Iroquois China Company
Jun 16, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I’m so thankful to be able to host friends and family again. I’ve been dusting off serving platters and rediscovering recipes that have laid dormant for the past 15 months. Even my pups are getting back into entertaining mode, pulling out all their favorite party tricks to wow our guests. As I was grabbing one of my favorite dishes from the “getting ready for guests top shelf” of my kitchen cabinet, I decided it would make the perfect topic for this week’s feature. This mid-century beauty was my Grandma Helen’s dish. Seeing it again brings forth so many happy memories of time spent with grandma. I know if she was here today she would be pulling up a chair, ready to tell stories and eat something yummy. So in honor of grandmas everywhere, let’s discover a bit more about the Iroquois China Company…
This brand was founded in the early 1900s in central New York state by two enterprising businessmen: J. Brewster Gere of Syracuse and Lemont Stillwell of Solvay. Iroquois’ facilities were on the former site of Syracuse China Company. Where the Syracuse China Company failed, Iroquois flourished. Within five years of opening the industry took note stating that china made in this part of New York was “found on the tables of a large proportion of the best hotels in the country.” You might say excellence and innovation was in the water. Even the small town of Solvay, New York became the epicenter of advancements in chemistry. Indeed, the entire central state area was home to many burgeoning enterprises. The Industrial Revolution held New York in its grasp and the Iroquois China Company rose to the occasion.
By 1930 the company was producing 4.5 million pieces annually. Nearly every hotel or restaurant from coast-to-coast served their fare on Iroquois plates. Their reputation for high quality extended beyond our borders, making the company one of the first international success stories. Perhaps the biggest feather in their cap was an order to the tune of 500,000 pieces from the United States Government. Did President Hoover or Roosevelt eat their dinner on Iroquois China? I can’t be certain, but I really want to believe it!
Following WWII tastes changed as the frenzy of consumerism dictated design trends. Iroquois pivoted their model, inviting top designers as partners. Big names like Russel Wright contributed to the Iroquois catalog with his Casual collection. But the collaboration with Ben Seibel was the most fruitful, resulting in the iconic Blue Vineyard, Harvest Time & Lazy Daisy series. Like Wright, Seibel believed in a sculptural approach to design. Born in New Jersey, trained at Columbia University and the Pratt Institute, his inspiration came from Japanese design. Seibel is a name I wasn’t familiar with before researching this article, but after learning more about his life and work I place him in the pantheon of mid-century greats.
Design was in Seibel’s DNA. His mom operated a boutique shop in Greenwich Village, selling items that were exclusively her own designs. Talk about a gutsy move for a 1920s gal – to raise a family by being an entrepreneur and a visionary. It’s easy to see he inherited his mom’s grit as we watch his life unfold. Seibel’s first artistic expressions were in the realm of music (learning to play the flute and clarinet), later as a student he studied painting and sculpture before settling on an architectural degree. WWII forced an end to his college tenure and for nearly four years he spent all his time peering at the world from above. Following his service in the Air Force, Seibel returned home but not to Columbia. He decided his true passion lied within industrial design. Yet after a few courses at Pratt, Seibel (like his mother before him) was eager to test his mettle in the real world. He founded his studio and would never return to academia to finish either of his degrees.
Seibel quickly found success, being commissioned by a struggling Roseville Pottery to design a way to save their bottom line. While his efforts proved popular, they weren’t enough to tip the scales for Roseville. However, the word was now out: Seibel was the next big name in tableware design. Clients started flooding his studio with requests, including Iroquois. His work for Iroquois allowed him to really bring together his design disciplines. In all of his collections it’s easy to see his mastery with sculptural and organic shapes. It’s hard to describe, but just holding his pieces make you feel happy. The weight is balanced and the texture is smooth. Every detail is considered but not overwrought. In his collections the balanced use of white space with pops of color is a nod to Japanese influences. Even the logo he designed pulls the entire artistic concept together. His pieces, like his colleague Wright, are holistic.
For anyone interested in collecting fun and functional mid-century tableware Iroquois is a great choice. While Wright’s collection is more coveted (mostly due to rarity), I would say from personal experience Seibel’s pieces provide even more joy for your buck! As you find Iroquois pieces in the wild, here are a few things to keep in mind: pieces will be marked clearly (here’s a collection of markings for reference), while the company closed in 1969 collections were still sold and marketed into the mid 1970s, and all pieces were made in Syracuse, NY. From the ashes of a failed business venture to the halls of the White House and beyond – the Iroquois China Company brought exceptional design to the masses. Good luck on your thrifting adventures dear reader and may you take a little of Ben Seibel’s boldness with you as you face the week ahead!