Lessons in Function & Simplicity from Russel Wright

by Landis Carey on May 3, 2011

I just adore Russel Wright’s American Modern dinnerware: its colors, organic shapes, functionality as well as its sensible designs are a never ending source of inspiration. Wright launched the simple yet eccentric line in 1939 with Steubenville Pottery. He and his wife, Mary, were the original marketers of lifestyle; they were the first Martha Stewarts, really. Their products were meant to save time by creating efficiencies in the home; they were popularized during a particular time in American history when such ideas were first being applied to the household.

“In their search for efficiency, the Wrights were part of their time. In the early twentieth century several factors revolutionized American food preparation and eating habits. Home economics persuaded Americans to eat simpler meals with fewer courses, fewer ingredients and less preparation.”

What I love about the Wright’s American Modern line, I yearn for in my own kitchen: bowls that easily stack, dishes that double as serving ware and simple forms enhanced only by single colors. I would love to mix and match from a set of hues that compliment. Studying Wright inspires my own ceramic work.

I find inspiration in the American Modern line; I wanted to share its sensibilities. Here are a few quotes from Russel Wright, Creating American Lifestyle, a book I go to month after month, seeking simplicity and function.

“Introduced in late 1939, American Modern was conceived as casual tableware that fulfilled several functions: the serving pieces could also be used on the stove or in the oven, thereby eliminating additional cookware; the chop plate doubled as a tray for the tea set; and the carafe could be used to serve water, wine, coffee or tea…”

“…This functional aspect would be developed by Wright in later additions to the line, which included divided bowls that held two different vegetables, double decker stacked sets that saved space on the table, and a hostess plate that held a cup inside an indented oval and allowed people to easily navigate an informal party.”

“These clever devices reduced the number of dishes needed for a basic set and were well suited to the small houses and apartments into which young couples were moving…By adding decorative accessories to table settings, homemakers could “change the scene,” as Russel Wright claimed in 1954. Wright illustrated in a magazine article how American Modern dinnerware, “like a little black dress,” could be accessorized with an international array of decorative elements to create Scandinavian, Mexican, American, and Asian dinners.”

Original pieces from Wright’s American Modern collection can be purchased on Ebay and Etsy and new productions are now manufactured by Bauer Pottery.

(Images: djodcolo, More Ways to Waste Time, National Post, Fresh-Pikd For You)

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ethan Levine May 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm

Hey Landis! These remind me of the dinnerware my wife and I found for our home. The designer is Eva Diesel http://evazeiseloriginals.com/ have you seen her work? She’s an amazing woman from the same era.


Landis Carey May 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm

Hi, Ethan, it’s been forever! Thanks for the link to Eva Diesel. I’m not familiar with her work, I’ll definitely take a look!


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