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Steubenville Pottery: 1879-1959 (page 2)

©2004 Michael E. Pratt

American Modern by Russel Wright

The Steubenville Pottery has a long line of successful shapes to its credit, but none perhaps is more lovely than the shape they are going to bring out this spring. The line, unnamed as yet, was conceived by Russell Wright…It was introduced for the first time at a recent gift show in Chicago by Wright Accessories and proved to have that undefined charm that attracts attention instantly. –Lucille Cox, Feb. 1939

Steubenville Pottery’s major claim to mid-century modern fame is the American Modern line of dinnerware created by famed industrial designer Russel Wright. This dinnerware line would continue to captivate the American consumer for decades after its introduction in 1939. Today, the line is regarded as the quintessential mid-century modern dinnerware line by many collectors.

The line originally was introduced by Wright Accessories, Inc. While Lucille Cox noted that the line was unnamed in February 1939, near the end of February and in March, the line was being referred to as “Americana” and described as an “informal modern” dinnerware line. The dinnerware service was referred to as American Modern in April 1939, when the earthenware was featured in a trade magazine accompanied by a photograph of the line. The colors mentioned at this time were “granite gray, chartreuse, bean brown and turquoise.” An undated Wright Accessories Inc. catalog c.1939 offered this list of glazes: Sea Blue, Curry (chartreuse), Granite Grey, Bean Brown, and Ivory (white). Later in the year, “Granite Gray”, “Seedless Grape” (chartreuse), "Bean Brown” and “Deep Turquoise” were mentioned in House and Garden. By fall 1940, the Daily Herald referred to “granite grey, curry, sea blue, bean brown.”

During 1940, a trade announcement from Raymor Mfg. Division, Inc., introduced a new gravy boat and stand in “gray, coral, sea green, sea blue, bean-brown, and white.” This appears to be one of the earliest mentions of the Coral glaze found in the line. Particularly intriguing is the mention of both a sea green and sea blue color. Color variations of Seafoam Blue (as the glaze was later named) have been found in both green versions and blue versions. At least one later department store advertisement referred to a “Seafoam Green” instead of Seafoam Blue. Whether these are variations of Seafoam Blue or whether “Sea Green” or “Seafoam Green” are distinctly different colors has not yet been conclusively established.

In 1941, the line was “made exclusively for” and “solely” distributed by Richards Morgenthau & Company (later known as Raymor Manufacturing Division, Inc.). Irving S. Rappaport, who later was known to the industry as Irving Richards, was president of the Raymor firm. Dinnerware shapes demonstrated bold originality and featured dramatic unadorned glazes that showcased meals. The line merged the art & science of dinnerware manufacture in a unique & modernistic manner. Lucille Cox, chronicler of the Ohio pottery industry, wrote shortly after the line’s introduction to the trade in early 1939:

The lines of this shape are entirely different from anything on the market today. Simplicity, matched with practicability and tempered with old world loveliness. Every detail is cleverly merged and when tinted with the very unusual glaze treatment, which is a part of its appeal, the ware becomes a peep into the future. It definitely belongs to tomorrow.

By 1941, reception of American Modern by the public was overwhelming. A full page advertisement from Raymor in the Crockery and Glass Journal, thanks Steubenville for its help in the creation of the American Modern line. The ad continues by noting that production was unable to keep up with the demand, but that steps were being taken to quickly remedy the problem.

The success of Raymor’s marketing efforts with American Modern lead Steubenville Pottery to make them direct sales representatives for all their dinnerware lines in the Eastern and Southwestern parts of the United States. This continued for about a decade, until the company announced its dinnerware, with the exception of American Modern, would be distributed through Steubenville’s sales department, beginning 1 January 1951.

The introduction of American Modern to the country, made low-priced, well-designed, modern dinnerware affordable to the everyday consumer. The shapes were casual, captivating, and convenient. The result of extensive experimentation in food display, dinnerware architecture, and glaze formulation, this line of dinnerware sold more than $150 million dollars over the two decades that followed its introduction.

By the end of the 1940s, annual retail sales of American Modern amounted to $3 million dollars annually. Also at this time, a test of brand name recognition showed that the appellation, Russel Wright®, had become not only more familiar than the American Modern pattern name, but also more well-known than all but one American dinnerware manufactures’ names and two famous, established European dinnerware lines.

Not everyone was enamored with the omnipresent line. In a 1944 New Republic article entitled, “Like a Rock Cast in the Sea,” Manny Farber wrote that Wright had simplified dinnerware to such an extent that the line “seem[ed] to have been made on another planet—a much colder one.” While the criticism of Wright’s work appears to target modernism generally, Farber made some cogent observations about the line’s functionality, including remarks that the cup was quite small and the cup handle didn't fit the finger. Farber also noted that the sides of the cup turn in, making it difficult to drink while the sides of the cup failed to promote heat retention.

With the 1950 introduction of the newest American Modern color, Black Chutney, Russel Wright stated, “It’s the food that should star in the production called ‘Entertaining at Home,’ not the costumes or setting.” Tableware should enhance the dining experience, not overwhelm it. It should form a backdrop that displays food in a way that subtlety enhances mood and appetite.

Russel Wright went on to enumerate basic concepts for successfully designing dinnerware. Tableware should feature simple undecorated glazes that are not distracting and possess forms that are simple and avoid geometric extremes. Regarding glazes, black is most perfect color and complimentary shade, but gray shows food’s truest color while white is distracting, hitting the eye before the food. Brown works well with all foods, but other colors change the appearance of the food. Dishes should be spacious enough to allow for easy food display. Softer finishes, with a duller appearance, display food surfaces best. Lastly, table items should be juxtaposed to accentuate food’s appearance.

American Modern was available in White, Coral (salmon), Cedar Green (willow green), Granite Grey, Chartreuse or Chartreuse Curry (yellow-green), Black Chutney (black-brown), Glacier Blue (speckled robin’s egg blue), Bean Brown (grainy red-brown), Seafoam (blue-green), and Cantaloupe (light pumpkin). In addition, a variation of light royal blue has been rarely found. Collectors have designated it unofficially as [Steubenville Blue]. It is uncertain whether [Steubenville Blue] represented an experiment, short-production run, employee production run, firing anomaly, or temporary glaze reformulation for Seafoam. [Steubenville Blue] is highly prized and even damaged pieces are collected and carry value. Cantaloupe, Glacier Blue, and White are more difficult to find and are purchased at a premium over other glazes.

A large number of items were available in the American Modern line. Ubiquitously found, and representative of the line, is the water pitcher, which resembles the shape of a megaphone. It is hard to walk through a large antique mall without seeing at least one of these water pitchers. The salad bowl with its inward curving top, was designed to prevent spillage while tossing leaves. The relish, an easy elongated s-shape, features curling sides that casually retain raw vegetables. The covered pitcher, a later addition to the line, sports a ceramic lid that is both innovative, functional, and attractive. Unfortunately, these lids were prone to damage, and it is always exciting to see a covered pitcher with its lid intact.

Cognizant of the consumer trend toward smaller, servantless homes, Russel Wright, created one item in particular that could be compactly stored—the American Modern double stack server. This piece allowed storage of two different food items, one atop the other, designed to easily fit in ice box or refrigerator. The stack server came in three pieces—one lid and a top and bottom compartment.

Other noteworthy pieces in the service included the covered individual ramekin, coffee cup cover, hostess party set with cup, child’s cup, bowl, and plate, the covered butter dish, relish rosette, and handled divided relish.

Steubenville produced over seventy different dinnerware patterns in 1938. With the introduction of American Modern, 40% of the factory became dedicated to producing this line. Nearly a decade later Steubenville factory output of American Modern continued to climb. Coordinated promotion of the earthenware was continued by Richards, Morgenthau & Co., not because the line needed advertising, but to guarantee the continued “penetration of the Russel Wright idea into the American market.”

An announcement from 1954 has been found that names the decorated American Modern patterns. Available through Richards Morgenthau Company, the line was displayed at 1215 the Mart, in Chicago. The patterns were Matchsticks, Grass Blades, Loops [Spencerian], and American Leaves. The decorations were all on a white background and were designed to go along with solid-colored dinnerware. At this time, decorations were available only on flatware, including the plate, platter, saucer, and pickle dish. Loops has been found by collectors in two color variations: chartreuse and coral.

Russel Wright had been promoting the idea of coordinating tabletop ware—glassware, dinnerware, and linens—for almost five years prior to the idea actually reaching fruition through the help of Richards Morgenthau Company. While Russel Wright had been credited with bringing a total approach to the tabletop, a similar concept had been discussed prior to the introduction of American Modern. Vincent Broomhall, noted ceramic designer, pottery entrepreneur, and Steubenville designer (in the 1950s), commented in 1937:

…I feel that over a period of a year possibly one or two colors could be concentrated upon to be made popular, and…[I] suggest fitting it into one definite color scheme as an ensemble, with linens, draperies, and other dining room accessories.

Broomhall was actually addressing two issues here: first, a coordinated approach to the whole dining area and second, the introduction of obsolescence. Broomhall suggested that a changing color fashion would increase sales, as women would seek to replace their out-dated dinnerware before it actual broke or was badly worn.

About a decade after American Modern’s introduction, stemware by the same name and designed by Russel Wright, was introduced to accompany the dinnerware line. Glassware bodies were wide with shortened stems to “conform to the low, free sweep” of the earthenware. Originally, goblets, wines, sherbets, cocktails, and cordials, were available in Seafoam Blue, Granite Grey, Chartreuse, and Coral. They were manufactured by the Morgantown Glassware Guild and marketed by Richards Morgenthau. Ann Kerr (Collector's Encyclopedia of Russel Wright) reports the line also included dessert dishes, iced teas, water tumblers, pilsners, chilling bowls, double old fashioned glasses, and juices. She notes that another color, Crystal, was also available.

In addition to glassware, tabletop covers and napkins were also designed by Russel Wright and produced by companies such as Leacock & Company, Ellison & Spring, Simmons Company, and Simtex Mills to accompany the American Modern dinnerware line. One contemporaneous source commented: “The first linens ever to be merchandised with dinnerware, their success has directed the linen market’s attention to the value of this type of coordinating merchandise.”

Thanks to Paul Beedenbender for the American Modern dinnerware and glassware photos in this article. Shown above are the relish rosette in Seafoam and a Granite Grey water pitcher.

Paul hosts an educational website on Ben Seibel designs at: abenseibeldesign.com.