The first time I met Russel Wright's Sterling China ashtray, I was in Stillwater, Minnesota, in an antique shop on Main Street that no longer exists. It was a terrific shop -- three floors of everything from Carol Eppel's gorgeous arts & crafts furniture to "country" antiques, vintage kitsch to modern dishware.
Up on the third floor was a wire shelf that held a variety of plates, cups, and saucers. I passed that rack on previous visits, but rarely looked closely. That day, though, a peculiar yellow shape caught my eye. It stopped me in my tracks. What, I thought, is that? It drew me toward it like I was an iron filing and it was a supermagnet. I picked it up and held it to the light. Its form demanded to be touched and understood. Looking like a 3-D version of a Georgia O'Keefe lily pad, the piece was tactile and sensual, and the smooth yellow glaze was lovely in the light that streamed in from the window to my left. I didn't understand what it was. What was it for? Why did the rim undulate like that? What was that alarmingly suggestive groove all about?
Marked "Sterling China Russel Wright" underneath, I was surprised to see Wright's name. This was early in my collecting, before I had Ann Kerr's book. I really only knew of American Modern and Casual China at that time. It was marked $55. I put it back. $55 was a lot for a weird little dish that I didn't understand. But oh, how that shape had insinuated itself into my brain.
Years later, I read Kerr's book, and the instant I saw a picture of the piece, I regretted ever putting that dish back down. I should have bought it. $55 was a bargain, now that I understood the design! It was a restaurant ware ashtray. The undulating rim was where you would rest your cigarette. The groove was for a matchbook!
And even more functional than that, it was part of Wright's clever design solution to the problem of how restaurant ware often needed to be stacked. The groove actually helps multiple ashtrays stack neatly:
The design was brilliant. I immediately launched a quest to get one in every color. And the colors! Straw - a vibrant, sunshiny yellow; cedar - a mottled rusty brown; ivy - a deep, blue-tinged green; and suede, a subtle, sexy grey. It almost makes you sad that smoking has gone out of style.
I have heard of other collectors who have repurposed the ashtray. They lay chopsticks across the rim and use the dish for soy sauce when serving sushi. I prefer a use more closely aligned with its original function: as an underplate for a pillar candle. You can still keep matches tucked in the groove.