Geometry has always been a friend of the dinner table. During the 18th century both the hexagon and octagon were part of the repertoire of shapes used for plates, teapots, and other dining accoutrements in Europe, as seen in these English Queen Anne style silver salts dating from 1717 and this Chinese export armorial plate dating from 1795–1800, both in the museum’s collection. Both show Europe’s interest in Asian art through the popularity of Asian ceramics and lacquer wares. These tableware forms also show the influence of Euclid’s works, which were being widely published and popularized during the 17th and 18th centuries.[1] During the 19th century, the Aesthetic Movement and Japonisme encouraged designers and makers to use geometric forms for tableware—like Christopher Dresser’s triangular toast rack and the hexagonal body of this Kenilworth pitcher—yet it is rare and peculiar to see a triangle at the dinner table.

Designed in 1934 and patented in 1935, Salem China Company’s “Tricorne” shape was used for both the saucers and plates of this dinnerware line in the company’s “Mandarin Red” color. The designer, Donald Schreckengost (the youngest brother of the ceramicist and industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost), had to design a special jigger to manufacture this unique shape.[2] “Streamline” is the shape name for the hollowware pieces in this service. Salem produced both the “Tricorne” and “Streamline” shapes with varying types of decoration, including a cream colored version with a “Dutch Petit Point” decal and a “Sailing” decal. A 1930’s catalog for the company shows a “Mandarin Tricorne 24 Pc. Cup-Plate Bridge Set,” and both shapes can also be found with various types of decorative banding, echoing the streamlined look of American modern design.

A triangle at the dinner table is rare but not unheard of. By the 1920s angular shapes were re-introduced to the dinner table via the influence of both Modernism and Art Moderne. Predating the design of Salem’s Tricorne by 4 to 5 years is Eric Slater’s “Vogue” shape (Slater of Fenton England’s Shelley Potteries)—whose cups, coffeepots, and teapots are adorned with triangular handles. Seen here in the V&A’s collection, Slater’s Vogue shape, like Schreckengost’s Tricorne shape, captures the Art Deco aesthetic and was also industrially produced.

I adore the quirkiness of Salem’s Mandarin Tricorne line—as I frequently enjoy sipping coffee from my own cup and saucer in this shape and pattern—but what I enjoy even more is that it was designed and industrially produced for middle-class Americans. Salem China Co. offered their dinnerware lines in the 1930s as “Colorful, new and smart patterns styled to thrill the modern housewife.” Prescient words, as the patterns are as new, smart, and thrilling—to everyone—80 years later.

 

[1] Christopher Hartop, and Jonathan Norton, Geometry and the Silversmith: the Domcha Collection, (Cambridge: John Adamson, 2008) 15.

[2] Henry Adams and Viktor Schreckengost, Viktor Schreckengost and 20th-Century Design (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 2000) 116.

 

Catherine Acosta is a graduate student in the History of Design and Curatorial Studies program offered jointly by the Parsons School of Design and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. She is a Fellow in the museum’s Product Design and Decorative Arts Department.

This tableware is on display in Energizing the Everyday: Gifts from the George R. Kravis II Collection, on view from April 27, 2016 through March 12, 2017.

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