The next time you reach for a package of paper or Dixie cups or a roll of paper towels, you might want to look carefully at the design. It might be a Susin Steinberg.
Ms. Steinberg, a Danbury native who now lives in Sherman, started a commercial-art business concentrating on tableware in 1996. It was quite a change from her early work, when she focused on creating what she calls her "dirt paintings." Made from a combination of earth, sticks, leaves and paint on canvas, those lively works of art often featured well-known Personalities, such as Ronald and Nancy Reagan, James Belushi and Prince Charles.
In an interview at her home overlooking Candlewood Lake earlier this month, Ms. Steinberg recalled that she began to consider other media after a friend asked her to paint some tiles for a table he was making. She went to a shop in Naugatuck where she could use their glazes, paints and brushes for about $5 an hour. Soon she was experimenting with ceramic plates, pitchers and bowls.
"It was addicting," the 41-yearold artist confessed.
Her colorful, hand-painted pieces were initially sold on consignment at local shops, and then Ms. Steinberg hired someone to sell her wares to stores and cooking schools for her. It was only a matter of time before she made the leap to having her designs mass-produced, by companies such as Mikasa, Pfaitzgraff, Casafina and American Atelier.
As much a savvy businesswoman as a talented artist, Ms. Steinberg said she was able to launch her career as a plate designer after she took the initiative and started calling the chief executive officers and residents of some of the largest ceramic and dinnerware companies. ?I just called them up and told them was doing designs. They saw me and they bought, much to my delight," she said.
Looking back, her success seems serendipitous, particularly when you consider that one of her most successful designs was adapted from a quick sketch that she did while vacationing in Paris in 1995. Ms. Steinberg said she had taken her sketch pad with her on her trip and found herself sitting outside her hotel, waiting. The scenery around her - Paris itself - inspired her to put pen to paper. "Everything was so beautiful, the buildings and the subway entrances, the outdoor markets and fountains," she recalled.
Mikasa initially purchased four different scenes from her Paris sketches that were reproduced on a set of dessert plates, and then purchased additional scenes to create an entire line of black-and-white dinnerware called "Parisian Scenes". Centered on the dinner plate is a reproduction of Ms. Steinberg's first sketch, of the flower market and other buildings outside her hotel in Monmartre. She keeps the original in a frame on her kitchen counter.
A large Mikasa bowl features her sketch of Notre Dame, with gargoyles and eagles around the rim and a single gargoyle inside, on the bottom of the bowl. The creamer is adorned with book-sellers or bouquinistes near the Seine, and the sugar bowl has a scene from Pont Neuf. The Eiffel Tower takes center stage on the salad or luncheon plates and the soup bowl has a cafe on the Boulevard Saint Germain.
"It's fine china, but it's very strong. I use it every day," Ms. Steinberg said, noting that the line is carried by Mikasa stores, including the one in Danbury.
"It's funny to get into dinnerware. I was never that conscious of it," Ms. Steinberg mused. But, she added, "Once I got the art on it, it was just another way to get the art out there."
Ms. Steinberg was influenced by art at an early age. Her mother was a painter and sculptor and opened Gallery 7 in Danbury in the 1970's. "I was always around that, and they took me to museums. It was part of my life," she said.
After graduating from Danbury High School, she earned a fine-art degree from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and began making her dirt paintings. "It was all fun and good," she said, but to earn a living, she needed to do more gallery shows. So she decided to teach.
She earned her teaching degree, and a master's degree in-school-psychology, from Southern Connecticut State University in 1992. The following year, she taught autistic and disabled children ages 3 to 10 at the Foundation School in Orange, but she decided the work was not for her.
She worked one year as a colorist for JBJ Fabrics in the fashion district in New York City, and spent another year teaching art to international students for the American School in Switzerland, or TASIS, at a school in Surrey, England.
She has also worked as an art instructor at several schools in Connecticut, including Bethel High School, St. Margaret's-McTernan in Waterbury, and Henry Abbott Technical School and Wooster Community Art Center in Danbury.
In 1995 Ms. Steinberg established her company, Steinberg Designs LLC. She works from the two studios in Sherman, where she moved four years ago.
The living room of her home is adomed with free-form bowls she has made, along with her sculpture of a female nude, which rests in front of the fireplace. Over in the comer, an antique steamer trunk sits filled with ceramic pieces of her design. Hand-painted platters, which can be custom-ordered and inscribed to mark an anniversary or birthday, are tucked beneath a glass table.
The ceramic plates, vases, pitchers, salt and pepper shakers and candle holders displayed in her kitchen are examples of the lines she has created fbr various companies.
Ms. Steinberg used the writings and pressed flowers from a 150 year-old diary she found at the Elephant's Trunk flea market in New Milford to create a collage that inspired a line of porcelain plates produced by American Atelier.
Her designs for Casafina, which is based in Brewster, N.Y., were hand-painted at factories in Italy and Portugal. For Pfaltzgraff, she created a playful sketch of a laundry line stretched out against a blue sky. Pfaltzgraff has also produced oversize coffee mugs of her design, in a pet motif featuring dogs, cats and mice.
"Still Life with Fishes" was purchased by Chaleur-Misane and reproduced on hand-painted china canister sets, coffee pots, cups, saucers and serving dishes.
Yet another design, in saffron yellow and French blue with little birds, was produced by Deruta of Italy and can be purchased locally at The Pantry in Washington Depot.
Some of her work has been inspired by the natural surroundings outside her home, and in particular, the birds that are drawn to her bird feeder. At first, she said, she didn't know what kind of birds she was seeing, so she got a book. "Every time I see something different, I look it up," she said, expressing a, fondness for blue tanagers and grosbeaks.
"Some of them ended up on greeting cards and some of them ended up on plates," she said.
Asked how she came to design paper cups and plates for Dixie, Ms. Steinberg recalled that she had handed her business card to someone who worked at James River in Norwalk, the maker of Dixie cups, while at a women's business group meeting. A few days later, she was at home trying to meditate when the phone rang. "This guy calls and says he wants to buy all my designs for all this money. I thought, 'This is not for real,'" Ms. Steinberg said. But she went to Norwalk and found it was all true.
Reaching into her kitchen cabinet, Ms. Steinberg pulled out a dinner-size Dixie plate bearing one of her designs. Slices of watermelon and other fruits were interspersed with confetti-like red and purple polka dots. "These just came out with their new line," Ms. Steinberg said, confessing, "Every store I go into, I go down the paperplate aisle and see how they're doing."
Sometimes, she said, she even watches to see which package of paper plates or Dixie cups people will buy: the plain ones or the ones with her design.
"They buy it because it makes them feel good for whatever reason," Ms. Steinberg said. And though the design is mass-produced, and meant to be inexpensive - and disposable - she views it as an accessible form of art.
In addition to her work for Dixie, Ms. Steinberg has produced a design that now appears on Brawny paper towels. And there's more to come. "I really want to do tissue boxes,' the artist confided. "I'm waiting for that job."As for what's next, Ms. Steinberg said she would love to work on a line of cosmetics and cosmetic packaging. "I love lipstick colors," she said. "I'd kind of like to do a line of cosmetics or makeup. It's like oil paint. It has that richness to it."