Rarely do the flea market gods dangle success with such promise, only to yank it away, as they did to me one recent weekend at Alemany. By not counting my chickens, I've generally innoculated myself against the emotional highs and lows that haunt the intrepid investigator who seeks his fortune among the soiled piles and broken dreams of this recycled, second-hand world. This time, unfortunately, I broke my own rule.
The egg in question is a white glazed ceramic pitcher or tea pot designed around 1937 by Paul Schreckengost for the Gem Clay Forming Company in Cleveland. Paul Schreckengost is the brother of Viktor Schreckengost, one of the most celebrated American industrial designers of the mid-20th century. Viktor made ceramics, the first banana-seat bicycle, and lots of other amazing things. Paul is largely remembered for this art deco masterpiece, which he supposedly made as a Christmas present for the employees of Gem Clay.
I grew up hating design. My parents were big folk art and antiques collectors, and one of the ways they tried to keep their marriage from imploding—which it eventually did anyway—was to distract themselves on Sunday afternoons by rearranging their collection like deck chairs on the Titanic. I was commandeered to do the lifting and my discomfort during this process contributed, I'm sure, to my disdain for the world of objects as a sullied version of the higher and more beautiful world of ideas that I began to explore as a teenager.
Art Deco's hyper-masculinity, emphasis on geometry, and reverence for technology, which I discovered in my late 20s, was the Trojan Horse that brought me back down to the earthly world of things and design. I've since moved on to more conceptual and political kinds of objects, but I'll always have a soft spot for the Tom Swift designs from the 1930s and 40s, eerily the time of my parent's youth.
When I saw the outline of the bulbous, streamlined pitcher on the folding table against the rising dawn that day I made for it quick-like. Usually objects that advertise their art deco genes this broadly are revival objects from the '70s and '80s. But as the sun rose I could sense the age in the faint black veins that had begun to appear beneath the pitcher's white skin. As in some old movie illustration of time travel, the calendar pages began to flutter in reverse until I was back in that land of kitchen aprons, picket fences, brimmed hats and color-saturated magazines.
At $30 it was a no-brainer. When I got back to my car, I could just make out the company's name impressed underneath. This is where it got ugly. iphone brought me to a website that identified Schreckengost's authorship: Bing! iphone brought me to the websites of important museum design collections: Bing! Bing! iphone brought me to a website that proclaimed a $15,000 auction return: Bing! Bing! Bing!
I know you're thinking that when I got home I found a hairline crack. Wrong. I scoured the pitcher for damage from its journey through time like a novice tele-transporter on Start Trek, ensuring that his body was still intact. Everything was okay. Unfortunately it turns out that Schreckengost designed a tiny chromium-plated top that matches the metallic speed lines on the pitcher's edge to sit DISCONNECTED atop the spout. A strange and utterly impractical decision by the god-like designer, given the top's tiny size and how perfect the pitcher looks single and alone. And if he had to make a top, should he not at least have designed a hinge? For how could this mouth and its cover, even though connected as intimately as two inanimate objects could be, ever stay together over time without some more profound bond? And mine were forever separated. God it hurt when that sunk in.
Oh well. Cancel the flight to Paris.