It is my will and desire that Lenox, Incorporated shall at all times manufacture the highest possible grades of porcelain, that the standard of excellence already attained shall ever be advanced..."
— Walter Scott Lenox
Since 1889 the vision of Walter Scott Lenox has guided the company he founded to set the highest standards for quality, artistry, and beauty. Today Lenox is among the world's oldest and most respected names in fine tableware and giftware — favored by presidents, displayed in museums, honored with awards, and enjoyed in homes across America. Come explore the story of Lenox as it grows from one man's conviction into the country's foremost maker of china, crystal and metal gifts.
Walter Scott Lenox was born in 1859 in the "Staffordshire of America": Trenton, N.J. Laced with transportation lines and located near sources of fuel and clay, the state capital became the country's leading ceramics center in the 19th century, with some 200 potteries. Little wonder young Walter was inspired to devote his life to creating porcelain that rivaled the best in the world.
Combining his talent for drawing and his fascination with clay, Lenox worked as a decorator and designer for several Trenton potteries beginning in 1875. Six years later he advanced to design director for Ott & Brewer, then Willets Manufacturing. Both firms produced a domestic version of Irish Belleek, the thin, cream-colored porcelain with a pearly glaze very much in vogue in Victorian times. Both firms eventually failed. The stage was set for Lenox to start his own business.
The Lenox Difference
Lenox's Ceramic Art Company, which opened in 1889, was different from all other potteries. It was organized as an art studio, rather than a factory, and offered one-of-a-kind artwares in lustrous ivory china, rather than a full line of ceramics. The exquisitely painted and modeled vases, pitchers, and tea sets, produced at first by just 18 employees, were met with an enthusiastic reception and carried in the most exclusive shops. By 1897 examples of Lenox's work were included in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
The fashion for art ceramics was overtaken by another trend in the early 20th century: fine home dining, often in a separate dining room. Lenox began offering custom-designed and elaborately decorated service plates to his discriminating clientele around 1902, despite the domination of European china. The plates, painted by such acclaimed artists as William Morley, were so successful that Lenox turned his attention increasingly to complete sets of dinnerware and in 1906 changed his firm's name to Lenox Incorporated to reflect the new direction from the Ceramic Art Company.
As America's appetite for high-quality china grew, the company satisfied it by producing dinnerware with standardized patterns in addition to the custom-made pieces. After introducing a few patterns in 1910 that were decorated with transfer prints enhanced with hand-applied color, Lenox started using full-color lithographic decals. The first two of these patterns — Mandarin and Ming, introduced in 1917 — would be popular for 50 years. Decals not only assured uniform decoration but also created an identifiable pattern, which gave a hostess the silent satisfaction of knowing that dinner guests would recognize the Lenox brand, as well as her sophistication in selecting it.
Indeed, the Lenox name had quickly become synonymous with elegant tableware, chosen for the "best" homes — including the White House. President and Mrs. Wilson commissioned an official state service of 1,700 pieces in 1918, making Lenox the first American china to grace a president's table. It remains the only American porcelain in continuous use at the White House for more than 80 years, with new services created for four subsequent presidents: Roosevelt (1934), Truman (1951), Reagan (1981), Clinton (2000) and George W. Bush (2008).
The Talk of the Trade
Walter Scott Lenox died in 1920, having realized his dream and founded a company dedicated to the "perfection of American porcelain." The factory was expanded to double its size that year and outfitted with an elegant, oak-paneled showroom that was the talk of the trade. In addition to china patterns whose names are legendary — including Lowell (1917) and Autumn® (1918) — Lenox continued to offer custom-designed services, often rimmed with elaborate gold borders or decorated in the center with hand painting. Customers could also select from an array of accessories, including lamps, figurines, vases, pitchers, even a honey jar shaped like a beehive.
Lenox products were widely recognized for excellence in design, in large part due to Frank Graham Holmes, chief designer from 1905 to 1954. He garnered numerous awards, such as the Craftsmanship Medal of the American Institute of Architects (1927) and the silver medal of the American Designers Institute (1943). His work was among the 34 Lenox pieces chosen for display in 1928 by the elite National Museum of Ceramics in Sévres, France — the first and only American porcelain ever extended this honor.
Holmes possessed a remarkable ability to blend contemporary style with timeless "good taste." His Fountain (1926) pattern, for instance, bears the geometric lines and bright colors of the Art Deco era paired with traditional floral ornament. In Rhodora (1939) and Harvest (1940), Holmes captured the conservative mood surrounding the Depression era in classic nature motifs: roses and wheat stalks, respectively.
When America entered World War II, Lenox joined the effort. The translucent ivory china had been used in lighting fixtures since 1910 and proved ideal for ship instrumentation, permitting dials to be read even when lit dimly from behind. And although the Lenox ceramic body had been certified by the Bureau of Standards in 1928 as one of the most durable ever made, the military required a material stronger still. The company's master craftsmen developed Lenoxite, a ceramic resilient enough to be cast into insulators, resistors, and other specialized forms for use in radar and electronics.
In peacetime, an ever-increasing population clamored for stylish home furnishings. Lenox responded with dinnerware patterns, such as Westwind (1952), Kingsley (1954), and Jewel (1957), whose clear colors and spare, often asymmetrical designs were in step with the period's clean-lined décor. So treasured was Lenox tableware that it became America's china of choice in mid-century — a position it still holds. About half of all fine porcelain dinnerware purchased since the 1950s in this country bears the Lenox backstamp.
Equally sought after were boxes, vases, bowls, and other giftware produced in both the traditional ivory body and the era's favorite pastels, such as sky blue, primrose yellow, and sea green. Perhaps the most outstanding achievement was by the artist Patricia Eakin, who "dressed" her delicate figurines in costumes of paper-thin porcelain that were painstakingly modeled and applied by hand. To keep pace with demand, Lenox built the most advanced ceramics factory of the time in 1954, in Pomona, N.J.
While traditional tastes could turn to patterns like Solitaire® (1965) and Holiday (1974) — both best-sellers to this day — Lenox broke the mold in the 1960s and '70s with daring designs. Firesong (1970) and Fantasies (1971), for instance, in the sleek Innovation shape (1969), carry the bold colors and abstract designs of the Pop Art era. More restrained but still marked with a modern edge was giftware such as the Fjord vase and Gourmet cruet, both with the attenuated lines of the then-fashionable Scandinavian style.
Lenox was committed from its earliest days to listening to consumers. When customers wanted a coordinated look, Lenox complemented its china with hand-blown lead crystal in 1966, followed by silver flatware in 1991 — making Lenox the first American company to offer the complete tabletop. When customers wanted convenience, Lenox developed Temperware in 1972, one of the first ceramic tablewares that could go from freezer to oven or microwave safely. And when customers wanted heirloom-quality collectibles, it founded Lenox Collections, which since 1981 has offered sculptures, plates, serving pieces, jewelry, and decorative accents.
Contemporary Yet Classic
In 1989 Lenox celebrated its centennial — a landmark reached by no other American porcelain company. Its luster remains undiminished. Lenox china patterns, including Eternal (1965) and Federal Platinum (1991), consistently rank among the most popular nationwide. Newer designs, such as Winter Greetings® (1995) by the noted nature artist Catherine McClung, have been hailed as contemporary classics. And while Lenox is a leader in such current trends as transitional china and mix-and-match placesettings, it continues to employ centuries-old craft techniques, including piercing, jeweling, and etching.
In addition to the White House, Lenox tableware is at home in the vice president's official residence, more than 300 U.S. embassies, and more than half of the governors' mansions. Its giftware has been selected for presentation to dignitaries by the U.S. Congress and U.S. Department of State, among others. Its products are in the permanent collections of America's most prestigious cultural institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and have been the centerpieces in exhibitions of American decorative arts. And most important, Lenox continues to be used with pleasure and given with pride by families across the country.
Now flourishing in its second century, the company has never lost sight of Walter Scott Lenox's original vision. In fact, Lenox has come full circle, with artistic pieces for the table, the home and all gift-giving occasions. From once-in-a-lifetime wedding presents to seasonal holiday selections, gifts of Lenox are given with great pride, received with genuine gratitude. And so have earned the distinction as "Gifts That Celebrate Life." Walter Scott Lenox was a man with a passion for his craft, a passion for life. Which is perhaps exactly why his legacy endures today.