Masterpiece Man from Cleveland Magazine March 2006

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Issue Date: March 2006 Issue   

Masterpiece man

A nationwide, 100-day exhibit kicks off this month, honoring legend Viktor Schreckengost.

Ian Hoffman
At age 99, there are a few things that Viktor Schreckengost no longer does. Though renowned for creating the singular art icon of the Jazz Age, he has given up crafting ceramics. And Schreckengost – widely considered the greatest industrial designer ever – also has stopped revolutionizing products.

You will be glad, then, to learn that among the many things Schreckengost still does is plan for the future.

Later this month, those plans have Schreckengost flying from his home in Cleveland to New York City where he will oversee the opening of a nationwide exhibit of his varied work. When the exhibit ends its 100-day run on June 26, Schreckengost plans to celebrate his 100th birthday. In addition to the New York show, there will be at least 99 other simultaneous displays (making 100 in all) in the 49 other states.

As of late January, nearly 40 exhibits were planned for the Greater Cleveland area alone, including at Nighttown, the Cleveland Heights jazz club that is Schreckengost’s favorite hangout, and where we sat for our interview. It’s a struggle to transfer from his walker to just the right spot at the dining room table, but eventually he finds it. “Perfecto,” he turns to me and announces with a smile. Then, over his traditional Gibson and shrimp cocktail, Schreckengost and his wife, Gene, relay a few of the many achievements that mark him as a Renaissance Man of the first water.
Viktor and Gene employ a tag-team approach to telling the tale of Schreckengost’s first century. He remembers the events, she fills in the details that he used to share with her when they were fresher in his mind. As his story unfolds, it involves so many careers – he’s been a fine artist, professor, designer and Navy captain – and so many contacts with historical figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Eliot Ness, that he comes across as a modern-day da Vinci with a bit of Forrest Gump thrown in for good measure.

Born in Sebring, Ohio, in a family of six children, Schreckengost’s father worked at a ceramics factory from which he would bring home clay for his children to model. Every week he held a sculpture contest among the children, the winner of which was allowed to accompany his father on his weekend trip into the local big city of Alliance, Ohio. It was not until years later that Schreckengost realized his father systematically rotated the winner.

Win or lose, the contest developed Schreckengost’s talents as an artist. So did drawing in the margins of books, a practice of which his mother was less fond. When he was ready for college, Schreckengost chose Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). Once at CSA, Schreckengost was inspired by a ceramics show at the Cleveland Museum of Art and began to put his childhood skills to work.
Upon graduation in 1929, Schreckengost earned a partial scholarship to study at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Vienna. To make the trip, he borrowed $1,500 from two owners of Gem Clay, an industrial ceramics manufacturer in Sebring. When he returned six months later, Schreckengost paid back his loans – a fortuitous event for the men from Gem Clay since separate bank failures during the Great Depression had otherwise wiped them out.

Back in Cleveland, already widely recognized for his talent, a bidding war ensued for Schreckengost’s employ. Ohio State University wanted him to found a ceramics department, but R. Guy Cowan, the owner of Cowan Pottery and a part-time instructor at CSA, wanted Schreckengost to teach with him. Cowan offered Schreckengost a dual position at his factory and as a CSA professor that was more lucrative than OSU’s package. Thus, Schreckengost became the youngest faculty member ever at his alma mater.

These positions led to the two seminal events in Schreckengost’s career. The first began innocently enough when he was short of work one day at Cowan, and drew an assignment from the job jar. A woman had commissioned a punch bowl with a New York theme. The bowl Schreckengost designed was almost not fired in the kiln because his boss feared it was too ornamental. When it was eventually produced, the vessel was a such hit that the woman ordered another. Her husband, Franklin Roosevelt, was about to run for president and she thought the White House could use a punch bowl, too.

The bowls – eventually Cowan produced several versions of them, all in limited quantities – became known as the Jazz Bowls. In 2004, one sold at auction for $254,000. An aside: If the art world – where small paintings sell for large fortunes – was more rational in its irrationality, then the Jazz Bowls would fetch even higher prices. They are arguably the most arresting example of Art Deco design ever. Inspired by a visit to New York City, Schreckengost managed to distill both the magnificence of the Chrysler Building and the vitality of Manhattan into an object no bigger than a bread box.

The other seminal event in Schreckengost’s career occurred because he was unimpressed with the way students were taught to design products. Only one year into his teaching tenure, Schreckengost persuaded the administration to let him found a school of design – the first such program in the nation.
Schreckengost brought real-world experience to the classroom, which in turn prepared his students for jobs outside academia, says John Nottingham, a co-founder of the prestigious Cleveland design firm Nottingham & Spirk who graduated from CIA’s school of design in 1972.
Nottingham also raves about Schreckengost’s creative approach to design, which encouraged students to think about all possible ways to make a project. “The approach is so powerful that what he started in 1930 is still practiced today,” says Nottingham, who plans to host one of the 100 Schreckengost exhibits in his firm’s University Circle studios. Note, if Schreckengost still taught design, one thing that would not be practiced today is computers. “Who says it’s art at all,” he dismisses. “It’s make-believe.”

It is clear though that Schreckengost still observes manual design with a teacher’s eye. At dinner he happily critiques his water glass. (“Easy to hold, not easy to tip over. It gets by.”) And his eyes light up when he recounts his many students’ many achievements, such as founding Nissan’s design department. According to Nottingham, so highly revered is the school of design that Schreckengost founded and led for decades that CIA is one of only three schools from which today’s automakers recruit designers.

Schreckengost, however, was not content to just teach. Mid-20th-century Ohio was ablaze with manufacturing and Schreckengost’s designs lit the way to success. For the Murray Ohio Manufacturing Co. he reinvented pedal car production, making the children’s toys affordable for the masses. For Cleveland’s White Motor Co., he also designed the cab-over-engine design that is ubiquitous in today’s city buses. And he revolutionized printing presses so that they were safer and cleaner.
As if those achievements were not enough for one lifetime, Schreckengost also voluntarily joined the Navy in 1943 – at age 37 – where he flew on secret missions to Europe and used his modeling skills to improve the Allies’ radar capabilities. Later he designed prosthetics for wounded soldiers. After the war, Schreckengost joined the Reserves and eventually retired as a captain.

And though he’s retired today, he still does plenty. He helps catalogue his work for the eight-person Viktor Schreckengost Foundation, which is run out of his Cleveland Heights house – when he’s not vacationing with Gene in Florida. He also plans to judge a Gates Mills art show next summer. That would be after he celebrates his 100th birthday by attending the closing of one of the 100 exhibits (in either Los Angeles or San Francisco) honoring his work. Why so far away? “I love the California coast,” Schreckengost explains.

Oh, and that story about Eliot Ness? One evening while attending a party in Cleveland Heights where Ness was a guest, the famed safety director was called away by an urgent phone call and invited Schreckengost along for the ride – at 80 miles an hour down Euclid Avenue. Just another day in the extraordinary of life of Viktor Schreckengost. A life for which a 100-day celebration hardly seems long enough.


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