An Art Deco Icon

Viktor Schreckengost's Jazz Bowl

A staggeringly prolific industrial designer, engineer, and artist, Viktor Schreckengost created works that have been admired and used by millions of people over the past ninety years. Known affectionately as the American Da Vinci, he designed for many famous companies, including Sears, Roebuck & Co., Murray, and General Electric, and was the youngest instructor ever hired at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he taught for over seventy years and where he helped found the first industrial design program in the United States. Schreckengost, however, was first and foremost a supremely talented ceramist, and we are delighted to present what is perhaps his most famous work: a bowl from his Jazz series for Cowan Pottery.

Born in Sebring, Ohio, Viktor grew up around pottery and enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1925. He studied there with progressive instructors such as Henry Keller, Paul Travis, and Frank Wilcox, who instilled in him the importance of using line as a tool for building mass, space, and motion, and the skill of drawing from memory. He graduated in 1929 and spent the following year in Vienna, studying ceramics at the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule with the iconic artists Michael Powolny and Josef Hoffmann. It was in Vienna that he learned many of the skills and lessons which would define his career: the importance of cohesive design, the potential of art and design to extend into every aspect of daily life, as well as the finer points of working with ceramics. 

First variation of the Jazz bowl. Courtesy of Princeton University Museum of Art.

Upon returning to Cleveland in 1930, Viktor soon obtained a position at the Cowan Pottery, where he worked until its closure in 1931. It was there, against a backdrop of the Great Depression, prohibition, and the burgeoning popularity of jazz music, that he created his iconic Jazz bowl. The bowl began as a random assignment, one Schreckengost pulled from a hopper full of submissions from clients that Cowan kept in the office. A gallery in New York said there was a woman who requested a “New Yorkish punch bowl” and the rest, as they say, is history. Schreckengost took inspiration from a recent trip he had taken to New York, which included stops at the Cotton Club and Radio City Music Hall. The resulting design tells the story of a visit to the City of Lights on New Year’s Eve, starting with gentlemen wearing hats, moving to “Stop” and “Go” signs (humorous allusions to drinking), high-rise buildings and the Hudson River, then musical instruments (including a drum head bearing the bowl’s moniker, “Jazz”), and finally a scene of a bottle, cocktail glasses, and stars. It was only after shipping the bowl to the aforementioned New York client that Schreckengost discovered her identity: Eleanor Roosevelt. She was so enamored of the piece that she ordered two more: one for Hyde Park and one for the White House.

It was only after shipping the bowl to the aforementioned New York client that Schreckengost discovered her identity: Eleanor Roosevelt. She was so enamored of the piece that she ordered two more: one for Hyde Park and one for the White House.

Schreckengost’s Jazz bowl, with its Art Deco style, narrative decoration, and irreverent, even controversial, subject matter, represented a wholly new approach in American ceramics, which until then were heavily characterized by imitations of Chinese or European porcelain and stoneware. In total, three variations of the bowl were made and he created several versions of the design as well, exploring other Jazz-Age themes. The first variation was that of a dramatic, semi-circular parabolic shape. When it proved too difficult to fire (it often warped in the kiln), a flare was added to the rim. The first two variations were decorated in sgraffito, a labor-intensive process that involved scratching the design by hand through the initial engobe layer. This proved to be too costly and time-consuming, and so a third version of the bowl was introduced—known today as the Poor Man’s bowl—which employed less laborious processes. Schreckengost carved the design on a form which was then made into a mold, with the resulting bowls showing the design in relief. The bowl was fired, covered in black engobe, and the engobe scraped away from the raised areas, leaving the black engobe in the valleys in between. 

Second variation of the Jazz bowl. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

A parabolic Jazz bowl was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1931, and another example (the Cocktails and Cigarettes design variation) won an award at the 1931 Cleveland May Show. Though popular and well-received, the bowls were expensive to make and cost the then sizable sum of $50 to purchase, factors which likely led to the small production numbers. It is unknown exactly how many were made, but scholarship suggests perhaps twenty-five total sgraffito bowls and a similar number of Poor Man’s bowls.  There are only about eleven known surviving examples of the Poor Man’s bowl, making the present lot exceedingly rare. It stands not just as a reminder of a bygone era and the legacy of its creator but also represents a watershed moment in American ceramics history.