Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on May 12, 2011
I love to explore local antique shops and visit flea markets when I’m not watching movies. As a new homeowner I’m always on the lookout for good deals on vintage furniture and as a collector I enjoy hunting for unusual things that happen to catch my eye. I have a tendency to gravitate towards mid-century design and one of the more unusual artists I’ve become interested in lately is Sascha Brastoff (1918-1993). Brastoff is probably best remembered as an accomplished ceramic artist who designed beautiful house wares. But I recently discovered that Brastoff also worked in Hollywood as a designer and many Hollywood stars collected his creations. The story of Brastoff’s life is fascinating and I thought it might interest other classic film fans so I decided to share what I’ve learned during my search for Sascha Brastoff.
It all began at a flea market a few weeks ago. While rummaging through a table of unwanted goods I stumbled on a beautiful serving dish marked with Sascha Brastoff’s name on the back. I’d never come across one of his designs before but the dish was only $1 and I couldn’t resist it. I took it home and immediately decided to Goggle Brastoff’s name. Much to my surprise my search yielded over 40,000 results and after a lot of reading and research I became more and more intrigued with Brastoff and his work.
Sascha Brastoff was born Samuel Brostofsky in Cleveland, Ohio on October 23, 1917. By all accounts he was an artistic kid and his parents seemed to support his creative interests. At age 17 he began studying dance where a teacher encouraged Samuel to change his name to Sascha and eventually he performed with the Cleveland Ballet. After graduating high-school in 1935 Sascha attended the Western Reserve School of Art (later renamed the Cleveland Institute of Art) where he focused on sculpture. At age 22 he moved to New York and began studying with The Clay Club (currently called the Sculpture Center), whose alumni include Isamu Noguchi and Louise Nevelson. In the spring of 1941 Brastoff had his first gallery show at the Clay Club. It was a critical and financial success but his life was about to change forever. On December 7th Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and America officially entered WW2. Like many young men at the time, Sascha decided he wanted to serve his country and he became a member of the US Air Force in 1942.
Unfortunately Sascha soon discovered that he wasn’t really suited for life in the military. But the creative and unapologetically feminine young man found his niche in the Special Services Events Division where he was able to design costumes, sets and signs for USO shows. He also discovered that he had a knack for performing and his humorous interpretation of Carmen Miranda was a huge hit with his fellow soldiers. Darryl F. Zanuck was also awed by Sascha Brastoff’s portrayal of the Latin entertainer and when it came time for Twentieth Century-Fox to shoot a film adaptation of the popular WW2 play, Winged Victory (1944), Zanuck decided to give Brastoff the opportunity to perform his act in front of a camera. Winged Victory was a joint effort between Twentieth Century Fox and the U.S. Army who wanted to make a patriotic war film that celebrated the accomplishments of the Air Force. Zanuck enlisted George Cukor to direct Winged Victory, which featured many military personnel and Sascha Brastoff’s scene stealing drag performance is one of the film’s highlights. You can see Brastoff’s Carmen Miranda number from Winged Victory in the following video.
Darryl F. Zanuck was so impressed with Sascha Brastoff that the powerful Hollywood producer offered him a lucrative 7-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox after WW2. Naturally Brastoff accepted and relocated to California. His first job was on the musical Diamond Horseshoe (1945), where he designed some beautiful show stopping costumes for the film’s star, Betty Grable. Afterward he was asked to design costumes for the Carmen Miranda musical, If I’m Lucky (1946). It must have been an incredible experience for Brastoff to go from impersonating Carmen Miranda in a USO show to designing the star’s costumes for a major motion picture but the artist had even bigger plans. Soon afterward Brastoff decided to end his contract with Twentieth Century Fox and open his own design studio in Los Angeles where he started producing decorative ceramics and sculptures. Sascha Brastoff quickly developed a reputation as one of the most gifted and creative young artists working in Hollywood. He also caught the attention of the wealthy industrialist Winthorpe B. Rockefeller, who became a powerful supporter of Brastoff’s work. Thanks to Rockefeller’s financial backing, Brastoff was able to move his business to a much larger facility designed by the famed architect A. Quincy Jones. The 1953 grand opening of the state-of-the-art Sascha Brastoff Ceramics Factory was attended by some of Hollywood ‘s biggest stars including Zsa Zsa Gabor and Edward G. Robinson who declared that, “Sascha is a modern day Cellini; a contemporary DaVinci.”
Two of Sascha Brastoff’s most ardent collectors were Donna Reed and Joan Crawford. Crawford admired Brastoff’s ashtray designs so much that she supposedly only bought them as decorative items and refused to let any of her guests use them because she thought they were beautiful works of art. Thanks to high-profile collectors like Joan Crawford, Brastoff’s reputation continued to grow and he appeared on many TV shows promoting his work while magazines showcased his company’s latest designs. In the mid-50s Brastoff got the opportunity to contribute to the set design of the classic science fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956) where one of his sculptures was featured. According to some sources he may have also helped design Anne Francis’ costumes for the movie.
In the early 1960s Brastoff’s good fortune hit some snags. The Sascha Brastoff Ceramics Factory was said to have overextended itself and began having financial problems. Then Brastoff suffered a nervous breakdown that led him to leave the company he had started. Brastoff became a bit of a recluse and stayed at home where he worked on paintings and an occasional sculpture. Then in 1966 he was commissioned to create a 13 foot gold cross and alter piece for the St. Augustine By-The-Sea Episcopal Church in Santa Monica after the church had to be rebuilt following a terrible fire. Soon afterward he took part in a one-man show displaying his new metal sculptures and Brastoff’s artistic passions seemed to be rekindled with encouragement from his close friends and family. Throughout the 1970s he worked with companies such as Merle Norman Cosmetics designing jewelry and Haeger Pottery where he designed decorative ceramics including vases and serving dishes. In the 1980s Brastoff was diagnosed with cancer and this led to a long battle with terminal illness that severely slowed down his productivity and eventually killed him in 1993 at age 75. Today his work is highly collectable and Brastoff is considered an important design leader of the 1950s.
Although Sascha Brastoff’s name is probably unfamiliar to most classic film buffs I think his remarkable journey from Carmen Miranda impersonator to design legend is fascinating. It’s a reminder that behind the scenes of every great movie there is an army of inventive folks working tirelessly to create incredible costumes and set designs that are too often taken for granted. The next time you’re watching Forbidden Planet think about Sascha Brastoff and keep an eye out for his cutting-edge modern metal sculptures. Brastoff’s work can also be found at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Sculpture Center in New York as well as other galleries across the country. In the meantime you can find me scouring thrift shops and flea markets in search of more Sascha Brastoff items to add to my slowly growing collection.
If you’d like to find out more about Sascha Brastoff I recommend picking up Steve Conti’s book Collector’s Encyclopedia of Sascha Brastoff: Identification & Values. You can also read an informative article that Steve Conti wrote about the artist online titled Sascha Brastoff – a mid-century modern DaVinci.
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