The End of the Cybis Studio…and How it Got There

The Cybis studio officially closed its doors on Norman Avenue in Trenton in late 2019, approximately fifty years after first occupying that custom-built structure. However, there had been no actual production activity for at least the preceding decade; the last new-design introduction had been a single piece, the Carousel Reindeer, in late 2008.  The property was listed for sale in the spring of 2019 and subsequently emptied of more than a half-century of porcelain contents, a fair amount of which was liquidated through a Pennsylvania auction house. Thus ended, with the proverbial whimper rather than a bang, an American porcelain studio legacy spanning three-quarters of a century. Four distinct eras in Cybis porcelain history can be delineated, each with its own series of events that led inexorably from one to the next, and each phase having its own characteristics in both design and management.

1940s: The Artistic Era

The studio established by Boleslaw and Marja Cybis during the 1940s bore little resemblance to what it became in later decades. It was very much an atelier rather than a commercial venture; the majority of the incoming cash flow was provided by the establishment of the Cordey China Company starting in 1943, a joint venture with two financial backers/partners, Harry Greenberg and Harry Wilson. The story of Cordey can be found in a separate section in the Archive. The later Cybis studio took great pains to omit any mention of the Cordey operation in any of their publications, deliberately treating it as if it had never existed, and instead choosing to date the entire studio’s history from 1939 which was the year in which the Cybises came to the United States and rented their first workspace in Queens, NY.

A surprising fact about the 1940s Cybis studio is that its output was not limited to porcelain and in fact didn’t even begin that way. Furniture, textiles, and even woodcrafted items were produced. During the 1940s the ceramic-based items slowly began to predominate but their style was very different from that of later decades. Many were experimental pieces and not signed at the time they were made. The important takeaway from the 1940s Cybis studio in Trenton is that it was directed by Boleslaw Cybis himself (and to some extent also by his wife Marja) and was focused on art for art’s sake. The Cordey element, being a strictly commercial venture that was based as much in Philadelphia as in Trenton, was an entirely different breed of cat.

1950s: The Commercial Realities

It became increasingly clear that the Cybis studio’s ‘artistic’ items were not generating enough sales and it needed to reinvent itself to appeal to a wider and more mainstream audience. Because the Cordey China offerings included few, if any, religious themed pieces, the decision was made that the re-imagined Cybis brand would focus on that genre plus the always-appealing birds and animals. At the same time, the Cordey operation had begun shifting its focus from figurines and bibelots to lamps, which had always been the wheelhouse of Greenberg and Wilson anyway. In short, a ‘cash cow’ was needed and the Cybis operation had to be it. The easiest method was for them to produce items from commercially available molds, thus eliminating the original-design step entirely. This is why the vast majority of Cybis items from the 1950s are made from molds sold wholesale by other companies. Very few were original designs.

The management of the studio was also in flux during this decade. Boleslaw Cybis, always a mercurial personality, committed suicide in May 1957 at age 62. His protégé Marylin Chorlton had already been tapped to take over the management of the studio. His wife Marja likewise died by her own hand in mid-June 1958; at that point the Cordey China Company was already in the process of filing for bankruptcy. With the official passing of the Cybis studio to Marylin Chorlton and her husband Joseph (the Cybises had no children), the most successful two decades of Cybis ownership began.

1960s-1970s: The Golden Age

Under the leadership of Marylin Chorlton artistic integrity became paramount and she sought to again reinvent Cybis as a studio that produced only original designs but also would appeal to a wider audience than the 1940s pieces had. The early 1960s marks the first time the studio began filing actual copyright registrations for their sculptures (older pieces that bear a © notwithstanding.) With only a very few exceptions, no pieces from the Chorlton era used any components cast from the 1950s commercial-stock molds, although they did occasionally borrow mold components from an older Cybis sculpture to use in subsequent pieces; a number of such instances are shown in the Body Snatching post.

Joseph Chorlton, a charming and gregarious gentleman, was the primary public face of the studio while leaving the artistic side of things to Marylin and the business details to a very competent management team led by Jerry Sawyer. The sales team, interacting between the studio and retailers, included several extremely effective ‘stars’ such as Frank Redden, Helen Wood, and Bill Hancock.

The death of Marylin Chorlton in 1977 caused a dramatic shift in not only the ambiance of the studio (where art and the artists had come first) but also in its management and business model. The sculptures that were issued in the late 1970s do not reflect this, partly because some had been designed before Marylin died and also because the veteran designers, sculptors, painters and craftsmen of the 1960s and 1970s were all still there….but that would change.

1980s: The Downward Spiral

To say that the loss of Marylin threw the studio into chaos would be an understatement. She and the artists had had a close, almost familial, relationship and they felt her absence keenly. Joe Chorlton was emotionally bereft and entered into a series of relationships (including an extremely short-lived second marriage) that impacted the studio’s operation in terms of personnel. Some of the ladies were employees (who subsequently left) and others were brought into the studio as new hires, often as office staff. Many of the newcomers to the sales/management team were focused more on what would sell best, rather than on quality or design, and the artists began to resent this. They were not accustomed to having people who had absolutely no idea of what goes into producing a piece of Cybis, from conception to retail-ready production, tell them how to ply their craft. As a result, more and more artists and artisans began to leave.

In the mid-1980s Joe Chorlton married Theresa Rose. As the owner’s wife she became a partner in the company (Cybis, Inc.) and active in how it was run, hiring administrative personnel, interacting with Cybis’ retailers, and becoming involved in marketing events along with her husband. Subsequent personality conflicts both inside and outside the studio resulted in more departures, including the studio’s original financial team. Overall spending on management’s end had increased dramatically during the 1980s and the balance sheets were looking less and less healthy. By the mid to late 1980s they were approaching disaster.

An unwelcome change during this decade was the elimination of employee benefits that had formerly been provided. The Cybis studio had never allowed itself to become unionized, preferring instead to directly supply employees with health insurance, paid sick days, and a pension plan to which the employees and the studio both contributed. But under the new regime, the paid sick days and health insurance coverage were eliminated. Employees who were unable or unwilling to risk having no health care coverage left for more secure pastures. The departures were replaced by less-experienced artists who would work for lower pay and/or few benefits; not all of the newcomers had the same work ethic or studio loyalty that the veterans had had.

Worse yet, the studio’s matching contribution that had always gone into the pension plan during Marylin’s tenure was discovered (by an alert employee) to have been discontinued without any notification to the employees. Faced with the prospect of a nasty lawsuit, the studio’s lawyers worked out settlement arrangements with each of the current and former employees and then closed the pension account.

Production shortcuts became common during the 1980s. For example, normally each paint color is fired separately but a directive was issued from “management” that multiple paint colors should be applied at once so as to reduce the number of firings needed. Airbrushing took the place of hand painting on many large areas; one can see the difference in the hair of the Eskimo Child busts made during the pre- versus post-airbrush timeframes.) Instead of having the artists mix their own paints, as had always been done, the studio decided to hire a company to supply the paint jars pre-mixed. Some of the resulting colors were not exactly what the original designer had planned but the sales team deemed them “good enough.” As the 1980s progressed, many of the releases became more simplistic (easier and faster to produce) and handmade (not cast from a mold) elements such as flowers and leaves less in evidence, especially on the nonlimited editions. Compare the handmade flowers and leaves of the 1960s/70s Rebecca with the entirely-molded ones of the late-1980s Girl Picking Daisies; both are shown in this post. Faced with these artistic headwinds, morale in the workrooms plummeted; a few diehard veterans stuck it out but most did not.

The studio’s relationship with its retailers was also changing, and not in a positive way. Some store owners found the 1980s changes in Cybis policy (such as no longer allowing the return of unsold stock, but at the same time prohibiting their retailer partners from putting Cybis pieces on sale) untenable; others found their interactions with the studio to be too difficult to maintain. At the same time, the late 1980s saw the start of a softening in the art porcelain collectibles market, due in part to the emergence of lower-priced “collectible” merchandise from companies such as the Franklin Mint and its ilk. The retail market was starting to change, and would do so even more dramatically later. Some stores severely cut back their orders from Cybis and others stopped entirely. Thus freed from any contractual tie with Cybis as a retailer, many held (for the first time ever) sales on their remaining Cybis stock. Newspaper ads from 1987-1989 from stores in various parts of the country proclaimed discounts of “50% off on all Cybis pieces.” Perhaps most importantly, I have reason to strongly suspect that by the late 1980s, Brielle Galleries – who had been Cybis’ most active advertiser/retailer – was no longer purchasing new items from the studio.

This inescapable retail landscape change forced Cybis to begin offering pieces directly to collectors but on a very limited scale. An early April 1987 form letter (not addressed personally but merely to “Dear Cybis Collector”) that was enclosed with the mailing of the Spring 1987 brochure, includes this

The letter is signed by Phil Allen, who had been a colleague of Theresa Chorlton’s during her time at the local radio station before he was subsequently hired by Cybis; his title is “Director of Special Services.” This is the very first known instance of the studio selling items directly to retail purchasers, but obviously it was born of necessity due to their dwindling number of retail partners.

The annual Christmas party at Cybis had always been a happy time, with food and drink and during which various test/prototype, just-for-fun, and imperfect pieces were raffled off to employees, and end-of year bonuses in envelopes were handed out by Joe Chorlton. The studio normally shut down between Christmas and New Year’s, all of their shipments having already been sent, so that everyone could enjoy a week off. The 1989 party was different. The envelopes contained no bonuses, but instead a short letter advising that the studio would not reopen in January but would remain closed “until sometime in the spring to reorganize, after which we may be in touch with you.” In other words, pink slips. Most of the employees never saw this coming.

1991-2018: Endgame

After dismissing the entire staff at the end of 1989, Cybis employed artists only on a part-time or as-needed basis during the remaining decades. The studio remained closed until they began selling directly to collectors for the first time in November 1991 (see this post for their original advertising of this event.) The showroom was open only during specific days and hours, or by appointment.

The studio definitely needed a marketing boost.  Their 1989 “50th/Golden Anniversary” campaign had only been good for that one year and at least then they had still had the staff available to produce the sculptures. A more long-term ‘special’ was needed, and the Hall of Fame series of downsized reproductions was the result. Many collectors were offended by this because it clearly violated the previous supposedly-written-in-stone “never to be produced again” policy that Cybis had declared for decades. The first of the Hall of Fame pieces seem to have been introduced in 1991, despite the studio’s 1993 claim that the concept had been born “in honor of Boleslaw Cybis’ 100th birthday” even though that would not occur until 1995. Of the twenty Hall of Fame items that the studio ever advertised, I have seen only seven actual examples. Eleven of the twenty designs were never pictured on the studio’s web site or in any known literature, but merely described. When I questioned the studio about those omissions several years ago, I was told that “there were no photos ever taken.”

As my post about Advertising Literature and Price Lists shows, after 1990 the studio switched entirely to on-demand production; this was clearly necessary because they no longer had any full-time artist employees. All their advertising after 1989 states that “Sculptures are made to order and cannot be cancelled”, “Shipping delays may be necessary”, and so forth, although no doubt quite a few of the items that were for sale were already-finished backstock from the 1980s that had never been shipped to retailers.

A huge stumbling block was the studio’s refusal to acknowledge the reality that the art porcelain market had not only changed during the 1990s, but had essentially crashed and burned. Far fewer people were willing and able to spend multiple thousands of dollars on a porcelain figurine that they could find on the secondary market for far less. Unfortunately, the studio continued to increase their retail prices as if it was still the hot high-end-collectibles market of the mid 1970s and early 1980s, and their 1990s price lists show increases that utterly fly in the face of reality. This is why I do not cite late-1990s or early 2000s Cybis “MSRP” on this website: Very few, if any, people were actually paying those prices. (I discuss the state of current market values in this post.)

In 1995 the studio launched a Collectors Society but it was discontinued in 1997 despite having offered members several specially decorated versions of certain items. During this time period the studio also sold some one of a kind pieces that were made by Boleslaw Cybis during the 1940s. Modern-day Cybis signatures were added to many such “legacy” pieces which were never originally signed.

The Cybis website was launched at the end of the 1990s; a spring 1999 text-only price list cites it. It was constructed using Microsoft FrontPage and provided only minimal information; many of its pages contained only a few lines of text, or a single paragraph, plus one or two small images while the rest of the page was blank. There was a “Shop” section that could be navigated in order to view sculptures currently offered for sale, but only one image (scanned from its previous stock-photo in printed Cybis literature and thus was often grainy) was provided and sometimes not even that. Their photo of a Cinderella, Belle of the Ball showed a piece with a clearly-broken ribbon bow. Quite a few pieces had either no photo or the wrong one. Descriptions were minimal (name, height, issue size if any, and price) and there was no functioning shopping cart; clicking on “Buy” took the shopper to a blank PDF order form that could be printed out or mailed or the order could be telephoned in. Lack of any website updating after early 2009 (the “special Christmas 2008 sale” remained on the site’s front page for almost ten years) further hampered its effectiveness. Joseph Chorlton died in 2012 although I doubt that he ever had any hands-on experience with the web site. The website disappeared entirely in late 2018, and Google search indicated that the studio was “permanently closed” shortly thereafter.

Cybis made a brief foray onto eBay during the very early 2000s, selling “slightly imperfect” pieces at prices lower than their full retail (which was still far more than anyone else was asking for Cybis pieces.) To my recollection very few items were sold and they disappeared as an eBay seller in less than a year. I was told by one person who purchased a Sabrina bust from them via eBay that he never received it and got no response from the studio despite multiple inquiries; he ultimately filed an Item Never Received claim with eBay and got his money back that way. It may well be that eBay terminated the studio as a seller if this happened more than once or twice.

The website and short-lived eBay portal appear to be the only large-scale advertising that the post-2000 studio engaged in. Social media was never utilized. They did place ads in local Trenton newspapers for a time during the 1990s and they probably did some direct mailings to former customers and any surviving retailers but there was no attempt to reach a wider audience. However, the studio did begin opening its doors for the then-trendy factory-tour buses; mentions of this practice appear in several early-1990s issues of Collector Editions magazine, which reported on such things.

The studio building itself steadily fell into serious disrepair during the 1990s. The flat roof (a design that was problematic from the start; during the studio’s better decades it was re-coated every five years to help keep leaks at bay) deteriorated rapidly, and it made no sense to heat or cool any of the workroom areas because they were rarely used. Thus, if someone had to come in for a few hours or days to produce a few pieces, sheets of clear plastic were hung from the ceiling around their worktable areas and an electric space heater placed temporarily within. The once-beautifully-landscaped inner courtyard garden was left to its own devices and quickly became a dense tangle of weeds and underbrush. The public/showroom area rooms were kept neat and clean (and heated, when the caretaker was there which was not often) but the rest of the building, and the adjacent warehouse, was ignored. Mrs. Chorlton spent winters in Florida, whence her surviving family members had retired, and came back to New Jersey for a few months each year. I made numerous efforts to visit the studio during the past five years but although promises were made, they never materialized. Most of the time, the building remained deserted.

2019: Finale

The Cybis studio property was put up for sale in April 2019 by a commercial realtor with this listing description:

Two (2) block and stucco buildings, 24,465 SF plus asphalt paved parking lot and vacant lots:
2 buildings & parking lot on 1.1 +/- acres; property taxes $42,038 (2018).
Vacant lots (Lots 6,7,8,9) 120′ X 60′ property taxes $2,460 (2018)
Front Bldg: private/open offices, bathrooms, manufacturing.  12′ ceilings, overhead door.
Rear Bldg: warehouse, 14-17′ ceilings.
Parking Lot: 22 car parking spaces, fenced in between 2 buildings
Real Estate ONLY for sale.  Business and furnishings negotiable.

The listing price was $795,000 and remained that way throughout 2019. Multiple telephone calls by myself and others to the listing broker’s office during that year to inquire about the status of the listing met with only a “Someone will call you back” which never – in any instance – happened. “Singularly unhelpful” is my most polite characterization of their response. A buyer eventually appeared and the sale went into contract in late 2019, after which the buildings began emptied of furniture, shelving, and two large dumpsters-full of porcelain molds (!!) in November 2019. A ceramic tile company began to occupy the warehouse space. These pictures illustrate the condition of the property in 2019.This is the main Cybis studio building, which is on the corner of Oakland Street and Norman Avenue.

The parking lot, between the main building on the left and the warehouse building on the right.

The parking lot entrance. The gates and high fences are necessary because the general neighborhood has been unsafe for decades (even during the 1970s, sadly.)

The warehouse and adjacent vacant lots, which are very narrow and probably not buildable on their own.

I will describe some of the interior rooms as former Cybis employees have described them to me after seeing these 2019 photographs.This was once the Design Room, where the sculptors such as Lynn Brown, Bill Pae, Susan Eaton, George Ivers, and others had their desks and worktables; the room is larger than it seems in this picture. The blue walls were originally white. The area near the oscillating fan is where George Ivers and Bill Pae once worked. Head painter Ginny McCotter worked in this room also, and the lower shelves held paints. The windows at the right looked out onto the once-beautiful courtyard. The brown door on the back wall led to the Mold Shop.

Two very depressing views of what was once the Casting Room. This was where the liquid porcelain was carefully poured into the molds. The state of the roof speaks for itself in these photos. The shelves of porcelain sculptures seen at the back were subject to the same conditions, which is why so many of them that were sold at auction in August and November 2019 can only be described as incredibly filthy due to dirty and rotted-wood water having dripped into them from the leaking roof.

This was used as the Finishing Room during the studio’s heyday; the superheated Drying Room was behind the door at the back. The filing cabinets were put here later. The condition of the roof is not much better here than in the Casting Room.

The disposal of all of the molds and the liquidation of hundreds of finished and partly-finished backstock sculptures took place in mid-2019 (I have heard through a secondhand source that some items were “sent to a place in New York City” but whether that “place” was a retailer, an auction house, or a collector is not known and probably will never be.) The auction house in Philadelphia (Kamelot) sold all of the items that were consigned to them. Some of the items from those auction lots subsequently appeared on eBay; the winning bidder on most of the other lots was the Museum of American Porcelain Art in Ohio. In late summer 2020, the building still reportedly contained several hundred pieces of bisque-fired, unpainted sculptures as well as a few thousand “spare parts” cast from various molds. These items are supposedly destined for the dumpsters that had been in the parking lot for most of that year. As of late August 2020, the actual closing (legal sale) of the premises to the new owner had not yet taken place, even though they had already been occupying the separate warehouse building for almost a year.

The sale was finally completed in 2021, and the selling price became known: $495,000 which was a 38% reduction from what Theresa Chorlton was originally asking for the property. The identity of the new owner has not yet appeared in online NJ tax records, but it is rather a moot point because the saga of the Cybis studio building is not yet over.

In late December 2021 the Cybis building again appeared on the market. In the interim, the horribly deteriorated roof had been repaired and the exterior was given a coat of fresh paint. A blue tarp (now wind-shredded) had been placed across the chain-link gates to the parking lot entrance, and the vacant lot adjacent to the property holds several pallets of ceramic tiles. The listing contains only three exterior photos and none of the interior. Because the new listing is for the studio building only, it is clear that the new owner plans to keep the warehouse and vacant lot for storage, and attempt to sell the (much larger) main building. This offering by the new owner, via the same realtor, is for a “26,000 SF Office/Warehouse Building” with the following listed amenities:

Two drive-in doors
Three bathrooms
Brand new roof joists, plywood sheathing, rubber membrane roof with new downspouts
Heavy electric power: 480 volts, 3-phase
Hot air gas-fired heating
Public water and sewer
On-site parking

I am no math whiz, but I am having difficulty envisioning how the original listing that described two buildings totaling 24,465 square feet can suddenly morph into only one of those buildings being the 26,000 square feet cited in the new listing, without any new construction done or space added. In any event, the new owner is now asking $2,000,000 for said single, former-Cybis-studio, building. I will be polite and refrain from comment other than to say that IMHO, at that price (or anything remotely within shouting distance of it), it’s likely to be on the market for a very, very long time.

One of the most unfortunate parts of the modern studio’s story is the loss of the archival materials contained in the filing cabinets seen in the Finishing Room photo. I know for certain that some of those files contained photographs, letters, notes, and 35mm films taken of the theatrical productions and parties held by Boleslaw and Marja Cybis at their home in Princeton; their custom-built house was a studio/display area in itself and the only photographs of the house and grounds were in those cabinets. There were undoubtedly also salesmen’s price lists and invoices for many 1950s and perhaps early 1960s pieces that we don’t even know about. There were probably copies of the Cybis short films that were made for dealers such as Brielle to show, and on Public Television stations, during the 1970s because those were only lent to the outlets and had to be returned to the studio afterward. Unfortunately, all of these archival materials were probably tossed into one of the parking-lot dumpsters as well. I, and others, tried very hard to access these materials for more than two years but with no success. It is a shame that it has all been seemingly lost forever… a sad end to the Cybis Studio story.

Name Index of Cybis Sculptures
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