misattribution madness #1 – russel wright and conant ball

did russel wright design this conant ball dresser?

did russel wright design this conant ball dresser?

It must be the uptight nerdy part of me that always did well at spelling* that is really bugged when a design piece is misattributed to the wrong designer. So, for me, one of the big rewards I get from doing research into obscure and semi-obscure modern design topics is that every so often I am able to find evidence that clears up the mystery of the source of a piece of design.

It’s a common problem in the design world to find pieces that are mistakenly known as the work of the wrong designer (who is usually more famous than the actual designer). Maybe its partly a game of “historical telephone”, where the wrong information is perpetuated by word-of-mouth. Or it could be a design version of Gresham’s Law where bad information drives out good. (Gresham’s Law states that bad money drives out good money – that’s where my expertise ends, though. Please don’t ask me to explain it any further. This is “modernacious”, not “moneyacious”, after all!)

So I want to present posts here in the “misattribution madness” series that will give examples of commonly misidentified pieces and show documentation to try and set the record straight. By the way, sometimes the evidence is a slam dunk, “case closed” kind of deal and the corrected attribution is 100% a sure thing. Other times it’s a little fuzzy and there may be some doubt one way or the other. Since I am a nerd I will include my completely unscientific estimate of how certain the new attribution is.

The first example I present is the very common misattribution of a line of case goods manufactured by Conant Ball to be the work of Russel Wright. These were in fact designed by Leslie Diamond and produced by Conant Ball as part of the “Modernmates” line of furniture. Here’s a reference to them that was published in the Summer, 1947 issue of “Everyday Art Quarterly”, published by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis:

leslie diamond conant ball

Conant Ball furniture designed by Leslie Diamond, “Everyday Art Quarterly” Summer 1947, p. 3

leslie diamond conant ball two

Russel Wright did indeed design modern furniture for Conant Ball under the “American Modern” line name (which was also the name for one of his better-known lines of ceramics), but these pieces were produced earlier in the 1930’s, and look like this:

russel wright "american modern" furniture for conant ball, 1935

russel wright "american modern" furniture for conant ball, 1935

russel wright “american modern” furniture for conant ball, 1935

Over the last few years some excellent research has been done that has helped correct the attribution. However, to show how common this misattribution still is, a search on 1stdibs for Russel Wright and Conant Ball reveals a large percentage of incorrectly identified pieces mixed in with a few correct ones.

One relatively recent source for the confusion can be traced to the reference work “Collector’s Encyclopedia of Russel Wright” by Ann Kerr, who is a recognized Wright authority and long-time collector of his designs. Ms. Kerr was a dedicated and knowledgeable researcher who just happened to make a mistake on this one and credited Modernmates to Wright instead of Diamond, perhaps because her specialty was ceramics and not furniture. Or it’s possible that the prevailing wisdom in the design community that these pieces were by Wright influenced her decision to include the Modernmates line in her Wright reference work.

So there you go. Not sure how this one originally got started, but the two lines of furniture are somewhat similar in look and finish. I think people just assumed that any pieces of modern furniture from Conant Ball had to be designed by Wright. In any case, I’m calling this one:

100% certain NOT Russel Wright

[“American Modern” furniture pics above from the Manitoga/Russel Wright Design Center book “Russel Wright: Good Design Is For Everyone“, 2001]

* apologies for the “back door brag”!

This entry was posted in 30's, 40's, misattribution, russel wright. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to misattribution madness #1 – russel wright and conant ball

  1. Dawn Diamond says:

    Thank you for pointing out that not all Conant Ball furniture was designed by Russell Wright. I see many pieces that were in my home growing up that were made by my grandfather, Leslie Diamond that Russell Wright is credited for. Leslie made miniatures of his designs and I was able to play with some of them so I know what he designed.
    He was most famous for the ModernMates collection. My dad also designed for Conant Ball as well.

    • Jamie says:

      Maybe you can help me find the answer to this question. I’ve been trying to find out what kind of wood and finish (i.e. varnish, shellac, etc.) were used on this piece which I believe to be designed by Leslie Diamond. I know the wood is either birch or maple, but that is the extent of what I have been able to gather so far. My piece has major water damage on the surface from a drippy sky light (I purchased it this way), and I am hoping to restore it. Any tips? Thank you.

    • Jamie says:

      Here is a link to a piece that looks exactly like mine:

  2. Greg Greg says:

    Hi Dawn,

    Thanks for sharing! Such a nice story about you being a kid playing with miniatures of your grandfather’s furniture, too.

    I appreciate the info – thanks again!

  3. Achlee Wise says:

    I own the MODERNMATES sofa No. 7101 (per the modernmates catalog) which has an AMERICAN MODERN mark – any ideas on this one?

    • Greg Greg says:

      I’ve seen other pieces of Modernmates furniture with the “American Modern” label, which means Conant Ball re-used the “American Modern” label after Russel Wright’s involvement. The circular mark will have a blank section where the earlier CB Wright pieces have the words “Designed by Russel Wright”.

      The 7101 sofa looks a lot like the other late 40’s Leslie Diamond CB Modernmates pieces, so I would say he designed your sofa too.

  4. Fredi Shaffer says:

    I have several furniture pieces of Conant Ball and want to sell (on ebay?? Can’t find dealers on consignment close by). I need to know if they are Wright or Diamond. Several sites mislead according to the pics you posted. Is there any thing in the furniture stamp to help me out?

    • Greg Greg says:

      I’m not a Conant Ball expert but as far as I know, the only involvement that Russel Wright had with Conant Ball was for the one Art Moderne-looking “American Modern” (AKA “Modern Living”) line from 1935. Those pieces are distinctive and the Conant Ball stamp on those should include his name.

      There are a lot of CB pieces from the 60s attributed to Wright besides ones in Leslie Diamond’s “Modernmates” line that I am fairly certain were not designed by him. CB put out a ton of Colonial-looking furniture. Since Russel Wright is a famous name who had an earlier, very successful modern line with CB, it seems anything postwar from CB with a streamline look and a blonde finish simply got tagged as being Russel Wright.

  5. kevin says:

    I’m looking at a room divider that i’ve seen called “Norsemates” designed by Russel Wright. The only thing i’m sure of is it’s made by Conant Ball. Would you have any info on this line? Thanks for your time.

    • Greg Greg says:

      Not sure about “Norsemates”, but please see my other replies to comments re: CB and Russel Wright. I don’t know of any work for Conant Ball that has been confirmed to be by Russel Wright besides the 1935 “American Modern” (AKA “Modern Living”) line.

  6. William Straus says:

    Greg, thank you for once again correcting this mistake. The early Russel Wright stamp should say “Designed by Russel Wright”, but there are some pieces that were made that have the same usual stamp but only the made by Conant Ball and no RW, however, all of these pieces are from the 30’s. Later the logo for Conant Ball also changes, so if one has the later logo that would also be a clue that their piece is not by Russel. The confusion aside from the continuing published attributions to Russel, is that he did design a line later for Statton Furniture, and many of these pieces are similar to the Modernmates line.

  7. John Cook says:

    Is there a resource that can be used to appraise Conant Ball pieces that are not designed by Russel Wright (which sounds like most of them)? I’m considering buying an end table/nightstand, and want to know if it’s been valued properly. Thank you!

    • Greg Greg says:

      Hmmm, not sure about that, John. I would look for comparable sales on eBay, that should be a pretty good up-to-the-minute gauge of what things are going for.

    • William Straus says:

      Greg, it has been a bit since you asked your question but I hope it is helpful to you or future people with the same question. I believe you mean properly attributed. Appraising usually applies to applying a value, and that relates to things like fair market value, estate value, etc. If one wants to know what the Modernmates line looks like, there are catalog/ads on the line that are available. Ann Kerr in her book on Russel Wright even has some ads. If one want to put a value on what a piece is worth, one means to find comparable sales values, commonly called comps, and to do that you need to look auction sales, Ebay sales, sales in stores by dealers, etc. I hope this makes things a bit clearer.

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