Industrial Designer Viktor Schreckengost dead at 101

Viktor Schreckengost, who died late Saturday night in Florida, aged 101, was a prolific industrial designer, artist, and teacher who managed in a 70-year career to produce everyday objects from ceramic dinnerware and frying pans to metal lawn chairs for Sears, and everyone’s childhood favorite—the banana-seat bicycle.

Schreckengost was born on June 26, 1906 in Sebring, a commercial pottery town near Youngstown, Ohio, that at one time was known as the “Pottery Capital of The World.” His interest in design began by making things as a boy, when he and his brothers molded tiny sculptures of soldiers and football players out of the clay his father brought home from his job as a potter. After attending the Cleveland Institute of Art and the Kunstgewerbeschule, in Vienna, Schreckengost began working at the Cowan Pottery Studio, in Rocky River, Ohio. One of his first commissions, in 1930, was a large punch bowl for Eleanor Roosevelt. The “Jazz Bowl”, with its jazzy, cubist style, depicts skyscrapers, neon lights, the Cotton Club, and Radio City Music Hall, and has become one of the signature pieces of American Art Deco. In 2004, a later version of the bowl sold at Sotheby’s auction house for $254,400.

During the 1930s, Schreckengost worked as an independent contractor for such companies as American Limoges, Harris-Seybold, and Sears & Roebuck, introducing streamlined design to everyday objects, and he often patented his ideas as he produced them. His patent in 1934 for the first cab-over-engine truck was the first of over 80 patents he registered for designs that included a folding bicycle, a baby walker, and a chicken fryer. His 1933 Manhattan Dinner Service was one of American’s first sets of Modernist dinnerware.

In the late 1930s, as the chief bicycle designer for the Murray Company, Schreckengost designed the streamlined Mercury Bicycle (his first and his favorite), which was later exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. During his 35 years with Murray, Schreckengost designed many other bicycles and children’s pedal cars. Around 100 million of his bikes and pedal cars were manufactured by the company, quickly making Murray the largest bike manufacturer in the world. He designed more than 100 bikes for Sears—including the Spaceline, Western Flyer, and Firestore—and using the same basic parts managed to make them look different by modifying chain guards, luggage carriers, lighting systems, handlebars, and truss rods. “If we sold 600,000 of something, I felt I was on the right track,” he said in an interview for the January 2001 issue of Metropolis .

Later, in the 1960s, Schreckengost created the first banana-seat bikes—or “kooky” bikes, as the designer called them. He noticed that kids were replacing their front wheels with smaller, lighter ones to make the bikes wheelie better. “To wheelie right, you should be able to balance the bike,” Schreckengost explained. “We made the banana seat so you could have two positions on the same seat. I was afraid kids would go over the back onto their heads. To protect them, I put this sissy bar on the back of the bikes with fringes on it—so it became part of the image.”

Unlike other major industrial designers of his era (such as Gilbert Rohde, Henry Dreyfuss, and Raymond Loewy), Schreckengost avoided self-promotion but was always happy to discuss his work. When I interviewed him for the magazine in 2000, few in the design community had ever heard of him. As one of the founders of the industrial design department at the Cleveland Institute of Art, he shaped the talents of hundreds of students, including Giuseppe Delena, chief designer at Ford Motor Co.; Larry Nagode, principal designer at Fisher-Price; and Joe Oros, designer of the 1965 Ford Mustang.

When asked what advice he would give a young designer, he said: “Always get back to the function of the object. The aesthetics, the marketing, and whatever you want to worry about all comes in on top of that. Let’s take the costs out of it so that everybody can afford good design”—something that still resonates today.

In addition to the National Medal of Arts, which he received in 2006, Mr. Schreckengost earned a gold medal, the highest honor of the American Institute of Architects, in 1958.

When I visited Schreckengost at his home in Cleveland in 2005, I was struck by how much joy a simple little wind-up toy brought him—the same kind of feeling you get when you make a wheelie on your banana-seat bike, fringes and all.

For more information about his life and work, read Back to the Future (June, 2006) and visit www.viktorschreckengost.org.

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