By chance I came across one of the Prismatique vases Belle Kogan designed for Red Wing Pottery (between 1962-1967) a few years ago. I needed a vase and fell in love with the design so I bought it for a reasonable price at a local antique shop. I didn’t think much about it but after coming across a somewhat similar design in another color with a different glaze I started to do some research about Red Wing Pottery. In the process I discovered that these pieces were designed by Belle Kogan, one of the pioneering female designers in America. I didn’t know anything about her but I found her fascinating and I managed to compile a small collection of her work. Recently the collector prices for her Prismatique designs have skyrocketed and it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to afford anymore but I thought I’d share a few photos of my collection.
According to the Minnesota Historical Society website: “Belle Kogan found inspiration for her Prismatique line at the dentist’s office in 1962. Struck by the faceted geometry of a tooth’s roots, she fabricated a cardboard model that later served as the basis for the line. Cast in 15 different shapes and decorated with five different glazes, Prismatique became the most popular of Kogan’s Red Wing Potteries designs.”
And finally, here’s some information about Kogan from Pat Kirkham’s book, Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference
Kogan emigrated with her parents from Russia at the age of four. From an early age, she demonstrated an interest in art and in her last year of high-school in 1920, “An unexplained inspiration on the part of my high school art teacher induced her to have me study mechanical drawing.” Kogan was the only girl in the class. She credits this early training as “one of the factors of my ability to provide my clients with exact working drawings.” After graduation, Kogan taught the first-year mechanical drawing class at school, while saving money to enter Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Forced to leave Pratt after her first semester to manage her father’s jewelry store and look after her seven siblings, for the next eight years she designed jewelry settings while attending the Art Students League in Manhattan, gaining experience in both business and design.
Kogan’s independent design career began with a fortuitous chance meeting with the head of the Quaker Silver Company in Attleboro , Massachusetts, who hired her on a freelance basis to design pewter and silver items. Quaker paid her to take a course at New York University in the summer of 1929 that “opened my eyes to the fact that design didn’t just happen. It had to be developed. I felt that it was wonderful, like a puzzle, all the parts fitted in: the business training, painting, color study, and my interest in mechanics, machinery and production problems.” Kogan’s father was eager for her to marry, but she had a different plan, “I said to my father, ‘Well, I’m going to have a career, goodbye . . . I am never going to get married and I’m never going to have children. I had a family all my life I helped raise. I helped you in business. I want a life of my own.’ ” In 1931 Kogan opened her first studio in New York City. She was one of the first industrial designers in America to experiment with plastics, and her early designs include celluloid toilet seats and clocks, a chrome plated toaster with a plastic base and Bakelite jewelry.
Kogan faced strong opposition from the field unaccustomed to women designers. In a 1939 interview she admitted that, “Manufacturers were quite antagonistic when a woman came around proposing new ideas – they didn’t think a woman knew enough about the mechanical aspects of the situation. I had to prove I had a practical mind.” In one memorable episode, “A large company that manufactured large electrical appliances wrote in answer to a letter of mine that I should come out to see them on my next trip to Ohio. They ignored the fact that my name was “Belle” and addressed their letter to a ‘Mr. Belle Kogan.’ When I arrived, the shock was unbelievable. The engineers decided they couldn’t work with a woman so I collected my fee of $200 plus expenses and left!”
Kogan also had to deal with male clients who did not respect her personal boundaries, “I found the combination of living and working in the same place was very hard when you had a male client. I had to make a law for myself: no dinners with clients, and do not see then after six o’clock. I had to battle every time I went out with somebody.”
Kogan’s firm, after several “cruelly discouraging years” in the early 1930s, grew steadily. By 1939 she had a staff of three women designers, “I believe that good design should keep the consumer happy and the manufacturer in black.” proclaimed her promotional materials. And her designs, which ranged from historicizing to modern in their aesthetic, often proved exceedingly popular with both. By the time she closed her office in 1970, Kogan had designed for a wide range of clients including Reed and Barton, Red Wing Pottery, Bausch and Lomb, Boonton Molding, Libby Glass and Dow Chemical. Throughout her career, Kogan made excellent use of publicity, speaking on television and radio, giving lectures and interviews, exhibiting her work frequently, and writing for both trade and consumer magazines on market trends, design and the role of the industrial designer. Kogan was also an active participant in emerging professional organizations. She was a founding member of the New York chapter of the American Design Institute (IDI) in 1951. In 1994 the Industrial Designers Society of America awarded her its Personal Recognition Award.