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A Singular Artist

By Dianne H. Pilgrim
Director Emeritus and Senior Advisor for Special Projects,
Cooper-Hewitt, National Desing Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Russel Wright was an unusual combination of an American craftsman, industrial designer, and naturalist. Born of Quaker parents in Lebanon, Ohio, he grew up and began his professional career during a period of profound changes, when Americans began enjoying the benefits of enormous new wealth but also suffered overwhelming dislocation. The years between the world wars were a time of restlessness as a result of so many conflicting feelings: uneasiness but hope, fear but exuberance, experimentation and innovation. This frenzy was obvious in the designs of the 1920s, from costumes to interiors to furniture and accessories. Then came the crash of 1929 and the Depression, when people felt a need for unity and a symbol of hope. Streamlining became that American symbol, representing the power and speed of the machine.

RW was very aware that the Depression had brought a totally different way of living, stripped of servants to polish the silver, handle the porcelain dishes with care, wash the clothes, serve the meals. His insight that Americans wanted homes that were well designed and easy to care for led him to produce a series of housewares and furnishings-wrought of easily maintained materials like solid wood, spun aluminum, stainless steel, earthenware, paper, and plastic-that made him a household name. As he and his wife Mary, also a designer (as well as a brilliant businesswoman), noted in their pathbreaking 1950 book, "Guide to Easier Living", "our main thesis here is that formality is not necessary for beauty."

An independent thinker, not a follower of the newest trends, RW helped create the concept of the industrial designer, an American phenomenon that emerged during the 1920s. An industrial designer is known for designing everything, for being a problem solver, and for being able to design for mass production. Unlike most industrial designers of his age, however, RW basically designed for the home with some work for offices, showrooms, and expositions.

RW also brought his special talents to bear on the relationship between design and natural settings. By the 1950s he was beginning to create an ecologically sensitive woodland garden on his estate, Manitoga, in Garrison, N.Y. During the 1960s he became a consultant to the National Park Service and focused on bringing people into the parks to enjoy nature. At Manitoga he had already begun building a residence and studio, which he named Dragon Rock, to explore ways of bringing daily life closer to nature.

RW was a craftsman at heart who wanted to make household pieces that were beautiful, useful, reasonably priced, and available to everybody. And there was the problem, a problem he struggled with all his life. At times he thought of himself as a failure, but as this book shows, nothing could be further from the truth. Every newlywed couple from the late 1930s through the 50s knew his name, stamped on the bottom of their new china, along with all the other useful and handsome objects that made them proud to be Americans. Today his pieces are prized by museums and avid collectors everywhere.

Dianne H. Pilgrim has had a distinguished career as a scholar and museum director. Her many publications include The Machine Age in America and The American Renaissance 1876-1917. She was curator and later chair of the Brooklyn Museum's Department of Decorative Arts, from 1973 to 1988, and then became director of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution.