Three's Company: Brastoff, Bellaire, And Adams

Smack Dab In The Middle: Design Trends Of The Mid-20th Century

January 18, 2019

California’s a big state, but when it came to mid-20th century ceramics, the paths of many West Coast designers crossed more than once. “Kaye of Hollywood” started out as a decorator for Hedi Schoop. Hedi herself, after her own factory burned down, moved on to design housewares for “The California Cleminsons.” But, perhaps most fascinating of all are the entwined careers of three of the era’s most popular ceramists: Sascha Brastoff, Marc Bellaire, and Matthew Adams.
Brastoff came first, and remains the best-known, thanks to an unrelenting enthusiasm for self-promotion. Billed in his ads as “the modern Cellini,” Brastoff was indeed an extraordinary design talent, churning out giftware buyers couldn’t get enough of, in ceramic as well as metal, terra cotta, resin, and fabric.
Beginning life as the less-dramatically named Samuel Brostofsky, Brastoff reinvented himself during World War II, appearing in the military revue “Winged Victory.” After the war, he supported ceramic experimentation with a “day job” as a costume designer at 20th Century Fox. His imaginative ceramics caught the attention of investor Winthrop Rockefeller, who bankrolled a gigantic Brastoff studio in Los Angeles. There, Brastoff’s prodigious output included everything from ashtrays and candelabras to dinnerware and sculpture. All featured the Brastoff signature, as well as the signature Brastoff style: a modernistic, yet approachable blend of theatricality and whimsy. Stars such as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joan Crawford flocked to the Brastoff studio, snatching up his latest releases. Naturally, a talented staff was required to keep up with the demand. Among the most talented: one Donald Fleischman, better known as Marc Bellaire.
Bellaire’s own design instincts were less traditional than Brastoff’s, which led him, in the early 1950s, to leave and strike out on his own. While the curved shapes of his ceramics (boomerang ashtrays, covered “kidney” boxes, and the like) and a bold use of color tread the same path as Brastoff, Bellaire’s illustrative designs firmly embrace the futuristic trends of the 1950s. Faceless, elongated figures in billowing costumes cavort on huge ashtrays, platters, and pitchers, appropriate images for the dawn of the space age. And, like Brastoff, Bellaire helped his career along with a generous helping of self-promotion: his booklets on “ceramic decorating for amateurs” kept the Bellaire name before the American public (and, not so coincidentally, kept sales hopping).
Unlike Bellaire and Brastoff, Matthew Adams early on found a single design theme and stuck with it: Alaskana. Although the shapes of his vases, bowls, trays, and the like favor the same curving lines as his colleagues, you won’t find any Brastoff “Star Steeds” or Bellaire “Jungle Dancers” on an Adams piece. You will, however, find a plethora of Eskimos, polar bears, walruses, log cabins, snowy landscapes, and other staples of the far north. Although more realistically depicted than the figural renditions created by Brastoff and Bellaire, there’s still a healthy dose of the idyllic in Adams’ tributes to the final frontier.
Adams began his Alaskan adventures in the mid-1950s, while employed by Brastoff. The studio had received a contract to produce a series of ceramics with Alaska-related images for sale as souvenirs at a Juneau trading post. Brastoff gave the assignment to Adams, confident in his ability to fuse the rustic images, a first for the designer’s line, with the more modern “Brastoff style.” When Adams eventually left Brastoff’s employ and opened his own studio, the all-Alaska work he produced, signed “Matthew Adams,” was almost indistinguishable in style from the designs he had earlier created for Brastoff.
Brastoff, Bellaire, and Adams: a trio of talents whose careers overlapped and whose basic design themes sprang from common ground. Those themes, however, developed in diverse and equally exciting ways. Thanks to their creative energies, mid-20th century ceramics embarked on new artistic paths. And, thanks to their talents for self-promotion (those impossible-to-miss signatures on almost every work), buyers always knew exactly what they were getting. No second-guessing, then or now!
Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann.
All photos by Donald-Brian Johnson.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to

Shawn Surmick

Shawn Surmick

Shawn Surmick has been an avid collector since the age of 12. He started his first eBay business known as electrogames at the age of 19 that catered to vintage video game collectors and enthusiasts. He currently resides in his hometown of Boyertown, Pa., and is a passionate collector of antiques and collectibles. His articles focus on various topics affecting the marketplace.


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