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”!

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