June 1, 2006
Back to the Future
As industrial designer Viktor Schreckengost celebrates his 100th birthday, his family seeks to preserve his life’s work and the house where it was made.
Viewed from the street, there’s nothing extraordinary or unusual about the house in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where Viktor Schreckengost has lived since 1952. Big, comfortable-looking, and Tudor-esque in inspiration, it’s typical of the expansive homes built in the Cleveland suburbs in the early twentieth century, when the city was a rising industrial powerhouse.
Inside, however, the house is a veritable museum of Schreckengost’s vast output as one of America’s most important—and under-recognized—industrial designers. It’s also the scene of an unusual family project aimed at perpetuating Schreckengost’s legacy and gaining the national attention that the exceedingly modest designer, now 99, has never sought for himself. The task is daunting: how do you build a reputation for an important creative thinker who largely has been absent from the history books?
Gene Schreckengost, the designer’s second wife, and Chip Nowacek, her son by a previous marriage, have come up with some answers. (Gene and Chip are the aunt and cousin of Metropolis art director Nancy Nowacek.) They’ve incorporated nonprofit and for-profit entities to preserve Schreckengost’s work and intellectual property, and hired a team of researchers to catalog and conserve the contents of his house. Nowacek, who heads the project, has also organized more than 100 small- and large-scale exhibitions across the country this year to celebrate Schreckengost’s 100th birthday, on June 26. He views their work as a way to tell a larger story about his stepfather, whom he sees as a brilliant designer and problem solver who has always been more interested in serving others than in receiving personal attention. “He sort of never got around to taking care of himself,” Nowacek says. “It’s that very attribute that we think is worthy of some notice. Where did all the heroes go? Well, maybe we found one.”
Schreckengost had an immense, if anonymous, impact on American life in his 70-year career. He designed everything: trucks, furniture, industrial equipment, dinnerware, military radar systems, printing presses, stoves, refrigerators, collators, machine tools, lawn mowers, lawn furniture, toys, tractors, streetlights, broadcast equipment, gearshift consoles, flashlights, artificial limbs, typesetting machines, coffins, calendars, chairs, electric fans, lenses, logos, bicycles, ball gowns, and baby walkers. But unlike his better-known peers, including Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy, Schreckengost never sought fame. Rather than move to New York, where he would have been more visible, he chose to remain in Cleveland and focus on work and teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art—his real sources of joy. “He never went for self-aggrandizement,” Nowacek says. “I think he viewed it as a distraction.”
In 2000, the year of the first major museum exhibition on Schreckengost’s work, I interviewed him at his home. He showed me a citation he received from the American Institute of Architects when it awarded him a Fine Arts Medal in 1958. Other winners of the award have included Frederick Law Olmsted, Diego Rivera, and John Singer Sargent. “Look at the people on that list,” Schreckengost said modestly. “I just can’t imagine myself being with this group.”
Others, of course, have always seen Schreckengost in such company. Henry Adams, a specialist in twentieth-century American art, stumbled upon the designer in 1994 after moving to Cleveland. Following a hunch, Adams recorded six interviews with the designer, a project that led to a 2000 exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This year Adams is writing a 250-page catalog to accompany the centennial shows. “Viktor’s design is modern, but it also has a playful quality to it—almost an anthropomorphic quality,” Adams says. “He’s wildly creative.” The designer’s house, he adds, “is endless. It’s a scholar’s dream.”
After the Cleveland museum show Schreckengost’s loved ones realized they had to start thinking about the future. Gene, a retired pediatrician, attended a local panel discussion on estate planning for artists. She and Nowacek soon realized that they could face heavy taxes after Schreckengost’s death, forcing them or other family members to sell and scatter the contents of the designer’s house, which includes more than 500 artworks worth $3 million to $4 million. “It’s a concern,” Gene says dryly. “If we were hit by a Mack truck, it would be a big problem.”
Confronting the tax questions forced Gene and her son to think more broadly about how to preserve Schreckengost’s work and vision. They created the nonprofit Viktor Schreckengost Foundation to fund projects in education, research, and preservation—plus the for-profit Viktor Schreckengost Intellectual Reserve to earn income for the nonprofit ventures by licensing Schreckengost’s designs. (Not a bad idea: in 2004 Sotheby’s sold an original Jazz Bowl, which Schreckengost designed for Eleanor Roosevelt, for $254,400.) A third organization, soon to be created, will oversee ownership of the house and its contents, and carry out educational projects and exhibitions. The Schreckengosts also hired an eight-person staff—registrars, a photographer, a historian, a merchandising expert, and a graphic designer—to catalog and preserve the contents of the house.
When Nowacek took me on a tour of the house in March, the Schreckengosts were away in Tallahassee, Florida, where they spend the winter. But a painting crew was hard at work getting the house spruced up for the upcoming centennial festivities in June. In the dining room, where Schreckengost usually holds court when visitors come, plastic sheets covered scores of his creations, from mass-produced dinnerware to one-of-a-kind ceramic sculptures and watercolors. (As if he weren’t prolific enough, the designer had a parallel career as an artist.)
On the second floor, the office and library were jammed with personal records, correspondence, and boxes of slides. Other rooms had been given over to the archivists and their computers and files. On the third floor, where Schreckengost did most of his painting and drawing, the archivists had set up a small photo studio to document his paintings, drawings, photographs, ceramics, and sculptures. A skylighted studio at the head of the stairs was still intact—markers, pencils, and brushes lay neatly arrayed on a taboret next to a large drafting table. A 1930s-era Cubist still life of a fish and fruit bowl rested on an easel.
The Schreckengosts have yet to figure out what to do with the house and its contents in the future. Head archivist Craig Bara suggests turning the place into an archive and research center. “My vision is that it becomes Viktor’s legacy,” he says, “the place where his ideas, his techniques, live on, a place where young people would be able to come in and learn.” But the house could also become a public museum, like the Gropius House, in Lincoln, Massachusetts; Russel Wright’s Dragon Rock, in Garrison, New York; and the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio, in Oak Park, Illinois. Affiliation with the Cleveland Institute of Art is another possibility. The home could become the setting for residencies or other programs related to Schreckengost’s work at the institute, where he founded the industrial-design department in 1932 and influenced decades of designers.
Of course, establishing a house museum or a research center would mean dealing with visitors, traffic, parking, accessibility for the handicapped, and the potential objections of neighbors—not to mention the City of Cleveland Heights. The Schreckengosts’ approach to such questions has been the opposite of that other famous Cleveland native and designer—Philip Johnson. The man who claimed that immortality is “better than sex” donated his Glass House, in New Canaan, Connecticut, to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1986 while retaining the right to live on the property until he died. Today, a year and a half after Johnson’s death, the National Trust is negotiating with the Town of New Canaan about how to shuttle visitors in and out of the 44-acre estate without disturbing the neighbors. The house and related buildings on the site—including a library, a painting gallery, and a sculpture gallery—could open to visitors as soon as 2007.
The Schreckengosts, true to Viktor’s style, have followed a more modest course. For example, this year’s centennial exhibits will be held not only in predictable venues such as art museums and galleries but also in places that have personal meaning for Schreckengost, including Adam’s Barber Shop, in Cleveland Heights, and a restaurant in Captiva, Florida, called the Bubble Room. The family does have a perfect opportunity to create a public museum similar to the Johnson estate (though certainly on a smaller scale) because they still own Gene’s original home, two doors away, plus a large additional lot that links the two houses. When I telephoned Gene in Florida to ask whether she had considered the idea, she said it hadn’t occurred to her, but she was intrigued and might study its feasibility.
Such discussions raise the delicate question of what Viktor makes of all this. When I asked whether I could speak with him over the phone, Gene said he preferred not to because his hearing aid distorts sound. She also said his poor memory makes it hard for him to carry on a conversation.
But when I asked Nowacek what his stepfather makes of the project to preserve his work and perpetuate his legacy, he said, “He just shakes his head and says, ‘That sounds like a lot of work.’ He’s the same guy he’s always been. He doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about.” Nowacek feels differently: “The amount of work he accomplished—it stuns me. We have to pay attention to the things he churned out.”