Artists & Designers
Frank Graham Holmes (1878-1954)
Frank Graham Holmes was chief designer at Lenox China from 1905 until his death in 1954. Born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1878, Holmes was apprenticed to a silver designer as a youth, and later attended the Rhode Island School of Design and the New York School of Art where he was a student of Robert Henri and Frank Dumond. During his lifetime he was awarded the Craftsmanship medal of the American Institute of Architects (1927), the Binns Medal from Alfred University (1928), the Award for Excellence from the National Alliance for Art and Industries (1932), and the silver medal of the American Designers Institute (1943). Holmes designed three sets of china for the White House and, in 1925, was appointed by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to the commission that reported on the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in Paris. An enthusiastic practitioner of contemporary design, he collaborated with such avant-garde architects as Eliel Saarinen and Josef Urban during the 1920s on works for industrial arts exhibitions held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Holmes believed that design was foremost in the industry, followed by the cost to produce the design and its salability. He was frequently asked by reporters for his source of inspiration, but rarely gave substantive answers. In 1937, a public relations specialist finally elicited information from Holmes in a radio interview: "Inspirations for design come from all kinds of sources. The periods or ornament must be studied-dating back as far as possible. And that's pretty far...[including] the artisans of Egypt, Greece and Rome, India and Persia, China and Japan, long before the wares of Europe and American challenged the masterpieces handed down from the past. The study of museum specimens, not only of chinaware but of fabrics, silverware, jewelry - in fact all of them, furnish inspiration for design. Or it might be a costume motif inspired by something one sees in a theater. Quite often an inspiration for design will come from nature itself - I carry always with me a pencil and a pad, so that I may jot them down whenever these ideas come."
During his long tenure as chief designer for Lenox China, Holmes created at least four hundred patterns in a variety of historic and contemporary styles. Holmes's most innovative work of the 1910s and 1920s in the elegantly fashionable and colorful styles of those decades - the patterns for which he won contemporary fame and awards - was largely forgotten. Holmes's surface designs for the luxury trade set the image of the product as one of "good" taste and high quality; the company used this image after World War II to build a dominant brand name while exapanding its marketing from a wealthy clientele to middle-class households. Holmes's patterns of the 1930s, 1940s, and early 1950s seem to lack the vibrancy and stylishness of his earlier work. There was, however, little impetus from the market for dinnerware design to be inventive. Austerity and conservatism were the keynotes for the 1930s due to the depression. Dinnerware production was msostly curtailed during the early 1940s in favor of war work, and postwar tastes favored clean lines and spare ornament.
Holmes's greatest ability as a designer was to adapt to all of these conditions in his work for Lenox and to do it creatively - from the highest style for the luxury trade to designs created for mass production. Through his sure grasp of style and ornament, he defined design in American dinnerware for more than half a century, both for Lenox and its imitators.
Charles L. Venable, Ellen P. Denker, Katherine C. Grier, Stephen G. Harrison, China and Glass in America, 1880-1980: From Tabletop to TV Tray (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000), 338-341.