While doing research for the Cranbrook Archives’ upcoming exhibition Ephemera: The Stories that Letterhead Tells, I discovered a beautiful example of bold, colorful letterhead from 1938. The letterhead, designed by Viktor Schreckengost, was clearly influenced by the Bauhaus designs of the 1920s and 1930s which featured asymmetrical compositions and expressive typography. The content of the letter is of course also very interesting. A response to textile designer Loja Saarinen’s request to purchase the ceramic sculpture “Young Pegasus,” the letter shows a mutual respect between the two artists. The sculpture, which Schreckengost sold to Loja Saarinen, lived for many years in Saarinen House, and is now in the permanent collection of Cranbrook Art Museum.
As the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat,” and as I knew nothing about Schreckengost, I set out to see what I could discover about him. Turns out that Schreckengost, who spent the majority of his life in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, was not only an industrial designer (think streamlined pedal cars and the Sears Spaceline bicycle), but was also a painter and ceramicist. The son of a commercial potter, Schreckengost dabbled in clay sculpture as a child, and went on to design mid-century modern dinnerware for American Limoges and Salem China. Perhaps his best-known ceramic work is the Jazz Bowl (1930-1931) that he created at Cowan Pottery in Rocky River, Ohio, for a commission from Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1948, then curator of Cranbrook Art Museum, Esther Sperry, was in the process of planning the Academy of Art’s Second Biennial Ceramics and Textile Exhibition and reached out to Schreckengost. The exhibition records yielded two more very interesting letterhead from Schreckengost. With simplified typography, the first reflects Schreckengost’s response to post-war graphic design and the promotion of “less is more” concept, while the second illustrates how Schreckengost constantly experimented with type and design elements. Both 1948 letters show his conscious effort to utilize negative space as an active element.
The bottom line is that for me, these three objects in our collection are fascinating – in their design, in their content and how they, as cultural artifacts, reflect the changing world of design through their rich visual vocabulary.
– Leslie S. Edwards, Head Archivist