'American Da Vinci' Designed Everyday Objects Quietly From Cleveland

01/31/2008 07:48 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Viktor Schreckengost was a giant in the world of industrial design. When he died at age 101 on Saturday night, the nation lost a talent it likely could not name. Spending his entire career in the Midwest, Schreckengost opted to do the work rather than chase fame.

A Monday story about him in The Plain Dealer said he was considered the last surviving member of the founding generation of modern industrial designers -- which also included Norman Bel Geddes and Raymond Loewy. A former student noted that Schreckengost was often overlooked. However, an ambitious 100-exhibit production that marked his 100 birth year in 2006 brought his work to every state.

American adults have likely all enjoyed his work because it crossed so many boundaries: dinnerware, bicycles, lamps, trucks, flashlights, pedal cars, ceramics and so much more. For millions of Baby Boomers, the Schreckengost touch upon toys brought enjoyment to their childhoods.

You have likely handled an everyday object he designed -- or one designed by one of his almost 1,000 students from the Cleveland Institute of Arts where he established the first industrial design curriculum. He was the hired as the youngest faculty member there at age 25 and taught there full time well into his 90s.

He created beauty and believed anything could be the subject of art.

A recent biography describes him as the American Da Vinci. To Schreckengost, doing great work on a child's toy seemed of equal importance to him as creating his most famous piece, an Art Deco "Jazz Bowl" for Eleanor Roosevelt when her husband, Franklin, was governor of New York. At the time Jazz Bowl was one-of-a-kind. Later, Roosevelt ordered two additional bowls for the family mansion in Hyde Park and one for the White House.

We met in 1998 while I was researching a book about pedal cars. He was chief designer for Murray Ohio Company and there was fondly considered the Henry Ford of the sidewalk autos. Industrial design is about mass production and in the category of pedal cars, Schreckengost designed dozens of models that reached millions of children.

He believed that everyone, not just the wealthy, should enjoy good design.

"Pedal cars extended kids' area of play. They could go to the corner but not across the street," he said. While some toy companies named their miniatures after real models, Murray, his employer, did not because "what we tried to do was not look like any other car. We wanted kids to think they had a little one just like dad had."

Schreckengost's little moving car sculptures were important to him because he believed it was important to get children to understand the difference between good design and junk. "... it is as important to them as going to a museum once a year."

He designed Murray's classic Champion pedal car and top seller in 1951 and he designed the Pursuit Plane before the United States entered World War II. Schreckengost even had a major influence on the toy's name: "We did not want to emphasize war or violence. We wanted to say 'It's fast, man.'"

Years ago, Schreckengost decided to count the things he designed as he drove from his home in Cleveland Heights to the Murray Factory in Cleveland. On that single commute, there were more than 30 objects from street lights to garden furniture, from bicycles to tricycles and other toys and sculptures that he created.

He believed in "working to economy" when it came to his role in design. Beyond the product, he planned the packaging for shipping and had final approval over the instructions for putting objects together:

"Special shipping rates were available if we were able to reduce the bulk. On the little autos, we were able to reduce the size of the bulk by one-third by removing the windshield, placing the wheels in the seat area, rails and ladders (for little fire trucks) fit flat under the body. Steering wheel and shaft lay along the bottom."

He also planned freight car shipments of different toys together because at that time he railroads gave special rates if the complete car was not filled with the same size box. He saved his company (and the consumer) money by planning for a mix of pedal cars, wagons, scooters and trucks to fill a single car.

Seldom did Schreckengost keep samples of his toys. Instead, he sent them to orphanages and hospitals where children could play with them, he told me.

This man made a difference by design. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2006, the year he turned 100. He attended -- briefly putting aside the art he was still working on in Cleveland.