Preserving the Legacy of Northeast Ohio Artist Viktor Schreckengost

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by David C. Barnett

"As soon as it hit the market, everybody was grabbing for it", he said

Industrial design touches many parts of modern life.  And Northeast Ohio artist Victor Schreckengost's creations reached millions of American homes.  He crafted dinnerware, truck engines, toys, patio furniture and many other household products.  But now, some Schreckengost items are being auctioned off ---- while others are retrofitted for public display.  His legacy is complicated, and he's virtually unknown outside of Cleveland.

Viktor Schreckengost believed in art and design for ordinary folks.

"I always resented the fact that only wealthy people could afford good design," he often said.  "And I thought if I could make enough of anything, everybody can enjoy it."

In a 2000 interview, we discussed his long artistic career.  

"I never designed a product, that was finished, that I already wished I had done something else, beyond that."

Schreckengost founded the Industrial Design department at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1931. He recognized the importance of making a commercial product that not only looks good, but operates efficiently and according to a user's needs.  In 1932, Schreckengost designed the first cab-over-engine semi-truck.  By shortening the cab, trucks could haul longer trailers. 

"As soon as it hit the market, everybody was grabbing for it," he smiled.  "The man who bought one of those, could pay for the whole rig in one year, based on the additional hauling load."

Over the course of a nearly 80-year-career, 50-million bicycles were made from Schreckengost designs.  He also set the styles for the first mass-produced dinnerware in the U.S.  His toy pedal cars, lawn chairs and dozens of other products were marketed across the country.  

More recently, a classic piece of Schreckengost's public art was rescued after languishing in a warehouse for over two decades.  Albert Albano, of the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) says it was in bad shape.

"When we found it," he says,  "it was all piled up on top of each other, all the pieces, and a lot of damage had occurred about that."

It's a series of aluminum pieces representing, the Earth, the sun, the phases of the moon and the signs of the zodiac.  Viktor Schreckengost called it "Time and Space."  It was mounted over the entrance of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in the mid-1950s.  Forty years later, it was taken down during airport renovations, and essentially forgotten.  And that speaks to some of the frustrations of trying to preserve Schreckengost's legacy.

"He did so much work," says Albano, "and it's around in so many different locales, that no one has the big vision of all these different components, and what their status is.  

Schreckengost died in 2008 at the age of 101.  But, for all his success, few people know his name outside of Greater Cleveland.  Art historian Marianne Berardi notes that he lived in a time before contemporary designers like Michael Graves and Martha Stewart --- who stamp their logos on everything they make.

"A lot of his best known things --- all his spectacular, gorgeous bicycles, a lot of his inventions, his dinnerware patterns --- weren't signed."  

Working with Schreckengost's family, Berardi organized an auction of some of the master designer's work, last month, including a number of fine art pieces, like paintings, drawings and sculpture.

"The idea behind it is to have a presence for Viktor Schreckengost's work in a broader market than simply Northeast Ohio, because his achievements were on a national and international scale."  

Dan Cuffaro now heads the Institute of Art's Industrial Design program.  He's a former student of Schreckengost.  

"He was a person with gravitas; when Viktor came in, you knew it."  

He's cheered by efforts to rehabilitate some of his predecessor's public art, like the forgotten astronomical display at the airport, but Cuffaro says he had mixed feelings about the recent auction.

"It makes me concerned that his legacy is being broken up.  On the other hand, every person that acquires a piece has now bought into that legacy."

And maybe, the more that people know his name, the more likely that Viktor Schreckengost's legacy will be preserved.  

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