Russel Wright, one of the Twentieth Century’s leading industrial designers, is the focus of a comprehensive new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. “Russel Wright: s” features more than 350 artifacts – including tableware, furniture, drawings, photographs and videos – all of which exemplify the designer’s ambitious goal of providing high-quality, modern design for all. The first-of-its-kind retrospective will remain on display through September 15.
A master of modern design, Russel Wright (1904-1976) was a prolific and influential creator of objects for the home, most famously his curvaceous American Modern dinnerware. As demonstrated in the exhibition, however, Wright produced much more than that: he also designed furniture, appliances, textiles, interiors, buildings and landscapes. Furthermore, with his wife, Mary, he invented lifestyle marketing, paving the way for such lifestyle interpreters as Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren, and he was the first designer of the Twentieth Century to promote his own name as his brand.
Wright’s unique contributions to mid-century modernism embraced American traditions of practicality and simplicity, as well as incorporated new materials and technologies. Drawing on sources as diverse as Colonial America, Surrealist art and Frank Lloyd Wright (no relation), he forged a uniquely American vocabulary of form and function. More than any other designer, Wright shifted the nation’s taste toward modernism in the late 1930s.
Central to the Wrights’ efforts to revolutionize the home was Guide to Easier Living, the best-selling book they authored in 1950 that was embraced by burgeoning postwar families setting up house in servantless suburbs. The book offered readers a declaration of independence from convention, rejecting the dogma of “etiquette despots” like Emily Post. Defining the way Americans live even today, Russel and Mary Wright wrote, “Good informal living substitutes a little headwork for a lot of legwork. It doesn’t need wealth, but it does take thought, some ingenuity and resourcefulness, and more than a little loving care to create a home that is really your own.”
“Russel Wright: ” presents the full range of the designer’s work, from his earliest line of objects for the home, Informal Serving Accessories, through American Modern, postwar Iroquois Casual China and his innovative plastic dishes, including Flair. The exhibition also provides visitors with a look at Dragon Rock and Manitoga, Wright’s extraordinary final home and surrounding landscape in Garrison, N.Y., as well as insight into Russel and Mary Wright’s ambitious promotional and marketing concepts, which were key to their success.
Highlights of “Russel Wright: ” include tabletop vignettes, complete with Wright-designed dinnerware, flatware, linens and accessories that recreate some of the designer’s famous “easier living” dining arrangements, for which he developed carefully scripted layouts; papier-mache caricature masks created by Wright, which predate his designs for the home; a multimedia presentation of Dragon Rock, Wright’s modernist home, that will give visitors a vivid sense of the house and its surrounding landscape; a 1950s television interview with Russel Wright and his daughter, Ann, conducted by Edward R. Murrow; objects collected by Wright during a trip to Asia, which served as an inspiration for some of his later work; America’s (and Wright’s) first furniture in “blonde” maple, a term that Mary Wright coined; never-before-seen drawings for designs by Wright, on loan from the Russel Wright Archive at Syracuse University; and Wright-designed furnishings arranged in complete room settings, similar to the innovative demonstration rooms Wright designed for department stores in the 1930s.
The exhibition has been organized by Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and curated by Donald Albrecht, adjunct curator for Special Projects at Cooper-Hewitt, and Robert Schonfeld, a curatorial consultant specializing in American fine and decorative arts and an expert on Russel Wright. The show’s installation has been designed by Sandra Wheeler, with lighting design by Anita Jorgensen. “Russel Wright: ” is sponsored by Marilyn Simons with additional support provided by dwell magazine and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment.
A fully-illustrated book, Russel Wright: , co-authored by Albrecht, Schonfeld and Lindsay Stamm Shapiro, director of exhibitions at Cooper-Hewitt, and published by Harry N. Abrams Inc, is available for $35 at Cooper-Hewitt’s bookstore as well as bookstores nationwide. The book features new color photography by Anita Calero, Matt Flynn, Chris Day, and Don Freeman, as well as never-before-published archival photos.
Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum is at 2 East 91st Street, at Fifth Avenue, in New York City. Museum hours are Tuesday, 10 am to 9 pm; Wednesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm; and Sunday, noon to 5 pm. For information, 212-849-8400 or www.si.edu/ndm.