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    Auction Finds

    Belle Kogan – a female first designer

    I didn’t see much that moved me on the box-lots table in the back room of one of my favorite auction houses recently. Not until I spotted a light beige vase interspersed among some small junk on one tray.

    I turned the vase over, looking for the maker and saw the words “Red Wing.” I recognized the name, although I didn’t know much about this manufacturer. It didn’t matter, though, because the vase itself was lovely.  

    It had a smooth creamy glaze, very clean and simple lines, and the top left extended into a curlique. I couldn’t find a nick, chip or scratch on it. Inside, though, was the remnant of a flower-shop foam block with holes left by the stems of artificial flowers.

    I watched and waited for the auctioneer to finally get to the table with the tray. The auctioneer started the bidding at his usual $20, then $10, then $5, then $2 and then $1. I got the tray for a buck.

    At home, I found the website for Red Wing and learned more about the history of the company. The site seemed to be focused more on the art pottery and stoneware the company was producing now, not on the creations from decades ago.

    Then I tried looking for the vase based on the model number on the bottom – B1418A – and found a question regarding it on the Red Wing Collectors Society website. It seemed that my piece was actually a nesting vase that sat in a nook on the front of a larger vase #B1418. The pair was valued at $50-$55.

    Curious about what the large vase looked like, I searched for it and came across the name of the designer: Belle Kogan. She created the design for Red Wing in 1952. Intrigued, I Googled her name and then I was hooked. That’s what I love about auctions; you never know whom you’ll be introduced to.

    Kogan had a fascinating story: She was among the first women industrial designers in the country, and worked her trade at a time when a woman’s job was inside the home. In a 1939 interview with the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper (and quoted in wikipedia), Kogan, a white woman, recounted an incident showing what she was up against:

    “(a) large company that manufactured large electrical appliances . . . wrote in answer to a letter of mine that I should come out to see them on my next trip to Ohio,” she said. “They ignored the fact that my name was ‘Belle’ and addressed their letter to Mr. Bell Kogan. When I arrived, the shock was unbelievable: the engineers decided they couldn’t work with a woman. So I collected my fee of $200 plus expenses and left.”

    How amazingly dumb.

    Kogan was born in Russia in 1902, and her family moved to Allentown, PA, in 1906. She got a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, but chose instead to go to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She opened her own firm in New York in 1932 (or 1931, depending on what you read online) and created works for a number of companies.

    She was one of the first to experiment with plastics, and made Bakelite jewelry and melamine dinnerware. For Zippo, she designed cigarette lighters – which are said to be very rare – that were sold around 1938 and 1939. She also designed silver pieces for such companies as Reed & Barton. She also designed a novelty clock.

    In 1938, Red Wing Potteries commissioned her to design shapes for 100 new vases, which became known as the “Belle Kogan 100.”  The pottery-maker had been around since the mid-1860s, founded by German immigrants in Red Wing, MN, near the Mississippi River. It mostly made salt-glazed stoneware pottery – crocks, jugs and bowls – for use in the home, but branched out into art pottery and more in the 1930s. Its stoneware and art pottery are considered very collectible.

    Kogan worked with the company until the 1960s, creating lines of dinnerware, kitchen ware, cookie jars, vases, window boxes and bowls. The Smithsonian Institution has papers, sketchbooks, photographs and other documents from1920 to 1986 that she donated. She died in 2000.

    As for my vase, I wasn’t able to find one that looked exactly like it, which is unfortunate because I’d love to see what color combination was used with it. You can see some of Kogan’s other designs on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society. The site Wing Tips has a list of her Red Wing designs.

    It was good meeting you, Belle Kogan.

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