Design for Living

Victor Schreckengost, who died January 26 at age 101, did not have an especially famous name. But to understand his impact on the way America lives, it helps to know that he designed not only the sissy bar that kept you from sliding off the back of your banana seat while popping the wheelies of your adolescence, but also most of the old-school pedal cars that your parents drove around on the sidewalk way back when they were kids: the Murray Champion, with its boxy, modest curves, and the slick silver Pursuit Plane, with a shape that would look right at home on Saturday-morning cartoons. Schreckengost was an industrial designer, artist, and teacher who Chip Nowacek, the executive director of the Victor Schreckengost Foundation, describes as “the American DaVinci.”

Schreckengost grew up in Ohio and graduated from the Cleveland School of Art in 1929, where he went on to teach for more than 50 years. As an artist, Schreckengost is most famous for his “Jazz Bowl,” blue-glazed and vibrating with lines evoking music and cities, which he designed for Eleanor Roosevelt. He’s also credited with changing the face of American dinnerware — creating an American style that didn’t copy its European predecessors. One design lives on in the American Girl line of dolls. Molly, the American Girl doll from the 1940s, owns a set of plates in Schreckengost’s “Flower Shop” pattern.

But his most lasting achievements have to do with the intersection of aesthetics and manufacture, and consequently, art and commerce. It’s a dichotomy he would struggle with throughout his career, eventually reconciling in an unpublished essay: “My work has been constantly involved in the struggle between fine arts and their development into some functional form of what we call the applied or commercial arts. It took many years for me to realize that they need not conflict, that a basic philosophy, conviction, or understanding may be common to both ... There is no separate set of rules for each, or need there be a prostitution of one’s artistic integrity. There can and must be a continuity, a basic concept in the artist’s mind, which will show up in everything, which he does.”

His approach to design solved a multitude of manufacturing challenges. He created the first cab-over-engine design for busses, which is used in most city busses manufactured today. He figured out efficient ways to stamp pedal-car bodies out of a single sheet of metal, which by itself made them inexpensive to manufacture, but also figured out ways to use a basic body design that could be fitted with add-on details to create whole lines of toys at minimal additional cost. When General Electric charged him with designing fixtures for its fluorescent lights, he figured out that a matrix pattern cut into the panel that covers the bulb would both diffuse the light and improve the appearance of the fixture; the results still hang over heads in countless buildings. There are 109 patents to his name, and the impact of his designs on the economy is said to exceed $200 billion.