The Buyable Past

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Aluminum ore, prevalent in the earth’scrust from time immemorial, wasn’t transformed into metal until the 1800s. The initial cost of the process was exorbitant, and by the third quarter of the century it remained high enough to make aluminum as expensive as silver. Both metals were then considered precious, and aluminum was used in the King of Denmark’s crown as well as in the facing of the Washington Monument. After the American chemist Charles Martin Hall developed a less expensive way of producing it, aluminum’s price dropped considerably, and by 1930 its modest cost and a fashionable machine-age aesthetic combined to make it a logical material for household objects. A fledgling industrial designer named Russel Wright was quick to adapt it to the purpose.

Wright’s designs for mass-produced spun aluminum table accessories were among his earliest and, as is pointed out in the introduction to Russel Wright: Creating American Lifestyle , “were perfectly timed to appeal to the more informal taste of the urban upper middle class.” Wright had just veered from a theatrical career path that could have made him a leading set designer, and as he might have done onstage, he contrived complete environments for the home and elsewhere.

By mid-century Wright’s ceramic tableware was ubiquitous in middle-class American households, but his aluminum objects are harder to find. Nevertheless, an Internet search turned up some tumblers ($65 each), a spherical bun warmer with wood trim ($65), a pair of curvaceous salt and pepper shakers ($375), and a punch set with a spherical bowl and eight matching cups, all trimmed with wooden knobs ($1,300). These things by no means exhaust Wright’s aluminum repertory, which included accouterments ranging from flatware to lamps.— David Lander