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Museum Feature

Capri Decoration On Russel Wright Designed Blanks - by Steubenville

“De gustibus non est disputandum,” a Roman philosopher wrote - “There’s no accounting for taste,” is the popular English translation. Many of us feel that way when we look at personal photographs from the '‘60s, '70s, and '80s. And many may feel that way when they see the Capri modernist tableware design on Russel Wright ceramic blanks by Steubenville that is our Museum Feature this month.

Truly a study in contrasts, the innovative Capris “Modernist” mix of solid and metallic pigments in this design are done on the stylish, curved, organic shapes of Russel Wright designed china blanks produced by Steubenville. This free-form, asymmetrical “dipping” process of coloration was made popular in America in the '40s. Metallic colors on china most often are reserved for staid, precise trim, and here the metallic gold splashes across the design along with the other colors!

The dipped coloration of this pattern is in fact an anomaly. As stated, the blanks for these pieces are from Russel Wright's famous "American Modern" series, with its unique organic curves and shapes. Most often the "American Modern" series was produced under Wright's direction in solid colors, often earth tones, sometimes in solid hues of gray or white. (Search our web site using "Russel Wright," and you will find many examples of Russel Wright china and glassware.)

The blanks for the pieces in our Museum feature this month were manufactured sometime between 1939 and 1959 by the Steubenville Pottery Company of Steubenville, OH. In 1959 Steubenville went out of business, and sold all its molds, except those for Russel Wright's designs, to a company in Canonsburg, PA.

At some point our Museum pieces, originally produced as the pattern, Steubenville American Modern-White, were acquired by an individual or company that applied the "dipped" coloration, stamped on the backs of the pieces in metallic gold, "Capri HAND MADE MIAMI," and glazed the pieces again. That someone would want to use Russel Wright's stylish blank shapes for their own purposes is not surprising.

Designer Wright enjoyed a popularity unparalleled for his time. Grace Glueck in her article, “The Man Who Was Martha Stewart Back Before She Was,” in the December 7, 2001, New York Times, wrote, “If you were a middle-class American housewife from the 1930’s to the 50’s, it was hard to escape Russel Wright (1904-1976). It was more than possible that he had designed at least some of the dishes you and your family ate from, the furniture and appliances you used and the sheets you slept between,” Glueck wrote. “Wright’s concept of comfort as lifestyle, fueled by sophisticatedly simple shapes, happy colors and the ease of arranging his objects and their compatibility, made him the most popular designer in the nation, so well known that he could – and did – promote his own name as a brand long before Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren.”

According to Glueck, Wright was born into a well-to-do Ohio family, and studied art in New York before attending Princeton University. He left school after about a year, intent on pursuing a career in theater design. But his new wife, Mary, a savvy businesswoman and first-rate marketer, encouraged him to design gift items for upscale Manhattan shops instead. The couple would then market and produce the items themselves. By the time she died at the early age of 47, Mary had made her husband famous.

Russel Wright’s American Modern, a line of dinnerware with complementing glassware and linens, was launched in 1939, and is thought to be the most successful line of dinnerware ever created, according to Glueck. It was certainly the most successful of its time. Wright worked with a number of china companies to produce his innovative, colorful patterns, issued under his name.

Over the years, Wright’s reputation has grown, and the pieces he designed are now highly valued by collectors. A museum exhibition, “Russel Wright: Creating American Lifestyle,” opened at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York in 2001. Other U.S. museums, including our own Replacements, Ltd. Museum, now have Wright’s work on permanent display.

At the height of his fame, Wright moved his studios from New York City to Garrison, NY. There he built “Manitoga,” meaning “Place of the Great Spirit,” in the language of the region’s native Americans, the Algonquins. The 75-acre estate, which Wright designed and landscaped, using native plants, contains 4 miles of walking paths, and is a National Historic Landmark.

While the Russel Wright China in our Museum is not for sale, we have a substantial selection of his designs available from Oneida China. These patterns, “re-issued” with the cooperation of Wright’s daughter, Ann, were discontinued in 2004. Be sure to browse our web site to have a look. And remember that we always invite you to visit! Here you can see an absolutely stunning variety of china, silver, crystal, and collectibles! Our Showroom and Museum are open from 9:00am to 7:00pm ET, 7 days a week (except holidays); free tours are available from 10:00am to 6:00pm ET, 7 days a week. The Showroom and Museum are conveniently located between Greensboro and Burlington, NC, at exit 132 off Interstate 85/40. We look forward to seeing you!

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