Democratizing design and stimulating the economy
Industrial designer Russel Wright released a line of dinnerware in 1939 that he called “American Modern,” a name that encapsulated much of his design philosophy. Wright was looking to create a distinctively American product that brought fresh, modern design to a wide public, all of which constituted innovative thinking in the 1930s.
Wright was one of a small group of designers, many of whom (like Wright) had started in set design for theater or movies, and were forging the new profession of designing for American industrial production. With the motto “good design is for everyone,” Wright, along with his fellow industrial designers, sought to democratize design by creating inexpensive, mass-produced objects for the American home. As the economy was struggling to recover from the Great Depression in the 1930s, industrial design became more than an aesthetic enterprise, it was also seen as a way to stimulate consumer spending and thereby pull America out of its economic malaise.
Simple shapes, unostentatious materials
Before the dinnerware line, Wright had designed “American Modern” furniture (1935), which was launched in complete display rooms—a novel marketing concept—at Macy’s in New York. In this furniture group’s design, Wright found the formula that was to inform his work from then on. Simple shapes and unostentatious materials, carefully modulated for human use, and straightforward in form: Wright’s work in all media, from the mid-1930s until he closed his office in the mid-1960s, bears this consistent design philosophy.
“American Modern” dinnerware, introduced in 1939, became the best-selling dinnerware line of all time. It quickly made Wright literally a household name, as he, along with his wife/business partner Mary, originated the idea of stamping the designer’s signature into the bottom of each mass-produced piece produced. The success of “American Modern” furniture and dinnerware catapulted Wright to national prominence as a designer, and a multiplicity of commissions followed. In the course of a thirty-year career, Wright designed hundreds of objects including furniture, lamps, glassware, metalware, and textiles for the home, as well as occasional school and outdoor furniture, appliances and other commercial applications. Quaker plainness and pioneer ruggedness distinguish his designs, along with a particularly American delight in the newest materials and their possibilities, such as plastics, the most exciting material in the post-World War II era.
A rootedness in American forms and sensibility was a hallmark of Wright’s work. His use of distinctively American materials like solid rock maple; his straightforward, unadorned forms; and his simple dignity of line recalled American artisans such as the Shakers, Gustav Stickley, and the Greene brothers. The pitcher in the “American Modern” line incorporates these concepts, while its high-arching spout invites comparison to a utilitarian object like a coal scuttle.
Honesty and simplicity were not the only qualities Wright was evoking in his “American Modern” designs. He, along with his fellow industrial designers at the time, such as Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Henry Dreyfuss, and Raymond Loewy, picked up the banner of Modernism that had begun in Europe and transferred it to an American audience. Clean, simple forms and an avoidance of applied extraneous ornament were hallmarks of an ideology that sought to create a wholly new, non-referential, abstracted kind of design for the modern world. In objects like the “American Modern” pitcher, Russel Wright was credited with bringing an approachable Modernism to the American public, who were leery of the spare hard edges they associated with avant-garde European design. This was a synthesis for popular consumption, or as Macy’s phrased it for its buying public, “not quaint Colonial, nor dizzy modern.”
Informality—an American attribute
Not content merely to provide Americans with the kind of objects they should have for the 20th century, Wright and his wife Mary wrote a book in 1950 that verbalized ideas of a new informal lifestyle, one they considered consistent with the national character and with the times. Guide to Easier Living showed the country how to live more simply in a post-servant world, to have buffet suppers and design their homes with open kitchen/living/dining rooms, bring the children into the living room, and put their feet on the coffee table. Informality, the Wrights believed, was American, and this distinction from European tradition and decorum appealed to the increasingly urgent desire of Americans to distinguish themselves from the Old World politically, economically, and socially.
From oven to table
Tableware like the “American Modern” line allowed buyers to choose their own combinations of colors and types, and it featured the ability to go from oven to table, to reduce dish-washing. Multi-purpose pieces were also part of the line, with handled bowls that could be used for a variety of foods, and the pitcher’s generic form allowed it to be used for all kinds of liquids. In the postwar era, issues such as consumer choice, color variety, mid-point pricing, and practicality were to become important characteristics of the plethora of goods produced for the voracious American middle class.
Russel Wright’s “American Modern” pitcher is emblematic of the innovative designs that spoke to the preoccupations of the country in the pre- and post-war years. This inexpensive, mass-produced earthenware with curving, organic forms and softly-toned glazes was an introduction to the modern world in design and lifestyle for millions of Americans in the mid-twentieth century.
Essay by Dianne Pierce
Albrecht, Donald, Robert Schonfeld, and Lindsay Stamm. Shapiro. Russel Wright: Creating American Lifestyle. New York: H.N. Abrams, 2001.
Albrecht, Donald, and Dianne Pierce. Russel Wright: The Nature of Design. New Paltz, NY: Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, 2012.
Hennessey, William J., and Russell Lynes. Russel Wright, American Designer. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1983.