In the decades after the second world war, millions of Americans unknowingly allowed a communist into their homes in the shape of innocent housewares. How? Through the designs of Freda Diamond (American, 1905-1998), industrial designer and tastemaker with almost unmatched influence in the post-war American home. Diamond’s greatest success was her work with Libbey Glass, designing almost 80 glassware patterns between 1946 and her retirement in 1988. Despite her influential and prolific career, only in the past twenty years has her legacy in the history of design begun to be cemented. But one question that has yet to be asked is whether Diamond’s political and social beliefs influenced her body of work.
Diamond was born in New York City in 1905 to Russian Jewish immigrants. After her father departed when she was only three-years-old, Diamond was raised solely by her mother Ida, a costume designer and anarchist. Ida soon began a relationship with Moe Goldman, brother of prominent anarchist political activist and thinker Emma Goldman. Moe became a surrogate father to Diamond, and Emma a lifelong friend. Diamond studied decorative design at the Women’s Art School at Cooper Union and soon after worked for the high-end interior design firm William Baumgarten & Co. Designing for New York’s ultra-elite proved unfulfilling, so Diamond worked at the mid-market department store Stern Brothers for six years before starting her own design consulting business in 1930.
The Libbey Glass Surveys
In the first half of the 1940s, the production of Libbey Glass was directed toward the war effort. The company stopped production of consumer glassware and made instead glass bulbs and tubes needed by the military, as well as drinking vessels for military mess halls. During this time, the company formed a team to conceptualize what Libbey should be post-war.
Libbey hired Diamond and fellow designer and homeware expert, Virginia Hamill (American, 1898-1980), to consult on the marketing and product development of retail goods for this project. To determine what would be most successful with consumers, the two embarked on a large-scale, cross-country survey. They visited over 80 retailers and mail-order businesses in 25 cities, and surveyed retail clients and consumers on styles, prices, packaging, and retail merchandising. This method of market research was groundbreaking. It was an early example not only of “boots on the ground” research but also of the recognition that women directed household purchases.
Diamond and Hamill learned much from this exhaustive survey. An overarching trend they observed was a movement toward a more casual, less fussy lifestyle. Women weren’t interested in expensive hand-made glass that was brought out of the china cabinet for special occasions and formal entertaining. They wanted affordable, durable, and “livable” glassware that could be used every day and for informal entertaining. Diamond and Hamill advised Libbey to focus on consumer glassware that could be made with automated processes and in mass quantities. In other words, pieces that could be made cheaply and be readily available. The designers also favored multi-use glasses, reducing the number of pieces in a complete place setting. For example, the Stardust pattern included stemware that was recommended for both parfaits or juice, sherbet or champagne, or wine or cocktails.
Diamond and Hamill also learned from the study that consumers were not willing to give up tradition so easily. At a time when designers, artists, and architects alike were increasingly abandoning the past, Diamond did not. To give buyers what they wanted and generate strong sales, Diamond created products that merged what she called “the best features…of the traditional and modern.” The new range of products offered options to satisfy consumers who preferred traditional styles, modern styles, or somewhere in between. More traditional buyers may prefer Diamond Cut or Currier and Ives to remind them of their grandmother’s cut crystal and the wholesome scenes of Americana that hung on her walls. The same tumblers that featured the Currier and Ives scenes came in many other silkscreen patterns, as well as completely undecorated to please more modern tastes.
This technique of mixing sleek glass shapes with nostalgic or playful silkscreen decorations was one of the ways Diamond mixed modern and traditional design elements. Diamond’s designs were hugely popular. Her Golden Foliage pattern sold over 30 million pieces during its production run between 1951 and 1968.
The duo also introduced the concept of the Hostess Set. From the data they gathered from their massive survey, Diamond concluded that the most tempting way to sell Libbey glassware was in sets, usually 8 pieces, that came in handsome cardboard boxes. This encouraged women to buy many pieces at once, and the boxes made for an attractive display in the store, easy gift-giving, and storage at home. The concept proved very successful for Libbey.
Designs for All
In the decade after the conclusion of WWII, America saw a heightened fear of Communism, known as the Second Red Scare. At this same time, Freda Diamond was vice-chairman of the Committee of Women of the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, as well as friends with several notable communists and social activists. It is very likely she herself was a communist. A common theme in Diamond’s work was its accessibility, both in style and price, and popularity across class lines. This led me to wonder whether her political and social beliefs influenced her designs or the contracts that she chose to accept.
Diamond’s work for Libbey was an equalizer. At as low as 15 cents for a tumbler (about $1.50 today), anyone could be an owner of Diamond’s designs. And with designs that pleased all tastes, people from all social classes wanted to be an owner of Libbey glassware. Accessible design is a small step toward carrying out the communist ideals of fair distribution of goods, and the elimination of the differences between the proletariat (working class) and the bourgeoisie (economic ruling class).
Diamond’s design work outside of Libbey was equally accessible. A 1954 article in Life Magazine named her the “designer for everyone” and pictured Diamond sitting among her 24 latest products. A price list in the photo’s caption shows that the most expensive product was a large shelf and room divider, which cost $40 (about $390 today). The small objects (wastebasket, address book, desk accessories, etc.) cost only a few dollars. A list of clients from 1944-1966 in the archives of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History shows that Diamond designed a long list of affordable products. Clients included Magnolia Products, General Electric, Sears & Roebuck, and Yale & Towne, for which she designed, respectively, toilet seat covers, a vacuum cleaner, kitchen canisters, and doorknobs.
Diamond began her career designing luxurious interiors for New York’s most wealthy, including even a doghouse for heiress Barbara Hutton’s pet. She made the choice to design objects that were available to the masses but wanted by all. Her undecorated Libbey glassware was even selected by the design elite to be included in the Museum of Modern Art’s 1950 and 1952 Good Design exhibitions. A press release announcing the 1950 exhibition stated that it featured “More than 250 items ranging from a 15-cent glass to a $500 sofa” that were “…intended for present-day life, in regard to usefulness, to production methods and materials and to the progressive taste of the day.” Diamond’s tumblers were the least expensive product in the show at only 15 cents. Although her contemporaries, design duo Charles and Ray Eames, coined the phrase “The best for the most for the least,” Diamond was arguably more successful at fulfilling this tenet. Perhaps Diamond’s political beliefs influenced the clients she chose to work with and the products she designed, or she simply had an unwavering commitment to creating affordable, well-designed products that pleased the masses.
For more about Freda Diamond:
- American Aspects of Assassination of Leon Trotsky: Hearings Before the Committee on Un-American Activities House of Representatives Eighty-First Congress Second Session: July 26, August 30, October 18 and 19, and December 4, 1950. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1951: 3354-3360. https://www.google.com/books/edition/American_Aspects_of_Assassination_of_Leo/czIWAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
- Boram-Hays, Carol. Bringing Modernism Home: Ohio Decorative Arts, 1890-1960. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.
- Diamond, Freda. The Story of Glass. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1953.
- Howard, Ella, and Eric Setliff. “In a Man’s World: Women Industrial Designers.” In Women Designers in the USA, 1900-2000: Diversity and Difference, edited by Pat Kirkham, 269-290. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000.
- Luce, Henry Robinson. “Designer for Everybody.” Life Magazine (April 5, 1954): 69-70.
- Museum of Modern Art. “First Showing of Good Design Exhibition in New York.” 1950. https://assets.moma.org/documents/moma_press-release_325754.pdf?_ga=2.38194849.328217134.1604417208-576975168.1602615964
- Taragin, Davira S. “Breaking Patterns: Libbey Glass in the Twentieth Century.” In The Alliance of Art and Industry: Toledo Designs for a Modern America. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2002: 153-175.
- Zollweg, Robert. 200 Years of Glass: A History of Libbey Glass. Toledo: University of Toledo Press, 2019.
This blog is part of a bi-weekly series called Women in Glasshouses; a discovery and celebration of the many ways that women have contributed to the glass industry in the 100 years since the ratification of the 19th amendment. To read the previous entry on the unionization of female factory workers, please click here. This blog post is the last in the series and will be followed by a summary of the series by Regan Brumagen, manager of public services at The Rakow Research Library.