A Prolific Artist Brings her Talents to Ceramics, Glass, and Giftware
by Amy Stavis
The old Woody Allen joke goes, "Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach art or gym". Perhaps, for Susan Steinberg, there was a little harsh reality to that joke which may have been part of the reason the former art teacher chucked a long career teaching art in favor of a career as a designing woman. "Teaching, to say the least, was not my entire lifelong ambition," the quiescent Steinberg begins. "I always wanted to create art and have it seen in the public domain. I was feeling the entrepreneurial itch and wanted to be my own boss."
Although Steinberg's malaise came five years ago, it wasn't until 1996 that she ecided to pursue tableware design full-time. "I felt that I had contributed all that I could to my students throughout the years and it was time to move on," Steinberg says. "I was becoming too focused on the design part of my life instead of teaching people how to design."
During this fertile two-year period, Steinberg made up for lost time,Casafina, producing ware for Mikasa, PTS America, Acorn Place Mats, Bennington Pottery, Pfaltzgraff, and American Atelier. "It has been a freeing experience," Steinberg enthuses. "I should have done this a long time ago, but I wasn't prepared to take a stand and risk everything. The work seemed to snowball after I made the decision to move into this full-time."
Not that the signs weren't there all the time. Steinberg was the class artist through her school years in Danbury, CT. Her genes are mired in art; her mom's an artist who founded a successful Connecticut art gallery. "I was surrounded by art which was as great an influence on my life as any," Steinberg says. She was the proverbial sponge, soaking up classes at Rhode Island School of Design, California College of Arts and Crafts, and Pasadena's Art Center College of Design. "I found that pattern design was a recurrent theme in all the work I did," Steinberg says.
After graduation in 1981, Steinberg settled into teaching-albeit a bit too comfortably-and she stayed in various positions and locales (including Califomia, England, and Connecticut) for 14 years. During her teaching tenure, Steinberg always found time to pursue her painting passion. "I needed to relax," she plaintively pines. "After teaching all day, I found doing my own work was the thing I enjoyed most." She also became good at bartering services for artwork. With a laugh, " I had to have five cavi filled. My dentist got a very nice painting and a set of ceramic goblets."
But it wasn't until 1991, when Steinberg bought plate blanks that she decided she might have to concentrate on a new craft. "A friend suggested I paint on a tile and after I saw the results I was seduced by it. I realized there were more shapes I could paint on," she effuses. "I couldn't stop. It was so much fun, a ready-made piece of art. It didn't need to be framed or anything. It suddenly became clear to me that I could make a go of ceramic design." So Steinberg invested in a kiln and experimented. It wasn't long before she found a niche and amassed a portfolio of dozens of designs. "I had all this work that I knew was good, waiting for the right time to venture out and determine if it was marketable."
She started with one of the few names in tabletop she knew, Mikasa. "I used to get flyers that publicized the local Mikasa store. What did I know?" she rhetorically poses. It w as a fortuitous happenstance; Mikasa bought two designs, one for tea bag caddies, the other Parisian Scenes, shown above. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "At the time I didn't know much about Mikasa. I thought I was selling my designs to a nice company. But I did know they were big and I figured I'd start at the top and see if they liked my work."
Soon Steinberg called scores of companies whose collections were compatible with her design style. Many bought what they saw. "It was like Christmas," Steinberg rejoices. "And I'm Jewish." The world was opening up, she adds. "I was finally where people could see my work and enjoy it. I was committed to risk anything at that time and I still am."
In addition to her freelance services for established vendors, Steinberg set up shop producing her own handpainted ceramics. "I love painting on ceramics," she says. "I don't do rough sketches. I just paint on the body. If it doesn't work it becomes a design to be sold at a future time." More often than not, it works. Steinberg has attended her share of crafts fairs testing production. "My first show was such a rush," Steinberg recalls. "It was a thrill meeting people, getting compliments, writing orders." Still, Steinberg allows there's been a great leaming curve, discovering an industry alien to her. "I still don't know it all, but it's an interesting process," she says. "There's so much more to learn, but I'm ready for the challenge."
Now, with a roster of clients at the helm-and others whose doors she has yet to knock on-Steinberg is pleased as punch with the turn of events thus far. "I'm very thankful to art directors and company execs who have helped me, who have answered my questions, and who have been patient with me. This is it for the rest of my life," Steinberg concludes.