Castleton at the Museum of Modern Art

Aug 1Sep 21, 2023

from the Lawrence County Historical Society Collection

Art & Education at the Hoyt’s newest exhibit at The Confluence, Museum to Table, August 1-September 21, 2023, explores Castleton China’s partnership with the Museum of Modern Art to create the first modern china in the United States.  Appropriately titled MUSEUM, the new collection debuted at the MoMa in 1946 before traveling to several high-profile showrooms across country as documented in the displayed photographs. 

However, it is the stories behind these photos that holds the most intrigue– from the creation of the collection with up and coming designer, Eva Zeisel, to the influence and opportunities brought to Shenango China by the impending war in Europe.

Up until 1935, Shenango China produced primarily commercial china for hotels, restaurants, railroad and the like. Founder James Smith began experimenting with porcelain In 1928, but abandoned those efforts during the Great Depression.

The Theodore Haviland Company of France, renown for Limoges porcelain, changed that in 1936.  As political tensions rose in Europe with threat of Nazi invasion, Haviland sought an American partner to produce Haviland China in the US.  Shenango China was awarded the contract and began making Haviland porcelain using Haviland’s formula, blocks cases, and decals under the trademark “Theodore Haviland New York made in America.” They continued to do so until 1958.

Now equipped with sufficient experience in porcelain, Smith co-founded Castleton China, a division of Shenango China, in 1940 with Louis Hellman.  Their singular goal was to create the first and finest American china in the country to compete with the European imports.  Louis Hellman was a former Executive with Germany’s famed Rosenthal China whose reputation for producing fine porcelain was synonymous with objects of art.  Yet, with the rise of German nationalism in the 1930s, not even the company’s international reputation could overcome their Jewish roots.  The Rosenthal family was exiled by Hitler’s regime and nearly 5000 skilled employees, including Hellman, were displaced.

Having spent a lifetime in fine china manufacturing, Hellman proved to be a valuable asset to the fledgling company.  Inspired by visiting the MoMa’s exhibit, Organic Design in Home Furnishings, Hellman approached Elliot Noyes, then Director of the museum’s Department of Industrial Design, for a designer capable of imagining a modern dinnerware service that was worthy of an exhibition at the MoMa. Noyes recommended Eva Zeisel who was commissioned in January of 1942.

Born into a wealthy Jewish family in Hungary in1906, Zeisel also came to America to escape Nazi persecution in 1937.  She began the MUSUEM line commission by studying Emily Post’s rules of etiquette to better understand the American ideal of elegance at the formal dinner table. The dinner table played an important role in both family and social life in the 1940s. Young ladies learned table setting in their home economics class, and practiced with their mothers at home.  Proper table behavior was reinforced by ‘social guidance films’ circulated by companies like Simmel-Meservey, and both hosts and guests were measured by their knowledge of and adherence to strict cultural norms.  Thus, the new service did not only have to be sufficiently modern enough to meet the MoMa’s standards, but win the approval of customers with enough means to make the expensive purchase. A service of twelve retailed for $300.00 in 1946, the equivalent of $4680.00 today.

The family of 25 shapes was completed in 1943 but not unveiled until the 1946 exhibition at the MoMa titled, New Shapes in Modern China Designed by Eva Zeises, due to the war.  It was the first one-woman show at the MoMa and placed Zeisel on the map as internationally acclaimed designer.  She went on to receive numerous other dinnerware and industrial design commissions up until her initial retirement in 1964.  She returned to designing in 1984 and continued until her death at the age of 105 in 2011.  She is regarded as one of the most important industrial designers of the 20th century, and is collected by major museums across the globe.

Zeisel based the MUSEUM collection’s shapes on rounded squares or squared ovals and circles to ‘break the monotony’ of many modern shapes of the day.  Heavy bottoms added stability asthin edges ‘grew up from the table’ to take advantage of the translucency of porcelain.  The Castleton press release stated “The forms of MUSEUM dinner service have the quality of superb sculpture and at the same time are functional and durable.”  It continued that “because MUSUEM is geared towards contemporary living, a true product of the times, it includes many useful pieces not found in services of traditional design – the large square salad bowl, then handle-less creamer and the open sugar bowl.”

While decorated versions were not originally intended, they were added to increase the sales potential of the new line.  As would be expected of the MoMa, the greatest Modern artists of the day were invited to contribute, including Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondigliani, Stuart Davis, Marc Chagall, George Braque and others.

The collection of photographs on display largely belongs to the Lawrence County Historical Society, who boasts the largest collection of Shenango China in the world. Advertisements and decals are courtesy of the Hoyt’s permanent collection.  Examples of the MUSEUM line can be seen at the Hoyt during normal business hours of Tuesday – Thursday, 11-8, and Friday and Saturday, 11-4. 

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