SCHRECKENGOST A GIANT OF ART WHO SHAPED THINGS AMERICANS HAVE USED FOR TWO GENERATIONS
By Marianne Berardi, Ph.D.
Drawn exclusively from the estate of the artist, a May auction brings to market for the first time a near-comprehensive cross-section of the artistic achievement of Viktor Schreckengost (1906-2008), one of the giants of 20th-century modern design and author of the Art Deco Jazz Bowl for Eleanor Roosevelt.
A contemporary of Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes and Walter Dorwin Teague, Schreckengost was the last major figure from the first age of industrial design in the United States. His revolutionary designs changed the face of products we use every day. But as this first public auction dedicated to Schreckengost’s wide-ranging career will bring to light, he was an equally accomplished fine artist who exhibited his sculptures and paintings internationally.
The auction includes examples of Viktor’s award-winning sculpture (glazed ceramic, plaster relief and bronze); hand-built and thrown pottery; watercolor paintings; drawings; children’s pedal cars which were the most successful ever marketed; remarkably beautiful bicycles as well as exquisitely finished renderings for them; his student work from both the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna; the first commercial modern American dinnerware designs; theater designs; puppets; and furniture.
►SECOND TUESDAYS AT SLOCUM LECTURE SERIES featuring fine art expert Marianne Berardi discussing Viktor Schreckengost’s influence on American ceramic sculpture and industrial design is scheduled for 6 p.m., May 10, 2016, at the Heritage Design District Annex, 1518 Slocum St., Dallas. RSVP at 214-409-1050.
►THE VIKTOR SCHRECKENGOST AUCTION: 20th Century Art & Design #5265 is scheduled for May 13, 2016, in Dallas and online at HA.com/5265.
Based in Cleveland, Viktor worked with uncanny versatility. His conviction that something didn’t need to be expensive to be handsomely designed provided him with a sustaining passion and delight for almost three-quarters of a century as he set himself the task of improving everything from flashlights to bikes and baby strollers, to electric fans, safer printing presses and lawn chairs. He once quipped, “If they sold 600,000 of something, then I thought I was on the right track.”
Indeed, just one of these avenues of artistic pursuit would be more than enough for most artists, but Viktor — who lived to the ripe old age of 101 — often juggled many lines of work for several companies at once. In addition to his work as a designer, he was a teacher for most of his life. His tenure at his alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he created what is considered by many to be the first American program in modern industrial design, is the longest in the school’s history.
From 1930 until just a few years before he died in 2008, Viktor molded the thinking and careers of countless major figures in the world of industrial design. Well into his mid-90s, and dressed impeccably in a suit and tie that looked as though he had walked straight out of the set of Mad Men, Viktor would show up at the department to give thoughtful critiques to appreciative students. Generations of Viktor’s students have gone on to play major roles in reshaping our products, particularly in the fields of toy and automotive design.
Born in the pottery town of Sebring, Ohio, he, his father and his siblings all worked in the commercial potteries there. Growing up working with clay and the various technologies behind its mass-produced wares gave Viktor an intrinsic understanding of the medium and most everything it could and couldn’t do. Clay really was his first and enduring love, and it was working with this medium that Viktor first distinguished himself. In fact, a great many of his industrial designs — notably his pedal cars — were initially sculpted in clay.
As his career evolved, Viktor also took up watercolor painting with great intensity of focus, and became a regularly exhibiting member of the American Watercolor Society. The May auction contains an outstanding selection of Viktor’s work in watercolor in a range of styles from early works of Regionalist scene painting to his own brand of grid-based abstraction.
Highlights of Heritage Auctions’ Viktor Schreckengost Auction include Viktor’s four monumental glazed ceramic heads of The Seasons (1938), which illustrate his strong artistic debt to his Viennese training at the Kunstgewerbeschule under Michael Powolny. The mask-like columnar heads were made by taking a vessel form, and modifying it without compromising the intrinsic integrity of the vase shape. Viktor pushed out the wall to create a nose, poked through the wall twice to make eyes, and then applied the decorative elements to identify each season, such as star-shaped crystals for winter or floral clusters for spring.
Also featured in the auction are four original plaster relief sculptures illustrating the history of birds from their first appearance 140 million years ago up to the present day. They were the presentation models Viktor created in 1950 for a major architectural sculpture commission: his massive brightly colored ceramic reliefs which faced the birdhouse tower at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. The complexity, success and beauty of the designs for this commission resulted in national attention, with an article in Newsweek and a medal for the artist. The plasters were shown in the Schreckengost retrospective exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art in 2000.
The auction includes two original concept drawings for perhaps Viktor’s greatest single innovation in truck design — the first cab-over-engine truck in 1933 for White Motor Company (which is now the industry standard for trucks as well as busses). A selection of Viktor’s own examples of the steelcraft toys (with original related drawings), 1941 Pedal Pursuit Plane, and Police Radar Car designed for Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company will be included. A virtually unknown face of Victor Schreckengost is his work as a bold, direct draftsman. Included in this auction is a fine selection of never-before-exhibited drawings Victor produced in chalk and pastel from life, as well as concept and working drawings for his ceramic sculptures.
In addition to work by Viktor, the auction will include notable examples of work by the artist’s brothers, Paul and Don, who were distinguished dinnerware designers in their own right. Paul Schreckengost’s extremely rare Tom and Jerry Punch Bowl Set, which he designed in 1938 for the Gem Clay Forming Company, Sebring, Ohio, will be a coveted prize for dinnerware collectors.
MARIANNE BERARDI, Ph.D., is Senior Fine Art Expert at Heritage Auctions. She can be reached at MarianneB@HA.com.