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    Russel Wright and Modern America
by James Zemaitis
 
     
 
Russel Wright
ca. 1948
 
Modern Living furniture with American Modern ceramics and napkin
 
American Modern coffee, tea and "after dinner" pots, ca. 1937
 
American Modern brochure, 1950s
 
American Modern pitchers and gravy boat, ca. 1950
 
Casual China, 1946
 
Machine-made ceramics produced by the Bauer Pottery Company, 1945-46
 
Pony skin chair probably produced by Heywood-Wakefield Gardner, ca. 1934
 
Metal folding chair and table, 1950
 
Dragon Rock, 1961
 
On the eastern side of the Bear Mountain Bridge, where struggling backpackers on the Appalachian Trail emerge from the woods to cross the Hudson River, is nestled one of the least-known modernist monuments of landscape architecture. Manitoga ("Place of Great Spirit" in Algonquin) is the quirky, holistic minor masterpiece of Russel Wright (1904-1976), one of this century's most influential ceramic, glass and furniture designers.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Manitoga is a "garden of woodland paths" (Wright's description) and is open to the public. Russel and Mary Wright acquired it in 1941 as an 80-acre weekend retreat, and it slowly evolved into their permanent home. After Mary's death in 1952, the increasingly reclusive designer began work on the site's central dwelling, Dragon Rock, which he completed in 1961.

Inviting comparisons at first glance with Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, Dragon Rock surrenders completely to its surroundings, a cliff-side grotto on 11 levels. As a laboratory for Wright's late 1950s concern with domestic order and environmentalism, Dragon Rock is alternately serene and infuriating, and should not be missed when touring the Hudson Valley.

Most enthusiasts of modernism are familiar with Wright's ubiquitous dinnerware designs, but the weekend conference offered a rare opportunity to tour the house and grounds, and to commune al fresco with fellow collectors and members of Wright's family. Elderly former associates of Wright reminisced about his legendary penchant for color-coordinating his meals with the seminal colors of his American Modern dinnerware.

Several of the most prominent dealers of Wright's ceramics and glass, including Mood Indigo of New York and Keller & Ross of Massachusetts, had picnic spreads of Wright's biomorphic celery dishes, pickle trays and gravy boats laid out on rickety tables. And a few dozen of Wright's most enthusiastic collectors set out to conquer the miles of trails using Manitoga's guidebook, which instructs the hiker to "sit on the logs and watch the drama of nature."

From a quick perusal of online auction sites and modern collectibles fairs like the Triple Pier Expo in New York, it's clear that the appetite for Wright's dinnerware shows no sign of diminishing. Long gone are the days when garage sales had hoards of his dinner plates and saucers.

Wright's two most popular patterns, American Modern and Casual China, are the staples of the Wright market, and large pitchers and teapots in such rare colors as Bean Brown and Lettuce Green can easily fetch upwards of $500. For $10 you can get a salad plate in Chartreuse Curry, however. It's the combination of affordability, funky color and alluring shape that attracts so many collectors to Wright.

One of the highlights of the conference was an exhibition of Wright's rare designs and prototypes. Ceramic vases for Bauer Pottery in the early 1940s and the wooden Oceanic bowls and serving dishes produced by Klise Woodenware in the late 1930s were two commercially unsuccessful yet esthetically fascinating experiments in the mass-production of organic forms. Although these works haven't joined American Modern and Casual China in the pantheon of modernist design in the collections of MoMA and the Cooper Hewitt, their rarity and eccentricity make them highly valuable, and they can fetch prices of $1,000 to $5,000. Also on view was a selection of early spun aluminum serving pieces, some charmingly retro yet practical plastic picnic ware from the late 1950s and examples of his highly coveted tablecloths and flatware.

For much of his career, Wright was preoccupied with two design concepts, both aspiring to serve the masses. The "American Way" was formulated in the late 1930s and spawned a product line of ceramics and furniture. "Easier Living" was a philosophy first published as a guidebook in 1950. It claimed that families should share chores and reduce personal possessions "to make maintenance easier," among other things.

In the same way that Pottery Barn has influenced 1990s American taste and design sensibility, the "American Way," peddled through pamphlets and public appearances to promote the wildly popular American Modern dinnerware, introduced homeowners to an affordable decorating esthetic during the Depression. By the time Easier Living came out, Wright had become obsessed with labor saving devices and esthetic order, which can be seen at Dragon Rock in the compulsively neat kitchen storage units.

For those collectors seeking to add Wright furniture to their living rooms, surviving pieces are scarce but inexpensive, and often battered by years of abuse. With the exception of the pony-skin chair that he first designed in 1932 for his New York apartment, Wright's blondewood designs for Heywood-Wakefield, Conant Ball Company and Stratton Furniture are practical, institutional and dull, and come across today like cheap puritan updates of the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Dragon Rock is surrounded by an abandoned quarry that Wright restored to a sublime and craggy "wilderness" of waterfalls and hemlock forests. A tour led by the horticultural consultant to Manitoga, Harriet Zbikowski, and Bill Straus, a Manitoga board member and owner of the gallery Upstairs Downtown in New York, was an elegiac summary of the Russel Wright experience.

Wright's daughter Ann still resides in Dragon Rock, and though she makes the home available to tour by appointment on a monthly basis and remains an active contributor to the projects at Manitoga, one left with the feeling of invading the privacy of her domesticity. It is an intensely personal dwelling that doesn't easily accommodate large groups, and Wright's original decorations of Asian weavings and tribal artifacts have been replaced by self-conscious arrangements of his aluminum and ceramic vases.

Wright literally built the dwelling around the boulders of the cliff, and we stumbled about in the musty gloom from level to level, unfamiliar with the uneven floors of stone. The spirits of Native American cliff dwellers were present in the living room, as we arranged ourselves on stone seats around a kiln, the earthen walls textured with hemlock needles. This space opened up onto a spectacular terrace, where one could slouch in Wright's colorful 1950s metal patio furniture for Samsonite and enjoy a breathtaking view of the quarry pond and falls.

The bathroom offered more dramatic views of the pond, and had a large tub tiled in blue Murano glass. Translucent plastic shower and closet doors encased pressed leaves, flowers and butterflies found in the surrounding forest. Other uses of synthetic materials by Wright are rather spooky, from the exposed discolored insulation between the rough cedar beams of the ceiling to the double fiberglass panels along the stairwell, which contain Christmas lights that cannot be replaced as they burn out over the years.

Dragon Rock is decaying, like pine needles turning to humus on the forest floor. The dampness of the site has caused serious deterioration. The built-in storage units are flaking and wormy and the mossy roof needs repair; the earth is slowly reclaiming the structure. Philosophical questions abound as to how one should preserve a site that was so personal to Wright, and is simply undergoing a natural transformation, like that of death itself. Serious blights have destroyed his plantings of hemlock and dogwood, so the suddenly sunny patches of forest floor are sprouting new species.

One thing Manitoga needs is serious funding, and interested collectors and enthusiasts can find out more at www.manitoga.org. There is already talk of a second conference next year, and hopefully the centennial of Wright's birth in 2004 will result in exhibitions and academic studies. Many debates have already centered on whether Mary Wright should be equally credited as a designer of certain major projects, in the same way that we now speak of Charles and Ray Eames as a partnership. But perhaps the first step in appreciating Russel Wright is to pick up a butter dish and cover in Glacier Blue, a chop plate in Seafoam Green and plan a summer pilgrimage to Manitoga.


JAMES ZEMAITIS is the decorative arts specialist for artnet.com auctions.

 
 
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