Everything You Thought was Wright is Wrong.

On New Year’s Eve as I traveled to a party (read: eat Chinese food and watch The Big Lebowski) I, of course, stopped off at a thrift store. I had a coupon that expired January 1 and I wasn’t about to let it expire. During my initial sweep of the store I didn’t find much other than a couple coats and some smalls, but I decided to go back and check out a fairly simple blonde writing desk that I had passed over.

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Initially I dismissed it from a distance as a common student desk, possibly even institutional. But on closer inspection the design and detailing of this solid birch desk seemed a little finer than a campus housing fixture. Could this be a Russel Wright designed piece for Conant Ball?

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A quick check in the drawer and I had my answer. Conant Ball made nice pieces and I thought there was a pretty good chance this was designed by the famed Russel Wright, based on what I had encountered so far in the mid-century modern zeitgeist. Sold!

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Excited with my find, I decided to look it up and see what information I could dig up. Googling “Russel Wright Conant Ball desk” quickly yielded images of this very desk. Score! I also discovered that this was part of a line called Modernmates designed in 1947. That bit of information changed things. Despite rampant attribution of this line to Russel Wright, original Conant Ball catalogs reveal that all pieces in the Modernmates collection were designed by Leslie Diamond. In fact, the only documented pieces Wright ever designed for Conant Ball belonged to the much older American Modern collection (bearing the same name as his popular ceramics line) introduced in the mid 1930s.

Wright? Wrong. Leslie Diamond. Image via 1st Dibs

Wright? Wrong. Leslie Diamond. Image via 1st Dibs

Case in point, the chairs above are almost always attributed to Wright. In fact, these are currently listed on 1st Dibs as Wright pieces. As it turns out, they also belong to the Modernmates collection and were designed by, you guessed it, Leslie Diamond. As the publication below suggests, a lot of documentation exists to dispel any notions that these are Wright pieces.

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So, what do the real Wright pieces look like?

The real Wrights.

The real Wrights.

A little chunkier. The American Modern line came out around 1935 and while very modern for its time, it looks clunkier and more art deco or streamline moderne than the Modernmates pieces designed postwar—nearly a decade later.

So, why does such obvious misattribution proliferate? In this case it’s pretty easy to figure out. Someone wanted to attach a famous designer to a piece he didn’t design to increase its market value. In the world of mass produced modern furniture, original documentation can be next to non-existent so when people scour the internet to find information about their finds, they’ll grasp at any straw they can find. That misinformation spreads like wildfire and before you know it everyone believes that Wright designed every piece of Conant Ball furniture. In fact there’s at least one documented instance of a Wright historian mislabeling pieces. Bad information is like a noxious weed, once its seeds are blowing in the wind it’s next to impossible to contain it.

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Am I less excited about my piece now that I know it wasn’t the brainchild of a famous designer? Not really. It’s still a fantastic example from the early days of mid-century modern design. The form is pure, the lines are clean and the quality is high. I don’t know what else you could want? My favorite feature of the whole desk is what made me take a second look and ultimately convinced me to buy it in the first place—that cleverly disguised pencil drawer. It doesn’t matter who designed it because, as a design element, that’s solid. At the end of the day the integrity of the design is all that should matter. Wright has nothing on Diamond in my book.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted February 11, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Would you mind telling me what you paid for it? Or if you have any idea how much it’s worth? I saw one in my local Craigslist for $80 and I probably will get it no matter what, but it would be fun to know if that’s a deal. It’s hard to find any info about this desk!

  2. Christine Schilling
    Posted January 17, 2017 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Well,my story is a bit like yours, but in reverse – I was grieving that I had just sold two Plycraft “Bernardo” chairs ( t a good profit, but I really loved them. I needed to replace, them so went to the neighborhood thrift store – no chairs of any note, but I saw, on my third pass through the place, this chunky, squat, boxy, thick looking desk – kind of weird for around here in the Ozarks. Really bad streaky scruffy worn stain job – couldn’t see what kind of wood it was. ….but something about it cried out for a closer look – I saw a bit of splitting on the thick plank of wood, and tiny splits at the end grain of the side planks. saw dovetails drawers (good sign) Bottom right drawer is Not a drawer but is two pull-out trays, much lighter (read: unstained untainted wood. Now, I can see it’s maple).
    Then, inside the upper left hand drawer I found the “makers mark”: Its a Russell Wright for Conant Ball – American Modern,
    All the right marks. lines, wood …. but it’s got a butt-ugly stain job, is not very elegant to my eye and has some cracking/splitting on the left side, low down.
    I go home, look it up – it is a Russell White Vanity, not a desk, and it has no bench / stool . I see the exact same one, in excellent condition, for sale on Chairish site for $299.
    I can buy this piece for $20. Should I? … but then what? put hours of labor into it and try to re-sell it … but to who? It’d cos t a fortune to ship it ‘cus I’m out here in the Ozarks, so it is unlikely someone will come to pick it up …
    What do you think??
    My Dilemma: Should I buy this piece?
    My rule usually is is : Do I Love it? Will I use it? Is it beautiful? (Answers: No, No ,and No)
    But here is an equally Important new Question: Can I make money on it??
    can you help me decide, Please??

    • Austin
      Posted January 17, 2017 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Hi Christine! Well, I can’t really tell you what to do here, you’ll have to go with your gut and your market. I can tell you Russel Wright was an important designer and his American Modern line were significant pieces of early popular modern design. That being said, vanities aren’t usually popular with buyers regardless of their pedigree (unless of course it’s something truly spectacular). Vanities were a staple in American bedroom suites since at least the 1920s and their origins go back in to antiquity, but they fell out of favor in the 1960s when larger bathrooms with built-in cabinetry became more common—giving ladies room for all their necessities without eating up real estate in the boudoir. Since their appeal today is more novelty than practicality, they’re often hard to re-home (and harder to make bank on). But I’m sure if you want to spend the time to restore a classic bit of modernism, the vintage gods will smile kindly upon you.

      • Christine Schilling
        Posted January 17, 2017 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

        The Vintage gods have been hovering over me since I had a conscience- I have a very hard time saying “No” to anything which has integrity, even if I do not “love” it … hence my over-full garage and Art studio – but your comments about the current attitude about vanities reinforce my gut feeling that I would have a hard tine “re-homing” the piece …. but maybe, just maybe, I could re-purpose it. Would it be heresy to use the cool drawers and their chunky blocky handles in a whole new way ? like for cool shadow box shelving?
        For $20 bucks it’s almost worth it for the cool maple wood alone …. hmmm I will sleep on it.
        Thank you for your comments!
        Christine

  3. Dennis Rogers
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

    Hi Austin,
    I have a full Modern Mates dining room set and your assertion is partly correct. You have done an excellent job of digging up an old ad that proves that these pieces weren’t designed by Russell Wright. However, there’s more to the story. In fact, pieces of Modern Mates have turned up with the American Modern mark on them (I’ve seen them), which adds to the confusion. Obviously, what happened is the person that produced the piece of furniture grabbed the wrong stamp or didn’t have the right one available so they used the American Modern stamp to move production along (and yes, both lines were produced for a short time, side by side). Furthermore, there was misattribution of the designer in the stores at the time. I purchased the dining set from the original owners who had a booth in an antiques mall. We questioned them thoroughly about what they knew about the pieces. They labeled them as having been designed by Russell Wright because that’s what the department store they bought them from in 1958 in Minneapolis advertised them as. I asked if they knew anything about Russell Wright and they didn’t know anything about him other than that Dayton’s Department Store (where they bought the pieces new) advertised them on the floor as having been designed by Russell Wright.

  4. Rebecca Hilliard
    Posted June 27, 2017 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

    Austin, the designer of your desk might be Paul McCobb. I have a Conant Ball coffee table with similar lines that my parents bought in mid 50s. They told me the designer is Paul McCobb.

  5. Roma Olberding
    Posted March 25, 2018 at 9:28 am | Permalink

    Purchased two matching Conant Ball end tables. They are in outstanding condition. They have the Conant Ball “stamp”, but no idea who may have designed them or when they were designed. Not sure how to attach a photo to show you?? The only markings other than that stamp are 1422 and E32. Happy to send photos if you tell me how. Thanks for your time.

    Roma

  6. Sarah stone
    Posted April 28, 2018 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    This desk, with the hidden pencil drawer, was one of many original designs by my grandfather. James Arthur Stewart. His father sold all of his furniture designs to conant ball while he was away at college. LONG story short, leslie diamond gets the plans from conant ball and is asked to design a line of furniture based on my grandfather’s designs. My grandfather was unaware of the transaction until he stepped into dayton’s furniture store years later to purchase items for his new home in bloomington, Mn. Where he and his young family had just relocated. He shared his find with his father, who was a well respected cabinet maker in stockbridge Massachusetts, just a short drive away from conant ball’s headquarters (Where they were located back when my grandfather was in high school and college). His father confessed to the transaction and my grandfather feeling betrayed and angry never spoke to his father again. Of course there are more details but not crucial to the outcome.

  7. LaRue
    Posted July 19, 2018 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    I have a 4 piece Modernmates set that I thought was Wright, now I’m confused. 30 inches tall, corner with mesh door, open book/display case and 2 with 2 doors LP storage. Anyone know how many were made and by whom?
    Wonderful condition, maple. I’m in Sacramento, thanks.

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