Viktor Schreckengost, American artist and industrial designer, is the most amazing artist you have never heard of. His body of work is simply incredible. As an artist, he is extremely accomplished, though not well known - perhaps his best known work is the Jazz Bowl, comissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt. As an artist, he has produced a large volume of work in clay and with watercolors, including the largest freestanding ceramic sculpture in the world. As an inventor and designer, he created the cab over engine truck, the riding lawnmower, the chopper bicycle, and changed much of the way printing is done. Schreckengost completely redesigned the pedal car so that it could be mass produced at a reasonable price, designed the most popular china in America for a few decades, and a host of other things. He has about 110 patents to his name. As a professor, artist, and designer, Viktor Schreckengost has made the world a more beautiful and interesting place, as well as one that functions better, too.
Viktor Schreckengost was born on 26 June 1906 to Warren G. Schreckengost, a potter, and Ada Noulton Schreckengost in Sebring, Ohio. At the time, Sebring produced more china than any other city in America, excepting East Liverpool, Ohio. While he was still in public school, Viktor was making pottery by hand in the French China factory. Before he graduated from high school, in 1924, French China had already put one of Schreckengost's designs into production.
Schreckengost attended the Cleveland Institute of Art from 1925-1929, where he has taught ever since (part time since 1976). He was the highest ranked student in his class, and recieved academic scholarships every year after his first year. While at the CIA, he met Charles Burchfield, Frank Wilcox, and Guy Cowan. Upon graduation, he recieved a scholarship to travel abroad, which he used to attend the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna, where he studied pottery and ceramic sculpture. Schreckengost's studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule led him to value the craft of the hand thrown vessel, which is reflected in his ceramic works of the 1930s. The modern approach of the Kunstgewerbeschule and the Bauhaus had a significant influence on Schreckengost's art, as well as the on the way he would teach.
When he returned to Cleveland, Schreckengost taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art and worked for Guy Cowan at Cowan Pottery, in Rocky River, a suburb of Cleveland. Schreckengost only worked for Cowan Pottery a year before it closed, from 1930-1931. During that year, Schreckengost created a large body of work, including his most famous piece, the Jazz Bowl. The first Jazz Bowl was created on comission for a private individual at the request of a New York art gallery. The Jazz Bowl is a punch bowl in black and blue with a design showing the New York City jazz atmosphere done using sgraffito. It is a stunning work, showing the atmosphere and joy of the jazz age. About 50 Jazz Bowls were made, all by hand. The National Museum of American History has a Jazz Bowl, as does the Cleveland Museum of Art. Other work by Schreckengost at Cowan Pottery can be seen at the Cowan Pottery Museum.
The art Schreckengost created during this periord, until about 1937 consists almost entirely of works in clay and water color paintings. The works in clay are somewhat similar to his designs for Cowan Pottery, except that they are one of a kind works. They deal with people, baseball, jazz, mythology, and nature, all in the modern approach used in the Jazz Bowl. Many of the plates, wall plaques, and punch bowls are in black on white clay, with additional colors added, something like a hand colored print, and with the same sort of glowing, sparingly added color.
Schreckengost's watercolor paintings from this period are in a similar style. They use black or some other dark color lines against the white paper, with color added for accents along edges. The paintings are almost entirely of jazz musicians and jazz related themes. Schreckengost's love for jazz and the culture surrounding it is obvious - his glorification of the musicians, the styling of the people, he reveals the beauty of the music in his art.
After the closing of Cowan Pottery, Schreckengost worked for Onandaga Pottery, in Syracuse, New York, designing dinnerware. Viktor traveled to Spain and North Africa with friend Fred Stross in 1932. In 1933, Schreckengost started designing dinnerware for American Limoges, and later did design for Salem China. His dinnerware designs changed the market- his most popular designs were copied dozens of times, and between 1933 and the mid 1960s, dinnerware with his designs sold somewhere between 100 and 400 million pieces.
The beauty in the dinnerware designed by Schreckengost, as in all his designs, is the awareness of art that is present in the design. As one of the few individuals that do both art and design, he blurs the line between the two - the china has real beauty as well as function. The early patterns, for American Limoges and Salem China, with flower pots on steps, sailboats, skyscrapers, fruits, and many other patterns, all of these have a very modern look to them. But there is also a happiness, a glee to the work - it is bright and inviting. It is more than just good design, yet it is not art in the traditional sense of the word.
In 1934, Schreckengost redesigned a truck produced by the White Motor Company, moving the cab forward, over the engine, creating the first cab over engine truck. Because trucks were limited to 42 feet in length at the time, the additional hauling capacity meant that drivers could pay off the cost of the vehicle within a year, a considerable improvement.
Schreckengost married Nadine Averill on 6 Septerber 1935. They went to Europe in 1937, where they saw Hitler and Mussolini. This trip had a considerable influence on Schreckengost's work - he began spending less time designing dinnerware, and more time on art, set design for theatre, and the design of bicycles and pedal cars for Murray Manufacturing of Ohio.
Schreckengost started out just making one bicycle for Murray, because it seemed like an interesting project. After the end of World War II, and for the following 30 years, Schreckengost designed every bicycle and pedal car that Murray produced. He created major changes in the design of the pedal car, stamping and folding it from a single sheet of steel instead of assembling it like a normal car. This, and other changes that reduced the price by a factor of 10, transforming the pedal car into something that the masses could afford. The work he did for Murray led Schreckengost to work designing bicycles for Sears, designing headlights for Delta Electric, and designing printing presses, which would become one of his main interests.
Between 1937 and 1943, most of Schreckengost's creative work was done in clay. These clay works fall into two groups - animals, and political statements. The animals were inspired by Schreckengost's trip to northern Africa, though many of the animals he depicts are not from that part of the world. The shapes accentuate the ideas, the perceptions of the animals - the camel with the entremely long legs, the massive slab of a hippo, the moose with the huge nose. These are more shapes that happen to be animals, beautiful shapes, in muted earth tones, a step towards his non-objective post-war sculpture.
Schreckengost also created portrayals of animals that are more like his works on platters and bowls during this period - the animals are stylized, but not to so great a degree, with more color, and generally more symbolic in nature. They are full of energy, bright, ready to jump and do something, like the figures in his watercolors and platters.
The political works use exaggeration of shape to much the same effect as the animal works - to help the viewer see what they already know more clearly. In The Dictator, 1939, the extremely obese Nero sits, playing a lyre, with Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Hirohito crawling up onto his throne. The British lion sleeps at his feet. In the more famous Apocalypse '42, Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini accompany Death, dressed in a German army uniform, on a crazed horse, placed on top of a globe. Schreckengost's political views seem clear.
After considerable encouragement, Schreckengost joined the Navy, in 1943. He worked on the design behind RADAR systems and on the creation of terrain models for bombing runs. He spent five weeks in France, working to coordinate RADAR, so that the output was readable, before returning to the States to work on the planning of the invasion of Japan. Schreckengost left the navy in 1946. The war had its impact, of course, and many of his watercolor paintings in the years after the war show the devastation in Europe.
After the war, Schreckengost returned to the work that he had been doing before, and began working on new designs for Salem China, including the innovative Free Form pattern. He began working with Harris-Seybold, a manufacturer of printing presses, where, over the following 20 years, he dramatically changed the way printing was done.
The design of printing presses had changed little since the 19th c. Schreckengost changed the design by enclosing all the moving parts of the press. This protected the moving parts of the press as well as the operator. It also kept the ink from spilling out, making the press more clean, and making it easier to print multiple colors. Schreckengost changed the color of the press from black to white, leading to the emphasis on cleanliness - the press could not conceal any dirt. It effectively changed the role of the press operator from a mechanic to a skilled technician. Schreckengost also added electronic automation to presses, before any other company was doing it. The control systems were so effective that the printing portion of the company was sold, and Harris Controls specialized entirely in machinery and electronics controling printing presses.
Schreckengost created many popular designs for Murray. The first major success was the Pursuit Plane, a pedal car made to look like a single propeller plane, which was first issued in 1941. Schreckengost designed the pedal cars not to look like a specific model of car, but with function and comfort in mind, to look like all the cars that were being produced at the time, the eidos of the car. The pedal car designs led to the creation of two types of riding lawn mower, the first of their kind, sold under the Murray and Craftsman labels. One was like a tractor, a style that is common today. The other, still in production, is similar to a golf cart, in that it allows the mower to see what is directly in front of him/her.
Schreckengost's bicycles are also amazing - so many of the best designed bicycles of the period were designed by him. His first bicycle, the 1939 Murray Mercury, made its debut at the 1939 World's Fair. It was designed like a work of sculpture, focusing on each element. In 1948, Schreckengost designed the J.C. Higgins, modeled after the motorcycles of the day. He also designed the Sears Spaceliner, in 1965, and the somewhat ridiculous Murray Eliminator, in 1967. Schreckengost also designed metal lawn chairs for Murray.
Schreckengost's post-war dinnerware designs are different from his pre-war work, and reflect his tendencies in his art, like the pre-war work. The post-war shapes are more less gleeful - still good, and appealing, but not bright and cheery. The Free Form shape, designed for Salem China in 1955, and perhaps his best known design of the time, is organic, sculptural, and functional, but is also not so bright. The patterns of the 1960s have similar themes to those of the 1930s, but are executed very differently - the images are still floral or natural, but are done with more mellow colors, mostly reproductions of watercolors. They are still very good, but lack the vibrancy of the earlier work.
Most of Schreckengost's ceramic art made in the years soon after the end of World War II is slab clay vessels. These vessels have smooth, organic, lines, much some of the more abstract animals he created before the war. These works seem to be completely non-objective - they are beautiful for their forms. The influence of Isamu Noguchi seems appearent.
His clay work also begins to more explicitly tell stories at this time. There is Peter the Fisherman of 1954, with curving fishing nets, filled wtih fish, looking upwards. Or the silly image of Ichabod Crane, clinging to the neck of the horse, done in 1948. The story Schreckengost tells becomes more obvious, but also deeper.
In the 1950s, Viktor completed three major architectural works in clay. The first was a set of four large and 24 smaller wall panels for the bird building at the Cleveland Zoo. The Early Settler, at Lakewood High School, in Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland, was originally intended to be a portrait of Johnny Appleseed. The subject, as well as the name, were modified slightly, when it appeared that Appleseed looked too much like a vagrant. The Early Settler is a massive, amazing facade for the auditorium - 17.5 feet high, 34 feet wide, leaning out, away from the building, it is the largest freestanding ceramic scuplture in the world.
For the pachyderm building at the Cleveland Zoo, Schreckengost did a similarly massive work. It is a massive relief of a mammoth and a mastadon, one that took 32 tons of clay to build, and had to be fired in about 90 pieces. Completed in 1956, it remains the most photographed thing at the zoo.
Schreckengost's watercolor work of this period is also darker, showing the destruction caused by war. The destruction, after a few years, is not that of war, but of natural age, and of weather related destruction - the wake of a tornado, an old boat rotting in the river, a house destroyed by fire or abandoned.
The watercolor paintings, in the 1960s and later, begin to show more and more detail, more technical skill - they are both dark and filled with color - they are bold and amazing. More and more grids appear in the works as time passes - the most recent works, like New York Buildings, Blue Background, done in 1997, using grids and separation of colors almost to the point of abstraction. And still beautiful.
Schreckengost's art and design, as a whole, amaze me. He has painted many good paintings, done many amazing sculptures, and created many excellent vessels from clay. But what I find most incredible are the really simple things, the china designed for every day use. Some of the patterns I find appealing, and then I look at the stupid, frilly flowery patterns, the same sort of patterns I have seen many manufacturers make since, and which I have always hated. I see these ugly floral patterns, and I am able to see the beauty in them, to appreciate them - I like them. Viktor Schreckengost is just that good.
Viktor Schreckengost is still making art, though not in the volume that he once did. He still teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art, though only part time, and only to senior students. He has, thus far, produced an amazing body of work, both for quality and sheer volume of quality material. Schreckengost has done an amazing amount to bring together art and design, and recently, to help others see how these two are not so distant as some say. I can't wait to see what happens next.
Adams, Henry Viktor Schreckengost and 20th-Century Design
Cleveland Museum of Art, 2000
(This is the authoritative source, the catalog of Schreckengost's retrospective. Much of the material in the book comes from interviews. Worth the money.)
Anderson, Ross, and Barbara Perry The Diversions of Keramos: American Clay Sculpture 1925-1950
Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1983
Robinson, William H, Nannette V. Maciejunes, Ruth Dancyger, Frank N. Wilcox A Brush with Light: Watercolor Painters of Northeast Ohio
Cleveland Artists Foundation, 1998
Viktor Schreckengost Retrospective Exhibition, Cleveland Institute of Art March 14-April 3, 1976
http://www.si.edu/ndm/coll/om/7.htm (The Smithsonian Jazz Bowl)
http://nmaa-ryder.si.edu/images/1985/1985.92.1_1a.jpg (Apocalypse 42)
http://www.clemusart.com/viktor/ (This is the best place to see most of the things described in this writeup. Unfortunately, it is done in such a way as to make it impossible to add links to the individual objects.)