Russel Wright’s massively popular American Modern Dinnerware line remained in production for 20 years—from 1939 to 1959—but that was only after Wright spent two years prodding reluctant manufacturers to mass-produce his unconventional ceramics.

The line was a departure from everything that design, and tableware in particular, represented in prior years. Instead of restrained and formal, American Modern was casual. Instead of delicate and decorative, American Modern was function-oriented. Instead of staunch and uniform, American Modern allowed for customization. Pure color and fluid, curvilinear forms exemplified the dinnerware, bringing organic shapes into domestic spaces they had rarely been permitted to enter before. This American Modern celery dish produces an almost calming effect with its softly asymmetrical form. It is meant to be a frequently used part of everyday life rather than a special occasion dish locked in the china cabinet.

Wright designed the American Modern line to be produced in earthenware, making it much cheaper than porcelain. He also selected six neutral colors for the line that were easily interchangeable—the central marketing strategy for American Modern encouraged people to purchase cheap place settings and then build their collections however they wished. The American Modern Dinnerware line ignited a public desire to cultivate individualized design taste and embrace rapidly modernizing forms.

Wright sensed that twentieth-century design would mark a turning point in American interiors long before tableware manufacturers realized this. During its 20 years of production, American Modern sold over 80 million pieces, making it the most popular ceramic service in history—an ample reward for Wright’s persistent faith in his new design aesthetic.


Chelsea Butkowski studies art history and communication at SUNY Geneseo. She worked as a Peter Krueger intern in the Cooper Hewitt’s Product Design and Decorative Arts Department in summer 2014.


2 thoughts on “American Modernizing

I have read dramatically different estimates (ranging as high as 350 million) of how many pieces of American Modern ceramics were sold. Is it possible to learn the source of the “80 million” figure used in this post?

Were the American Modern pieces produced with lead glazes?

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