Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sascha Brastoff, or the story behind an ashtray

One Friday morning, I go to an estate sale in a promising neighborhood, all high hopes and great expectations (Jewish doctor, 1950s subdivision of 5-to-10 acre lots), and everything is crap. Hate that. Finally, after fruitless poking through all these sad rooms, an ashtray catches my eye and I pick it up despite myself. I haven't smoked in more than eight years, since finding out I was pregnant the first time, and ashtrays, no matter how cute, are just unhelpful reminders of a past life that's very much past. I turn it over and find that it's "marked." If I've learned anything from my childhood on the antique show circuit, it's that a mark is always better than no mark (unless that mark is Made in China). A mark indicates a collectible, and a collectible is always special even if it's not exactly to your taste (you can alway sell it!).

So this ashtray is marked Sascha Brastoff California, which doesn't mean anything to me but I like the design and I'm otherwise empty-handed so I buy it for four bucks. I mean, ashtrays are excellent receptacles for coins, paper clips, hair bands and acorns, right? As soon as I'm back at my post (a.k.a., the laptop on the kitchen counter), I google this Brastoff fellow and what an awesome character he turns out to be: A scholarship student at the Cleveland Institute of Art back in the 1930s, he also danced with the Cleveland Ballet. He eventually moves to NYC, where he's a sculptor and a window-dresser at Macy's. In 1942, he enlists in the Air Force and ends up designing costumes and scenery for the USO. He also invents a character called GI Carmen Miranda and becomes very popular with the troops—cut to he ends up doing his drag act in 1944 movie Winged Victory, directed by George Cukor and starring none other than the real Carmen Miranda. He lands a contract with 20th Century Fox as a costume designer; he eventually gets out of his contract so he can start his own ceramics biz in L.A. with the backing of Winthorpe Rockefeller. Business takes off and he's a bit of a society darling; by the early ’50s he has his own factory and counts the likes of Joan Crawford and Zsa Zsa Gabor among his clients.

Seems like a he was a bit of a Jonathan Adler type (or rather Jonathan Adler is a Sascha Brastoff type)—if Sascha had lived to see the age of reality of TV (he died in 1993), he'd probably be a judge on one of those design contest shows uttering memorable catchphrases like "See ya later, decorator!" His career definitely had highs and lows (the carousel he did with the Franklin Mint is apparently very collectible but...yikes) but if you google images for him you will be treated to a parade of midcentury eye candy. Read more about him on this lady's blog.

Anyway, the point is that sometimes you learn a lot when you buy an ashtray.

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