In Search of Sascha Brastoff

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.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9zDW7rhFK-c]
Sascha Brastoff performs as “G.I. Carmen Miranda” in Winged Victory (1944)

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.”

Sascha Brastoff’s costume designs for Diamond Head (1945) and If I’m Lucky (1946)

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.



Top: Forbidden Planet (1956) star Anne Francis with one of Brastoff’s sculptures and an illustration he did.

Bottom: The Sascha Brastoff Ceramics Factory in Los Angeles.

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.

27 Responses In Search of Sascha Brastoff
Posted By Gretchen S : May 12, 2011 4:54 pm

Thank you for this fascinating, informative and well-written post! Congrats on finding that dish too :) Great design is irresistible!

Posted By Gretchen S : May 12, 2011 4:54 pm

Thank you for this fascinating, informative and well-written post! Congrats on finding that dish too :) Great design is irresistible!

Posted By suzidoll : May 12, 2011 6:11 pm

I am a flea market buff. There is a huge indoor flea market near Springfield, Ohio, that I visit about four times a year. Now I am going to be on the look-out for something with his name on it.

Posted By suzidoll : May 12, 2011 6:11 pm

I am a flea market buff. There is a huge indoor flea market near Springfield, Ohio, that I visit about four times a year. Now I am going to be on the look-out for something with his name on it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 12, 2011 7:16 pm

The Springfield, Ohio flea market sounds fun! I’d love to see pictures of any Sascha Brastoff items you might come across, Suzi.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 12, 2011 7:16 pm

The Springfield, Ohio flea market sounds fun! I’d love to see pictures of any Sascha Brastoff items you might come across, Suzi.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 12, 2011 8:47 pm

Thanks so much, Gretchen! I’m glad you found it informative. His designs are really remarkable and still affordable, which I can appreciate.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 12, 2011 8:47 pm

Thanks so much, Gretchen! I’m glad you found it informative. His designs are really remarkable and still affordable, which I can appreciate.

Posted By Medusa Morlock : May 13, 2011 10:23 am

You certainly got a prize when you picked up that Brastoff tray! How neat that it led you to a new appreciation of an incredible talent — serendipity for sure!

The clip link didn’t seem to embed here, but I found it on YouTube and his Miranda is a knockabout boisterous version, very funny. If he hadn’t been such a fine artist, he might have been another Jerry Lewis. So interesting!

Fascinating info, Kimberly, thanks for sharing your find!

Posted By Medusa Morlock : May 13, 2011 10:23 am

You certainly got a prize when you picked up that Brastoff tray! How neat that it led you to a new appreciation of an incredible talent — serendipity for sure!

The clip link didn’t seem to embed here, but I found it on YouTube and his Miranda is a knockabout boisterous version, very funny. If he hadn’t been such a fine artist, he might have been another Jerry Lewis. So interesting!

Fascinating info, Kimberly, thanks for sharing your find!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 13, 2011 3:39 pm

Glad you found Brastoff as interesting as I did. He’s such a fascinating character and a funny performer. It’s kind of shame he didn’t appear in more movies but his passion was obviously design and art.

It’s too bad the video isn’t working. It seemed to embed okay yesterday but I can’t see it today either. I’ll update my post and add a link too for anyone who wants to see his Carmen Miranada impersonation.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : May 13, 2011 3:39 pm

Glad you found Brastoff as interesting as I did. He’s such a fascinating character and a funny performer. It’s kind of shame he didn’t appear in more movies but his passion was obviously design and art.

It’s too bad the video isn’t working. It seemed to embed okay yesterday but I can’t see it today either. I’ll update my post and add a link too for anyone who wants to see his Carmen Miranada impersonation.

Posted By Cool Bev : May 20, 2011 6:15 pm

I’ve never noticed the sculptures, but last time I watched Forbidden Planet, I was entranced by the architecture. I want to live in Dr. Morbius’ place!

Posted By Cool Bev : May 20, 2011 6:15 pm

I’ve never noticed the sculptures, but last time I watched Forbidden Planet, I was entranced by the architecture. I want to live in Dr. Morbius’ place!

Posted By dukeroberts : May 22, 2011 9:43 pm

If he helped design Anne Francis’s costumes in Forbidden Planet, I thank him.

Posted By dukeroberts : May 22, 2011 9:43 pm

If he helped design Anne Francis’s costumes in Forbidden Planet, I thank him.

Posted By LM : June 12, 2011 2:02 pm

I have a huge collection of Sascha Brastoff items. Much is from his personal collection and includes drawings and sketches. Email me at oasisofhope@mac.com if you are interested. thanks.

Posted By LM : June 12, 2011 2:02 pm

I have a huge collection of Sascha Brastoff items. Much is from his personal collection and includes drawings and sketches. Email me at oasisofhope@mac.com if you are interested. thanks.

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Klaatu barada nikto! Or, the Shopping Adventures of a Morlock : January 5, 2012 5:21 pm

[...] shop. This large blue owl was sculptured out of resin and signed by the artist. As I mentioned in a previous post, Brastoff worked in Hollywood as a costume and set designer in the ‘40s and ‘50s on films such [...]

Posted By MovieMorlocks.com – Klaatu barada nikto! Or, the Shopping Adventures of a Morlock : January 5, 2012 5:21 pm

[...] shop. This large blue owl was sculptured out of resin and signed by the artist. As I mentioned in a previous post, Brastoff worked in Hollywood as a costume and set designer in the ‘40s and ‘50s on films such [...]

Posted By Dan Fast : February 21, 2012 3:08 pm

Hi all – I’ve been a major collector of Sascha B for many years. Some of my pieces are featured in “Collector’s Encyclopedia of Sascha Brastoff” by Steve Conti, DeWayne Bethany and Bill Seay. I’m about to begin selling and hope to have website listings. If you have particular interests, let me know.
DanEFast@aol.com

Posted By Dan Fast : February 21, 2012 3:08 pm

Hi all – I’ve been a major collector of Sascha B for many years. Some of my pieces are featured in “Collector’s Encyclopedia of Sascha Brastoff” by Steve Conti, DeWayne Bethany and Bill Seay. I’m about to begin selling and hope to have website listings. If you have particular interests, let me know.
DanEFast@aol.com

Posted By Barbara Brastoff : November 2, 2012 7:02 pm

Thank you for capturing a nice summary of my uncles career and life. Sascha was my dad’s brother. I am an artist too and have great fondness for his items. I own some of them as well including some one of a kind pieces he made for his parents back in the 40′s. Keep the comments coming!

Posted By Barbara Brastoff : November 2, 2012 7:02 pm

Thank you for capturing a nice summary of my uncles career and life. Sascha was my dad’s brother. I am an artist too and have great fondness for his items. I own some of them as well including some one of a kind pieces he made for his parents back in the 40′s. Keep the comments coming!

Posted By Lynn : January 11, 2016 2:54 am

We inherited a beautiful egg made for Ethyl Barrymore
By Sasha Brastoff with a gold inscription
“Miss Barrymore,
Stay Young at Heart
Shoupie ”
It appears the egg was made for, or presented to
Ethyl Barrymore after the movie, “Young at Heart,”
was made/released.
We would appreciate and additional information that
might be provided for this item.
Thank you very much!

Posted By Claudia : August 28, 2016 5:29 am

A friend posted on fb today a piece of art by Sascha Brastoff
I know this friend as I dog sit for her ! Six degrees of seperation is true!
Growing up my mother did ceramics and his name was always brought up
in my house. But I was so young I don’t remember the details and my mother has
been dead since 2003. But it did bring up memories
I didn’t know he was known in Hollywood I only knew of his ceramic work!

Posted By Jeff Hanna : June 8, 2017 2:37 am

You may well have read further information about the handsome, colorful Sascha Brastoff in the new book about Hollywood fashion designers, “Creating The Illusion,” produced in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies.

Sascha was longtime friends with hugely successful fashion designer Howard Shoup (“DuBarry Was a Lady” 1943, etc.), and they lived together in later years. In 1969, several years after Sascha had recovered from his nervous breakdown (the reasons for that are detailed in the book) they transformed an old Brentwood/Santa Monica hotel into a shopping destination called The Esplanade.

Sascha’s big, ultra-glamorous factory-showroom on Olympic Blvd. in West Los Angeles surely cost a fortune. One wonders if Winthrop Rockefeller, who paid for it all, was smitten with Brastoff? Hard to believe Rockefeller would spend millions in the 1950′s just to promote an artist whose ceramics and sculptures he admired.

Shoup died in 1987 and two years later Sascha was attacked outside his home by a man on drugs; apparently Brastoff was so demoralized that he lost interest in drawing, his lifelong love, and later died of prostate cancer in 1993.

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