I sold an almost complete set of chartreuse curry colored American Modern dinnerware two summers ago. It was one of the first items the antique dealers bought when we were clearing out the attic in anticipation of a move. I loathed parting with it because it represented a unique time in American domestic life when Russel Wright was trailblazing “good design for everyone.”
Designed in 1937 by Wright, one of the most influential industrial designers of the past century, this iconic dinnerware with its fluid form, thick glazes and startling colors heralded a new time in the United States with an informal design for “easier living.” Wright’s products eschewed formality and earlier Edwardian tastes to embrace an American version of the Bauhaus angular functional “modern” aesthetic––one more sensual and organic.
American Modern glazed earthenware was the most popular mass-produced tableware ever sold with more than 80 million produced between 1939 and 1959. Affordable even for post-depression families, the mix and match tableware––designed for informal dining––performed multiple functions. Serving pieces could go direct from oven to table, cups and plates stacked to save space, and pitchers served water, tea or wine. American Modern’s introduction of the “starter set,” reducing the number of dishes needed to begin a household, was innovative at the time in encouraging a simpler and more practical domestic life.
Wright’s career spanned 30 years of product design, from furniture, fabrics, ceramic dinnerware, metal ware and glassware to musical instruments, radios, lamps and appliances; along with interiors and exhibitions for a World’s Fair. His designs embodied the “unique informality of modern American living” he championed during the mid-twentieth century in the United States. There is much we can learn from his blending of craft, industry and natural beauty today. His populist approach continues to inspire with an optimism that transcends physical borders––reminding us that good design is for everyone.
Russel Wright’s American Modern ceramics are available at shop.cooperhewitt.org
Today is Russel Wright’s birthday.