Viktor Schreckengost, Industrial Designer and Painter, 1906–2008

1973 CLEVELAND ARTS PRIZE FOR Visual Arts

Viktor Schreckengost never viewed industrial design simply as a way to improve the appearance of everyday objects. Nor did he think of the discipline as being a poor relation of the fine arts—corrupted by commercial considerations, requiring no particular creative spark, and therefore of lesser value and import than its more distinguished cousins.

Indeed, merely to survey the work Shreckengost produced during his 70-year-plus career is to understand the true goal of the industrial designer. Every assignment he undertook became an elegant conception that incorporated not only features to please the eye, but also elements that improved function, simplified manufacture, and kept costs affordable for the greatest number of potential consumers. And beyond the utilitarian aspects of his work lay a powerful artistic sense—so powerful, in fact, that in November 2000 the Cleveland Museum of Art mounted an enormous retrospective of his work, the first time the museum ever staged a major exhibition devoted entirely to the career of a living Cleveland-area artist.

Schreckengost always imbued the design process with clarity, ingenuity, humor, beauty and above all good taste. Perhaps that explains why so many of the otherwise mundane, utilitarian objects he designed are now considered classics, and why a pristine example of one could offer sufficient incentive for a collector to re-mortgage the house to obtain it. From his streamlined 1939 Murray “Mercury” bicycle and racy “Pursuit Plane” child's pedal car (1941) to the broad assortment of dinnerware, lawn chairs, light fixtures, and even printing presses he developed, Schreckengost-designed products all bear the stamp of a man whose inventive genius brought together form and function in their most perfect union.

Schreckengost was a talented painter, sculptor and ceramist, and the delicate touch of a watercolorist is often evident in his work. But his early studies also included a year (1930) in Vienna, where he got to know Josef Hoffmann, one of Europe’s leading exponents of modernism. Hoffmann was the founder of the Wiener Werkstatte group, whose guiding principles would become the foundation of the field of industrial design. As a result, the perceived divide between the fine arts and the applied arts was, for Schreckengost, no divide at all.

Among his most famous works are the designs he created for Cowan Pottery, which was located in the Cleveland suburb of Rocky River. These include the Art Deco masterpiece The New Yorker (more commonly known as The Jazz Bowl), a jauntily illustrated punch bowl that was commissioned by Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet even as Schreckengost produced decorative pieces for use or display in the home, he could also bring to bear the reasoning of an engineer when faced with difficult industrial problems. In 1932, for example, Cleveland’s White Motor Company called him in to find a way to position the engine of a truck directly under its cab. Schreckengost’s successful solution added five feet of usable payload space to the rear of the vehicle—and changed forever the design of large trucks.

A dedicated teacher, Viktor Schreckengost served for more than 70 years on the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art, where in 1930 he founded what is widely considered to be America’s first modern program of industrial design. Over the years, his students would go on to become the chief stylist at Ford Motor Company (the designer of the classic 1964 Mustang), the chief designer of International Harvester, the director of design for Chris-Craft Boats, the head of Nissan Motors’ U.S. design studio, and the creators of innumerable industrial and commercial products, from consumer packaging to welding equipment. Either directly or through the legacy of his students, Viktor Schreckengost has likely touched the lives of more individuals than any other industrial
designer in history.

—Mark Gottlieb

“The earliest pedal airplanes looked like orange crates, with wings held on by baling wire. Viktor simplified this confusion into an appealing Brancusi-like egg shape. . . . The wings were short enough to fit through a doorway. . . .”
—Henry Adams, Viktor Schreckengost and 20th-Century Design (Cleveland Museum of Art, 2000)

 

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