on August 18, 2012
The look of the future was invented in Cleveland in the 1950s.
Long before the film “The Graduate” would make it a buzzword, “plastics” was the medium in which Joan Luntz created. For five decades, the designs she oversaw from her studio of artists expanded into wallpaper and drapes, place mats and china, bed sheets and beach towels, scarves and ties.
“Designs by Joan Luntz Inc.” was a business that penetrated the American housewares and home-decor market yet began and remained in Shaker Heights.
Starting in the early 1950s, you could find Luntz, a rare career woman in that era, making monthly visits to Manhattan. She carried a zippered black canvas portfolio — it weighed about 20 pounds — of sample patterns under her arm as she called on art directors and executives at companies such as Wamsutta, Mikasa and JCPenney, in midtown.
“Back then, it was just me and Lois Wyse,” Luntz says, referring to the Cleveland advertising maven and, later, author. “We’d run into each other at parties, and we’d talk and talk, because we were the only two working women we knew. The other women just thought I had a hobby.”
Today, Luntz lives in Wade Park Manor, in an apartment overlooking the Cleveland Museum of Art’s lagoon. Three floors above her apartment, she has a smaller studio space that houses her archived samples.
Dean Zimmerman, chief curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society, has already visited her collection three times; Stephen Harrison, curator of decorative arts and design at the Cleveland museum, has also stopped by for a look. They know that, early in her career, Luntz’s line garnered her top design awards from the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art.
“She offers a window on art and design in Cleveland that I was completely unaware of,” says Zimmerman. “She competed very well with all the big design firms in New York and came up with fabulous designs, in the colors we now associate with each era.”
Most of us can take a look through our own cupboards, or at old snapshots of family suppers, or visit a neighbor’s house, and we probably will turn up at least one example of a pattern that was created courtesy of Joan Luntz.
Early talent in music
Luntz was raised in Canton before her family moved to the Cleveland area when she was a teen. She then became a student at Hathaway Brown in Shaker Heights.
As a young girl, her interest in art manifested in her masterful piano playing and singing. She was talented enough to be featured several times as a soloist at Hathaway Brown concerts, as noted in The Plain Dealer’s society pages. A photo published at the time conveys why the brunette beauty was selected to the May Queen’s court in 1940.
Luntz met her future husband, George Goulder, when he stopped by her family’s home in Shaker Heights, going door-to-door to raise money for a Jewish charity. He was eight years older than she, but he asked her out on a dinner date nonetheless.
Romance didn’t affect her plans for college, though. Like many well-brought-up young women, Luntz chose one of the Seven Sister schools. She picked Vassar College (seven years later, Jacqueline Bouvier would become a student there) because its Poughkeepsie, N.Y., campus was a train ride from Manhattan, where she hoped to take lessons from a renowned voice coach.
Luntz gave up on her dream of becoming a singer, however, and focused on her studies — she was a history major — and swam in the social whirl, attending dances with swains at Princeton University and other Ivy League schools. She stayed in touch with George Goulder, too.
“Things were different then,” she says. “You studied hard during the week, and on the weekends, you went to dances and parties.” Since Vassar enrolled only women, that often meant visiting other campuses for mixers.
Luntz graduated from Vassar in 1944 and, less than a year later, became a wartime bride. She and Goulder — a graduate of Harvard University and by then an Army lieutenant — were married in Cleveland on Feb. 10, 1945. They immediately moved to Dayton, where he was posted at Wright Field.
During the war, Goulder served in the Army Air Force as a meteorologist, but he had another responsibility as well: The manufacturing company his family owned had thrived throughout the war by making plastic helmet liners for the Army.
When the war ended, George and Joan started a family, which would eventually grow to a brood of six. The manufacturing company Goulder now owned — International Molded Plastics — shifted its production to making plastic cabinets for radios.
But Goulder had been approached by the American Cyanamid Co., which had come up with an extremely hard plastic known as melamine, to create some lines. Soon, his firm began manufacturing plastic tableware for restaurants, hotels and hospitals.
This new material, so pivotal to the second half of the 20th century, was readily moldable and resistant to chipping and breaking, with a life expectancy up to 20 times that of china.
Goulder thought there might also be a market for such durable plastic dinnerware for the home, and his wife agreed. “He wanted to have his own product line,” Luntz says. Goulder appreciated her aesthetic taste, and she began sketching some ideas.
Until that time, dishes and saucers were always round.
“I didn’t know any better, and I thought of a square design for the plates, eventually adding rounded corners,” Luntz recalls. Because her husband was colorblind, he asked Luntz also to select colors — and she knew exactly which hues were in style, thanks to her immersion in decorating the couple’s home.
She chose four for the dinnerware line they called Brookpark Arrowhead Ever Ware: chartreuse, burgundy, emerald and pearl gray.
Product line takes off
In 1950, the couple decided to debut their line at the annual china and glass show, which attracted buyers from all over the world. The trade show was in Pittsburgh that year, but there was a problem: The organizers said only dinnerware made of china and glass was permitted.
“So we rented rooms at the Hotel Pitt, which was adjacent to where the show was, and we placed a sign near the lobby,” Luntz says. “Word of mouth spread, and many of the buyers began coming in to see our line.”
They were drawn by the shapes of the cups and plates, so gracefully rounded in a modern style, with handles innovatively placed on the diagonal corners of serving dishes, and tab handles on cups.
Sales soon exploded, especially after advertisements hit magazines such as Life. “If dishes were wishes, she’d wish for Brookpark,” read the type alongside a smiling blonde.
And the dinnerware sets, displayed later that year at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, were selected for a design award by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Luntz was in heady company: A fellow design winner at that show was Eero Saarinen, for one of his famous side chairs.
But Luntz — already a mother of two — didn’t just rest on her laurels. Soon, she and Goulder were on to the next thing.
They had learned of a newly invented process from Europe that allowed a pattern to be impregnated onto the melamine dinnerware, and theirs became the first company to incorporate decoration in 1956. The design Luntz came up with was called Fantasy, and it featured stylized stalks of wheat combined with pastel discs. It was eventually sold at many chains, Sears and Kroger among them.
From today’s perspective, Fantasy is an iconic midcentury look.
By then, other manufacturers were making melamine dishes, also called Melmac. But Brookpark was a market leader. To show how durable the dishes were, a then-budding actress and future talk-show star named Virginia Graham hosted a 15-minute commercial in which she placed the dishes in a washing machine.
They emerged pristine and unchipped. Of course, as many families would learn, eventually they proved not to be entirely impermeable to knives and forks.
“We don’t discuss that,” says Luntz, with a firm smile.
But Luntz moved far beyond dinnerware (the production of which was expanded from Cleveland to factories in Mississippi and Puerto Rico). Her design patterns enhanced stationery, wallpaper, shower curtains and bedspreads, among other household accoutrements.
Examining the organized flat-file drawers in her studio-office is a trip through 20th-century decor, from pastoral farm scenes to paisleys and traditional prints that would have looked apt with Colonial-style furniture. There are graphic geometrics that capture the bold look of the 1970s, the Provencal country styles of the 1980s and delicate Asian motifs. Then, in the splashy style so typical of the early 1990s, came the explosion of bold calla lilies on black, pink or blue backgrounds.
Luntz became known in the trade press as “the Calla Lily Lady,” which she’s not completely thrilled about.
“I never specialized in any one look,” she said at the time. “There are too many different tastes to please, and I pride myself for having a wide range of looks.”
Approval power over flowers
Luntz always emphasizes that she herself was not an artist. She had 10 artists working for her at her Shaker Boulevard studio, a group she describes as incredibly diverse — mostly women, but some men, hailing from Russia, England and other parts of Europe.
“I had very talented people,” Luntz says.
Back in those pre-computer days, the artists painted all the patterns. A square sample of a wallpaper design with tiny flowers might feature 100 of them, meticulously repeated by hand.
Luntz was the art director, with ultimate approval over the designs, and she’d tweak them. “I might say, ‘Make this flower bigger, or move this flower over there,’ ” she says. “Or I’d say, ‘I’d like that pattern in purple and pink, not in blue and green.’ ”
Then she decided which designs to pitch to particular companies, and for what type of item.
Zimmerman notes that Luntz was also a pioneer at vertical integration: If someone favored the calla lily design, for example, they could buy it in wallpaper, in place mats, china or napkins.
But it wasn’t about repeating a pattern as much as coordinating, Luntz says. “Even when a pattern appears on a number of products, such as a soap dish, place mat or dinnerware, it’s scaled and executed in such a way as to ensure the design works for each of them,” she says.
Somehow, Luntz did all this while raising six children. She notes that she did have some household help. But, she says, the biggest reason life ran smoothly, if hectically, was having a husband who was proud and supportive of the creative work she did — and her decision to locate her studio near their Shaker Heights home.
“If one of the kids had a dentist appointment or a piano lesson, I could run home and take them,” she says. “But then, on a Sunday afternoon, you’d find me working for an hour or two on a design.”
Technically, Luntz has never closed her business but moved it to her space in Judson. She no longer employs a staff of artists but, she says, “If anyone is interested in buying patterns, they’ll have to buy the whole collection” — at the right price, of course.
But she left a legacy for her children — her creativity inspired them, and most of them work in creative fields; even her son who is a professor of economics at Stanford University is a talented pianist.
Luntz’s daughter Susanna Goulder used her artistry as a set decorator for movies and TV shows — most famously, for the debut season of “Sex and the City.” Now, she has moved back to Northeast Ohio and works in the ministerial field.
“I remember that in my classes in the Shaker schools, whenever they’d ask whose mom worked, only two kids besides me would raise their hands,” Goulder says. “But it was neat to have a mom who did what she did.
“I might be missing a pair of shorts, and I’d go to her studio and there’d they’d be, because they gave her an idea for a pattern. She got inspiration from everything.”
The designs created by Joan Luntz still resonate. In April, she received a letter from a woman named Meg, who has an online shop called The Retro Life on the craft site etsy.com.
“About five years ago, while looking through a huge old barn in Vermont, I found your Brookpark Modern design sugar bowl in chartreuse. I had never seen anything like it. Soon I was collecting Brookpark, and then I was collecting more great examples of midcentury design.
“In a couple of years, I had so much, I opened my Etsy shop, The Retro Life. Your designs are fresh and creative, even today. You have such a wondrous eye for shape and color.
“Thank you for all the wonderful designs you have given to the world.”
In the next few months, some portion of her archive probably will be housed at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Eventually, Clevelanders too will be able to see how Joan Luntz helped create the looks that said “home” in the second half of the 20th century.
Plain Dealer news researcher Joellen Corrigan contributed to this report.