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September 24, 2009

All a twitter about Russel Wright.

I paid $289 for admission to a Russel Wright exhibition in San Francisco. That price didn’t include a docent, but it did include a one-way flight from SFO to New York. You have to be a ticketed passenger to see many of the exhibits presented by San Francisco Airport Museums (SFAM), which have been treating the traveling public to a bit of culture to soften the feeling of cattle herding since 1980.

Through October in Terminal 3 is Wright at Home: Modern Lifestyle Design 1930–1965, an exhibit of dinnerware, furniture and accessories by the American industrial designer. Russel Wright is considered the first brand name or “celebrity” in home furnishings – the Martha Stewart of his time – largely in part to the brilliant marketing skills of his wife, Mary Small Einstein.

American Modern pitchers (left) in the SFO exhibit, and an American Modern pitcher (right) in Wright’s New York home.

It was Mary who encouraged Russel to put his signature on his work – a wise decision considering that 250 million pieces of his American Modern dinnerware were sold between 1939 and 1959. But the pair was interested in more than just giving people the tools for easier living; they also wanted to teach people how to live in more efficient, less formal ways, and in 1950 they published their manifesto Guide to Easier Living.

Speaking of Wright’s signature, it’s worth noting that he spells his first name with one “l” which isn’t a ploy to make him seem more unique (like the Wendy who spells her name “Wendi” with a heart over the “i”), but rather the missing “l” is the result of a typo. In the 1920s, a stationer who is certainly not a household name (except for @*%#$ typesetter!) produced letterhead with Wright’s name misspelled. Always the practical (cheap?) industrial designer, he decided to go with it, and Russell became Russel.

And it’s a good thing too, because if you want to learn more about Wright, and you accidentally google Russell (two l’s), you’ll stumble upon the Twitter account of a Wyoming-based musician who beautifully demonstrates why I think Twitter is a craptacular (thank you NPR for adding a word to my vocabulary last Sunday) use of time:

“Get Joel some wedding cake.”
“What the…”
“He, he”

However, Russell the Wyoming musician did tweet, “Wow, Frank is all that!” which made me wonder what Russel the iconic industrial designer would tweet about Frank Lloyd Wright. Unlike Wright and Wright, Wright has access to new technologies that Wright and Wright could never even imagine. And I’d bet you a potluck dinner that mid-century designers like Eames, Wright (you can pick which one I’m referring to), Bertoia, Panton and others would’ve used Twitter in smart, relevant, compelling and useful ways.

Russel Wright sent the plans for his Hudson River valley home (above) and studio (below) to Frank Lloyd Wright for review. The two met when FLLW was in New York working on the Guggenheim, but there’s no evidence that Frank visited (or tweeted about) Russel’s property.

I don’t tweet because things like, “Everyone in the IT department appears to be wearing the same shirt today,” are better left in my head than expressed to others. Instead, I offer you “tweets” by Russel Wright, taken from the pages of Guide to Easier Living, along with images of his work and Hudson River valley home:

Spun Aluminum designs by Russel Wright. In the 1930s, Wright discovered that this affordable metal was easy to work with and could be made to look like pewter.
The dining area in Russel Wright’s home is next to a wall of boulders and the trunk of a cedar tree, which serves as the building’s primary vertical support post.
Wright built his fireplace to accommodate logs stacked vertically because he believed they burned more efficiently this way.
The bathtub in Russel Wright’s studio overlooks the quarry and has a view of the pond.
Low-maintenance steps in Wright’s home.
The plate-like “Ceramic” clock that Wright designed for General Electric in 1951 is on display at SFO (left) and hangs in the kitchen (right) of his New York home. (Drat! If I’d taken the photo at Wright’s house a half-hour earlier, it would’ve accurately reflected the time difference.)

It’s unclear how the plate-clock is the ticket to easier living (perhaps in a pinch you can serve on it, if you don’t mind that pesky second hand sweeping through your food), but it’s a fun item to troll for on eBay. The original retail of $9 translates to about $75 today, which is close to the final hammer prices I’ve seen online.

Check out the Russel Wright exhibit if you’re traveling through SFO, and if you’re on the East Coast, be sure to visit the Russel Wright Design Center (pay attention to the doors and doorknobs) and if you’ve seen either one, let me know what you think.

Gwendolyn Horton

Comments

I very much enjoyed your article on Russel Wright, on of my design heroes of the 20th Century. Russel Wright was a large part of my Master's Design Thesis from and at a flea market I found a stash of American Modern dishes and I wanted to part with, probably my last $10 for a piece for inspiration. My mom was with me and blurted out "not that avocado green, you would not eat off of that when you were little." My grandmother had some of the dishes and apparently as a discerning toddler, I would not eat scrambled eggs off of the green dishes; I did not like the way they looked. My family should have known then that I would be a problem. I know have a large collection of all colors of American Modern and Iroquois as well as other tableware and some aluminum.

Thanks for a fantastic bit of eye candy. LOVE these guys. It would be difficult to imagine anyone living in that home to ever be stressed. In fact, I'd have a hard time ever leaving it! Nice piece DWR!

I've never seen logs stacked vertically in a home fireplace. Interesting idea on Wright's part.

What was the role of women in Wright's domestic design? Did he speak a lot about that topic?

I first heard of Russel Wright when reading a passage, (on pg 64), of Amy Sedaris' book on hospitality. :) I had no idea what she was talking about but have since then learned a lot about RW and his wife and especially enjoyed the SFO exhibit. Really enjoyed your impressions. The photos were a big part of my pleasure. Speaking of photos, also attended a screening of the Julius Shulman film, Visual Acoustics, at Woodbury Univerysity in Burbank, CA last night. What a great event that was!

wow great work you posted here really wonderful resource for everyone.

Wow I like the bathtub in Russel Wright’s studio it is elegant perfect with a mirror.

The photos were a big part of my pleasure. Speaking of photos, also attended a screening of the Julius Shulman film, Visual Acoustics, at Woodbury Univerysity in Burbank, CA last night. What a great event that was!

Really enjoyed your impressions. The photos were a big part of my pleasure. Speaking of photos, also attended a screening of the Julius Shulman film, Visual Acoustics, at Woodbury Univerysity in Burbank, CA last night. What a great event that was!

Russel Wright Holiday Open House This Weekend! Studio Tree Stocking is a "MUST HAVE" in Berks Cou

Wow, This shots are great. Very nice place for relaxation.

Nice Comment: "The photos were a big part of my pleasure. Speaking of photos, also attended a screening of the Julius Shulman film, Visual Acoustics, at Woodbury Univerysity in Burbank, CA last night. What a great event that was!"

Wow they are very cute and the place is stunning. Perfect get away.

this is a good post, thank you very much.

The antique pitchers are wonderful! Looks like something I'd like to put at my cabin!

Wish i can get house near a lake :). Enjoyed reading and keep up the good work

Really enjoyed your impressions. The images were an important part of the enjoyment. Speaking of pictures, also attended the screening of the film, Julius Shulman, Visual Acoustics, Woodbury Univerysity Burbank, CA last night. What a great event that was!

Beautiful work by Russell. I haven't had a chance to see it in person but I'm hoping to soon!

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