NEW YORK – If there was ever an influencer in antiques, it would be industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost. His reimagining of the midcentury toys, ceramics, furniture, glassware, dinnerware and even the basic lawnmower infused everyday products with an artistic flair.
To quote the Viktor Schreckengost Foundation:
“Every adult in America has ridden in, ridden on, drunk out of, stored their things in, eaten off of, been costumed in, mowed their lawn with, played on, lit the night with, viewed in a museum, cooled their room with, read about, printed with, sat on, placed a call with, enjoyed in a theater, hid their hooch in, collected, been awarded with, seen at a zoo, put their flowers in, hung on their wall, served punch from, delivered milk in, read something printed on, seen at the World’s Fair, detected enemy combatants with, written about, had an arm or leg replaced with, graduated from, protected by, or seen at the White House something created by Viktor Schreckengost.”
His presence in American life is so profound that Crain’s Cleveland Business Report in 2005 calculated that his contributions to the American economy alone amounted to nearly $270 billion (adjusted for inflation).
It is no wonder that at the age of 100, Viktor Schreckengost was awarded the National Medal of the Arts, the highest civilian honor for his contributions to American art and design, by President George W. Bush in 2006.
Yet, many have never heard of Viktor Schreckengost. That’s OK, though. He may have preferred it that way.
“He wasn’t in the media centers and he didn’t seek the attention,” said John Nottingham, an industrial designer and former Schreckengost student. “He wasn’t a promoter, he was a doer.”
While you may not have heard of Schreckengost, avid collectors will know his designs. One of his most iconic collectibles is the Mercury Pacemaker bicycle he designed for the Murray Ohio Co., a bicycle manufacturer. Promoted as America’s most beautiful bicycle when it was unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, it was designed with sleek lines and, most notably, dual headlights, an innovation for its time. He also invented the “sissy bar” as a safety feature and even the iconic banana seat.
Other designs for the Murray Ohio Co. were pedal cars he designed in the 1950s that closely resembled police cars, sports cars, fire engines and even an airplane. They were one-piece construction (another key innovation) and compact enough to pass through doorways and had with enough realistic detail to delight kids of all ages. His Art Deco tricycle is also a great collectible favorite.
While Schreckengost worked for Cowan Pottery in 1930, a “housewife in New York” commissioned a bowl with a New York theme, according to the original order. Schreckengost went to work and created a large dark and light blue punch bowl featuring an etched Art Deco jazz scene of 1920s New York. The “housewife” turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt and wanted the bowl to commemorate the second inauguration of her husband Franklin as governor of New York. She loved it and commissioned two others, one for the governor’s mansion and later for the White House. The Jazz Bowl, as it is known, sold well and even released a molded version for retail sale.
Pedal cars, bicycles and ceramic art are only a few of the many practical designs by Viktor Schreckengost over his 70 years as an industrial engineer. According to an obituary on cleveland.com when Schreckengost died at 101 in 2008, it listed “… printing presses, stoves, refrigerators, collators, machine tools, riding lawn mowers, lawn furniture, tractors, dinnerware, toys, streetlights, broadcast equipment, gearshift consoles, flashlights, theater costumes, stage sets, artificial limbs, typesetting machines, coffins, calendars, chairs, electric fans, lenses, logos, ball gowns and baby walkers.” During his retirement, he also painted Art Deco-style, music-themed cityscape prints, ceramic sculptures, as well as greeting cards for the American Greetings Co. based in Cleveland.
For 50 years, Schreckengost taught industrial engineering at the Cleveland Institute of Art becoming its professor emeritus before his death. Some of his students were Raymond Loewy, who designed the color scheme for Air Force One; Joe Oros, who headed the design of the 1965 Ford Mustang; Larry Nagode, who was chief designer for Fisher-Price. They all followed Schreckengost’s maxim that great design should not be sacrificed just for the sake of practicality.
The Viktor Schreckengost Foundation is dedicated to the wide range of design that influenced American business through most of the 20th century. Schreckengost’s papers, drawings, ceramics, paintings, dinnerware and artifacts are stored with Cleveland State University awaiting a museum sometime in the future.
Meanwhile, collectors can thank Viktor Schreckengost, one of the most influential and prolific designers of the 20th century. His contributions will be with us for as long as children play, beauty lives and collectors collect.