatuation with his design talent.

I have subsequently acquired a number of Russel Wright's pieces from several of his design lines, and I continue to add unusual pieces to my dinnerware and entertaining collection. The shapes always elicit comments from guests, and they started to ask me questions for which I had no answers. I began reading about Russel Wright's life, his designs, and the collectibility of his wares. I also joined some online discussion groups. It was through one of those groups that I first encountered Robert Stearns, the curator of the amazing traveling exhibition of Wright's entitled, "Living with Good Design" (www.livingwithgooddesign.org). Robert agreed to share some of his knowledge of Wright with me in a recent phone interview. I hope you'll enjoy reading Robert's words as much as I enjoyed hearing them and bringing them to you!

Bret: Robert, you've been really busy this past year as Chief Curator for the traveling exhibition, "Russel Wright: Living with Good Design." Visiting the exhibition's exceptional website, www.livingwithgooddesign.org, I am blown away by what you have created. Could you give me some insight into why this exhibition is so important, how you came to be in charge of organizing it and what you want people to take away from it?

Robert: One important aspect of this exhibition is its national tour, which will reach audiences in the Midwest, in the west, and the south. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum assembled an excellent survey of Russel Wright's work in 2001, but it was seen only in New York City. Russel was such an egalitarian, that I think he would be pleased to know that people in smaller communities (like the people he designed for) have a chance to see his work close to home. Regarding my involvement in this project, a few years ago, I was invited to offer ideas for an exhibition that the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio could present that might have a national impact, but that would also address its mandate of investigating Ohio heritage. As a curator, my area of focus is primarily modern and contemporary art, not the decorative arts, but I suggested Russel Wright anyway. I've been a fan of his work for many years, and was aware that he was born in southwestern Ohio. Aside from that, I have to admit that I knew little about Russel's work, other than the Steubenville American Modern, and Iroquois Casual China dinnerware. Research, and lots of it, was in order. I began with calls to Russel's daughter, Annie, followed by a three-day intensive study session at the Syracuse University library (where Wright's archives are located), and discussions with museums and private collectors. When I started the exhibition, I was working fulltime for Arts Midwest, which is one of the country's six regional arts organizations, and our mission was to pursue tours for exhibitions to maximize the benefit of the work that went into them. It took about three years to assemble what is now a six-site tour that will continue through May of 2008. Both the contents of the exhibition, and the communities where it would be seen, interested Target®, and they became our national sponsor for the tour. I hope that people take away exactly what previous attendees have stated they've taken. They recognize something personal for themselves in the exhibition. [Bret's note: I had the opportunity to read the visitor feedback from the exhibition's first venue at the Decorative Arts Center of Ohio; the abundant comments emphasized the beauty and design of the exhibition, as well as the Wrights' historical contributions, the overall knowledge attendees gained from the exhibition, and even reminiscences of Wright's influence on their families' lives].

Bret: I plan to visit the exhibition soon, because I've been enthralled by many of Wright's designs for years as so many of them are organically-shaped, biomorphic dishes with curves and elongations and interesting edges. Examples of what I mean are his American Modern celery dish, and inset lids for his casseroles and various bowls, his Iroquois gumbo bowls, his Oceana wood series, and his Sterling cup handles, among others. Do you have any insight into Wright's inspiration for creating these organic shapes, which are quite unique in many cases? And, as a follow-up, do you know "why" Wright was inspired by these influences?

Robert: Thinking about the sources of his inspiration, one very important source is his upbringing in southwestern Ohio, surrounded by nature, farms and fields; another is his wife, Mary, was also familiar with art, as she was a student of Alexander Archipenko, with a tendency towards surrealism. There's also an important issue related to "truth to materials" which was very important to Russel. He wished the materials that he used to speak from "what they are." For example, wood and clay natural express organic forms, and metals more naturally express geometric and industrial forms. So, during the same period that he was making the Oceana in its organic forms and shapes, he was also producing the spun aluminum, which was based on cylinders, cones and spheres. Back to the organic forms, Russel would say later that hew as more interested in nature than any other subject.

Bret: I personally collect only those designs of Wright's that are available in white, because I think food looks best on white dishes (I also like the look of food on black dishes). Fortunately, many, if not most, of his designs fit that criterion of "white," but not too many are "black." However, he also has designs in many other colors, and I've read that he selected his palette in many cases because of HIS impression of how food would look with those colors. Have you encountered any research or statements explaining why he felt his dish/ceramic colors worked well with food?

Robert: There is considerable research that Russel conducted that led to his palette of colors. Regarding color dishes, the earliest research that I know of was conducted in 1936, as he planned for his first ceramic dinner line that would be added to his furniture line that he had already titled American Modern. In a written analysis of market surveys that he conducted, he arrived at colors that were more subtle than "California ware." And there's more detail on that issue in my web essay at http://www.livingwithgooddesign.org/essay_1.shtml. Later, he addressed how certain foods looked more appetizing surrounded by different colors. He kept a notebook of recipes, for example, that he assembled for his housekeeper to prepare meals for himself and his daughter, and in it he specified particular serving dishes to be used for specific foods.

Bret: Why do you think his designs in general have endured? A few years ago, Oneida reissued his American Modern series. Today, Russel Wright designs are among the most collectible among dishware and home accessories around. Why do you suppose that is, and do you think Wright intentionally designed for endurance and timelessness?

Robert: Yes, Oneida did reissue some of the American Modern dinnerware, though it was not marketed successfully. Some spun aluminum accessories have been reissued by HK Designs, based in Turtle Creek (Pittsburgh), and Consolidated Furniture Group of Los Angeles has reissued furniture pieces from the mid-1930s Conant Ball American Modern series, and the 1932 Pony Chair. I think every designer hopes that their works will endure, but fashions and popular tastes change. Russel was quite frustrated by the mid 1950s, feeling that modernism was no longer embraced by a broad public. Partly for reasons of nostalgia, mid-century modernism has found renewed interest in the past several years. If Russel's designs endure, one reason is because his many works were designed for function and affordability. His ubiquitous motto was "Good design is for everyone," which Target® has retooled as "Good design for all." Also, and importantly, Russel's designs were derived and inspired by classic American design. For example, American Modern furniture was not the high style Deco that was popular in the 1930s. It was inspired by classic American colonial furniture. One curator has pointed to the similarity between the AM water pitcher and 19th century coal scuppers (metal containers with a handle on one side for moving coals). Traditionalism was very important to Russel. He was not interested in novelty for novelty's sake. When he traveled to Asia and Japan in the mid 1950s, he was deeply moved and inspired by traditional Japanese architecture, which he later drew upon for the design of his house in upstate NY (though the house was actually design by David Leavitt; Russel went to David Leavitt because David had many, many years working in Japan as an architect, so he understood traditional Japanese architectural technique, so Russel chose David to be his architect). So, I think Russel's designs have endured because he's drawn upon the traditional to create the new.

Bret: Russel's wife, Mary Wright, was also a talented designer in her own right. She also created dishes and designs with an organic and biomorphic aspect. Do you have any insight into her inspirations and design goals?

Robert: Mary and Russel were very different people who made a wonderful and successful team. Russel was a reticent Midwesterner, and Mary was an outgoing New Yorker. And, as I said before, she was a student of the Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko. Russel was unaware of current trends in modern art until he met her. It was Mary's encouragement that brought Russel to switch from theater design to what was then emerging as industrial design, and it was Mary who promoted Russel's designs and his career. Some of her own designs are very clever, often with double functions (a lid may serve as a spoon rest, or a cover as a saucer), and Mary created designs for the Bauer company in Atlanta at about the same time that Bauer was producing Russel's most organic accessory pieces. Mary and Russel were such a team that I suspect we see some of Mary's ideas embedded in objects with Russel's signature on them.

Bret: In 1950, Mary and Russel Wright wrote and published, "Guide to Easier Living." Reading it in 2006 [it was reissued in 2003, and is easily found on eBay or amazon.com or any of a number of sources], the recommendations are generally as relevant today as they were 56 years ago, perhaps even more so. What impresses me so much is that the Wrights were actually explicitly working to help people move away from the staid, stuffy, often impractical, hierarchical lifestyles and social strata that existed at the time. They believed that everyone should be able to live well, and provided easy-to-follow guidelines for doing so (I think this is why I feel such camaraderie with the Wrights, as this is the goal of GOD-DESS Lifestyle Services). Where do you suppose this egalitarianism, this "let's shake things up a bit" philosophy and strength to implement it, came from?

Robert: From the Midwest! From his family and the people he grew up with in Lebanon, OH. I think this trait separates him from most all other designers, particularly at this time. Because he pursued his career in NYC, he was perceived as a sophisticated urbanite, but his parents and grandparents were public servants in a small Midwest town. They were lawyers, judges, founders of public education, and abolitionists. Family members could trace their lineage to signers of the Declaration of Independence. He was surrounded by the sense of obligation to public service and social reform. He wasn't exposed to anything that could be called "elitist" until he attended two years of college at Princeton University, which was a family legacy. There he was uncomfortable with those who had privilege, and he immersed himself in activities of the campus theater club. Later, while other prominent designers took contracts to create cars, and trucks, and locomotives, Russel chose to focus almost exclusively on the home. As curator Robert Schonfeld has expressed it, "Russel's view of life centered on the dining table, and rippled like concentric rings through the home, and outside to nature." Russel saw himself as a social reformer who used forms, materials and color to reshape the American home into a more practical, affordable, and enjoyable one more attuned to the society and economy of post-World War II life.

Bret: As we come to the close of this interview, do you have any final thoughts or comments that you'd like to share about Russel Wright, Mary Wright, your exhibition, or about mid-century modern design in general?

Robert: I think most people will come away from seeing this exhibition with a better understanding of a period of American art and design history. If they are already familiar with some of Wright's work, I think they will be impressed with the breadth of his talent. Beyond the designs, though, I hope people come away with a sense of the person who was Russel Wright. He was quite passionate about the importance of design in our lives, but more, he was passionate about the role of nature in our lives, and wanted more than anything to bring Americans into closer contact with nature. As we see at Manitoga, his estate in upstate New York, reclamation, restoration, and respect for tradition and history were at the core of Russel's motivations.

Bret: Robert, thanks for sharing your knowledge, insight and time. I know that my readers will have a far greater appreciation of the designs of the past when they are connected to the designer, rather than isolated objects. Thanks for giving them life!

When I asked Robert for this interview, I had no idea the end result would be so in sync with the Global Organic Designs philosophy. I suspect that I would never have been drawn to Wright's work if his background philosophy had not been so simpatico with mine, and I also suspect this illustrates how similar ideas and concepts tend to cluster (ie, if two people have one commonality, they'll often have an entire group of related commonalities … and that leads to community!).

Meanwhile, I would like to encourage all of you to visit this exhibition. I'll be visiting in December 2006, and will be describing my impressions in a future Global Organic Designs newsletter. Check this list to see if the exhibition is coming to a venue near you, or just visit www.livingwithgooddesign.org:

Decorative Arts Center of Ohio
Lancaster, Ohio
May 5 to September 3, 2006
Columbus Museum of Art and Design
Columbus, Indiana
September 21, 2006 to January 7, 2007
Newcomb Gallery, Tulane University
New Orleans, Louisiana
February 8 to April 8, 2007
Palm Springs Art Museum<br /> Palm Springs, California
May 6 to September 2, 2007
Bellevue Arts Museum<br /> Bellevue, Washington
October 6, 2007 to January 20, 2008
The Goldstein Museum of Design
University of Minnesota
St. Paul, Minnesota
February 8 to April 20, 2008

And if you need any assistance with your travel planning to these venues, or your collecting style, or your displaying desires, or your home entertaining, or anything else related to "Living with Good Design," please contact me at 773.508.9208 or email me. Russel Wright believed everyone deserved to live with good design, and so do I!