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Obituaries / Viktor Schreckengost, 1906 - 2008

Innovative industrial designer, ceramist

February 03, 2008|Mary Rourke | Times Staff Writer

Viktor Schreckengost, a pioneering industrial designer and ceramist who brought innovative mass-produced items to millions of American households starting in the 1930s, has died. He was 101.

Schreckengost, who founded the industrial design department at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the early 1930s, died Jan. 26 of causes related to old age, his stepson Chip Nowacek said.

A longtime resident of Cleveland, Schreckengost died at his winter home in Tallahassee, Fla., according to Nowacek.

Schreckengost was known in design circles for a wide range of products, from pedal cars and streamline bicycles to dinnerware and lawn furniture, among other goods. A number of his products were sold at Sears and similar stores.

"Nearly everyone alive is familiar with something he did," wrote Henry Adams, curator of "Viktor Schreckengost and 20th Century Design," in an essay that accompanied the 2001 exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Although many of the products Schreckengost designed are instantly recognizable, "his name is unfamiliar outside a small circle," Adams wrote.

Schreckengost began his design career with Cowan Pottery in Ohio, where he created a limited-edition Art Deco-style "Jazz" punch bowl in 1931. His first customer was Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was then governor of New York. She liked the scenes of New York City that decorated the bowl and bought three, for $50 each. In 2004, one of the "Jazz" series bowls sold at auction for $254,000.

Schreckengost continued to craft ceramics, some of them one of a kind, but his larger goal was to bring style and high quality to the mass-production market. "I didn't understand why only the wealthy could afford good design," he said in a 2001 interview with the Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

In the 1930s and '40s he created dinnerware in unadorned, modern shapes for pottery factories including American Limoges and Salem China. He patented his design for a "dripless" cup that kept coffee from dribbling off the lip and down the sides.

During that time he also became known as an industrial designer of flashlights, room fans, lighting systems and a golf cart-style lawn mower, among other goods.

In 1933 he and engineer Ray Spiller developed one of the first blunt-nose cab-over-engine trucks. It was produced by White Motor Co. in Cleveland. With the cab positioned over the engine rather than behind it, the truck offered extra hauling space.

Schreckengost also crafted vehicles for children, most of them produced by Murray Ohio Manufacturing Co., starting in the late 1930s. One of his most popular pedal cars was a firetruck with wooden ladders. His bicycle designs included the "Mercury," with streamlined chrome elements that gave it the look of a racer's bike. It was displayed at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. Many of his bikes, including one with high-rise handlebars, became collector's items.

His lawn furniture for Murray Ohio Manufacturing included the metal "Beverly Hills" chair, which had sleek lines and a contoured seat.

Through most of his career, Schreckengost divided his time between design work and teaching. He joined the faculty of the Cleveland Institute of Art, his alma mater, in 1930 and was chairman of the industrial design department for 40 years before becoming an emeritus professor in 1972. Several of the students he mentored there went on to prominent careers in the automobile industry. One of them, Joseph Oros, was design director of the team that created the 1964 Ford Mustang.

Schreckengost often explained how he approached his design work.

"The first thing I have to solve is the basic function of things," he said in a 2001 interview with the Virginian-Pilot. "The last thing I look at is aesthetics."

He began any new project the same way. "I ask myself how could . . . I make it simpler and take the labor out of it so it's cheaper," he said.

Schreckengost was born June 26, 1906, in Sebring, Ohio, the son of a professional potter.

He graduated in 1929 from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he studied design and ceramics. He also painted and sculpted during his student years and continued to do so for the rest of his life.

After graduation, he studied ceramics in Vienna for a year before he returned to Ohio and began his design career.

He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and developed a system for radar recognition.

He was married twice. His first wife, Nadine, died in 1975. He married his second wife, Gene, in 1991.

Survivors include his second wife and three stepsons.

Schreckengost's designs are in several museum collections, including at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Contributions in his name can be made to the Viktor Schreckengost Scholarship Fund, c/o the Cleveland Institute of Art, Alumni Office, 11141 East Blvd., Cleveland, OH 44106.

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mary.rourke@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Photo gallery

To see more photos of Viktor Schreckengost's designs, go to latimes.com/schreckengost

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