A Look Inside the Cybis Studio

This 200th post in the Cybis Archive is something different from the usual sculpture information. It is a glimpse into ‘life at the Cybis Studio’ via photos and contemporary  accounts through the decades.

The very first Cybis studio was located in the Steinway Mansion in Astoria, NY; nobody who was there is alive today. It’s not known how many artists worked for, or with, Boleslaw and Marja Cybis during those first couple of years, other than that Marylin Kozuch (later Chorlton) was one of them. Porcelain was a very insignificant part of what the artists were doing at Steinway, and “those early examples were crude”, according to Marylin.

Life at the Church Street Studio

The first Cybis location in Trenton was established in 1942 on Church Street and ultimately spanned three buildings (#s 312, 314, and 316.) For the first decade, production there was shared between Cordey- and Cybis-branded items. The two brands were very different in style and – as outlined elsewhere in this Archive – Cordey items were made in Philadelphia as well. It’s impossible to determine what the Cybis/Cordey production ratio was in Trenton; the Philadelphia location produced Cordey items only.  A write-up in the 1970s magazine Spinning Wheel claimed that up to 25,000 Cordey items were produced per month during the 1940s; that seems like rather a lot to me (an average of 1250 finished items per workday???) but it’s unclear whether the writer was including both of the Cordey locations in that estimate.

This photo of the interior of the Church Street studio does not even hint at how crowded it was. Multiple former employees have stated that the worktables had to be placed so close together that if someone wanted to use the (one, very small) bathroom, which was located in the rear of the building, they either had to walk crab-wise (sideways) or else people had to stand up and step out of the way. It was also unbearably hot from the kilns and there was no air conditioning.

The plaster decorations that were hung near the ceilings were reportedly created by Boleslaw Cybis and Marylin Chorlton. The faces and body casts were, according to two people with knowledge of the era, cast from live models.

Most of the photographs in this post were taken by Cybis employees, whom I sincerely thank for their help. Unless otherwise attributed, the other images are from various Cybis catalogs and other advertising materials (such as press photos) that were commissioned by the studio.

During the summer months, employees often ate their lunch picnic-style in one of the Church Street building rear yards. This photo from the 1960s shows, from left to right: Elsie Matelski, painter; Mildred Cook, designer; Dorothy Kaminski, decorator; Loretta Szutarski/Buchanan, painter; Lorraine (surname unknown); and Belle Boehm, painter.

A second snapshot of the same lunch picnic. The identity of the two women to the right of Belle Boehm is somewhat uncertain, but it appears likely that one of them is Beatrice Wiater.

The hairstyle worn by the unidentified artist in the upper photo (working on a male Skylark) would date both of these to the 1960s even if the sculptures themselves did not. The piece being painted by Dorothy Kaminski is a male Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher. The Skylarks were produced from 1958-1970, and the Gnatcatchers from 1961-1970.

Lynn Klockner (later Brown) began her career with Cybis in 1963, when the studio was looking for flower-makers to help create the Flower Bouquet of the United States for the 1964 Worlds’ Fair in New York. She also sculpted her own designs at her home studio; this photo shows her working on her clay model of one of them, which the studio later purchased and released as the limited-edition Thoroughbred in 1966.

It was not unusual for Cybis pieces to be designed by freelance artists who did all of their work elsewhere. For example, the first tranche of the North American Indians were all designed by Canadian freelance artist Helen Granger Young during the mid-1960s. However, freelance artist Susan Clark Eaton, who created all of the 1970s and early-1980s Cybis carousel pieces, often worked alongside the Cybis artists as well as at her own home studio.

Dorothy Kaminski and Elsie Matelski with a group of Juliet during the early 1960s.

Lynn Klockner (left) and Marylin Chorlton confer over a Magnolia which was one of Lynn’s designs. Also in the photo are a Madonna with Bird, Baby Owl, and Squirrel ‘Mr. Fluffy Tail’ waiting to be painted.

The original Cybis studio had a tradition of employees serving as impromptu models for parts of a sculpture in progress because Boleslaw Cybis often used female employees as life models for plaster body casts (face, parts, or full body). That would be a dicey proposition nowadays but in the 1940s and 1950s it was ‘accepted’ because nobody wanted to risk angering the boss and getting fired. The practice dwindled after Cybis’ death but popped up now and again, such as when Joe Chorlton acted as the leg model for Hamlet (1965.)

Several of the artists who had worked on the Cordey product line stayed on as Cybis employees after the Cordey operation was sold in the mid-1950s. These included AnneMarie (“Ginny”) MacCotter and Dorothy Kaminski.

Because there was no non-production space to spare in the Church Street buildings, the studio had to rent space at 318 East State Street in order to have somewhere for the office personnel (accounting, human resources, advertising/marketing) to do their thing. Potential new hires were interviewed first there. The State Street office was about a mile and a half east of the studio, directly across from the City Hall.

Life at 65 Norman Avenue in the 1970s

It became evident during the 1960s that the working conditions were getting intolerable in the overcrowded conditions at the Church Street location.  Joe and Marylin Chorlton bought an existing commercial property at 54-60 Oakland Street with two buildings on it. Joe’s brother Richard, an architect, designed a major expansion of the primary building into an open rectangle shape with a courtyard in the center. Because the entrance of the re-designed building was placed on Norman Avenue, that became the business address of the studio although Trenton property records still show the address as being on Oakland.

In early 1969, everything was moved from the Church Street location to the Norman Avenue building by a local firm, Nicholas Fennelli Rigging and Trucking Company, who had long done similar work for other Trenton ceramics factories and studios such as Lenox and Boehm. The rococo circa-1940s decorations were stored in the separate warehouse building rather than being kept on display; the décor of the new studio was decidedly 1960s.

These two photos were taken in the mold shop during the early 1970s. Upper photo, from left to right: Jules Olewa, master mold-maker; Mildred Cook; Doug Yahn. In the lower photo, Jules is on the left. Doug is looking at the dart board hung on the wall below the picture light. Darts were very much a thing among the ‘mold shop guys’, and I was amazed to learn that it has survived to this day (2022) and was never removed from the wall.

Among the various rooms at Norman were a Visitors Reception Room, Accounting and Human Resources offices, Joseph Chorlton’s office, Conference Room, Design Room, Casting Room, Mold Shop, Drying Room, Finishing Room, and of course the kilns. Some of the original office staff rooms were converted to showroom space during the 1990s.

This photo, appearing in the 1979 Cybis catalog, shows the courtyard as seen from the Visitors’ Reception Room.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to obtain a copy of the floor plan of the Norman Avenue studio but I do have some descriptive comments from an employee who was there during the entire first decade:

The main entrance door was beautiful, with a sliding panel to see who was there when the bell rang. The room to the immediate left of the door had the receptionist’s desk. Joe would schmooze with visitors there, if not in his office. The conference room had built-in cabinets, and also served as our boardroom. We had great furniture. The design room was very large. We had to re-coat the flat roof every five years to keep it from leaking. The warehouse building was cold storage, where we kept all the boxes that we received from our suppliers. There was an upstairs storage loft area for old records and the original ornate [plaster] ceiling pieces from Church Street were stored there. We kept that warehouse in great condition.

This 2019 realtor’s listing photo shows the inside of the main entrance door as well as the Visitors’ Reception Room leading from it.
This 1970s photo shows that lobby was large enough to contain this seven-foot-tall wood sculpture of a phoenix rising from the flames, created by sculptor Tony Trezza. Tony was the executive handling the Cybis account at his advertising and marketing firm during the 1970s; he left his position in the early 1980s to become the studio’s in-house marketing director (see Cybis Goes to Italy for more about Tony.)

The conference room as it appeared in the 2019 real estate agent’s listing for the Cybis building. The table is not the same one that was in this room during the 1970s and early 1980s.

A March 1970 article in the Miami Herald quoted Marylin Chorlton as saying

Sixty per cent of the pieces shatter in the kiln. We never know what we are going to find when we open the kiln door.

That sounds like quite a loss ratio! Another surprising insight from Marylin was that

..the artists bow to the kiln every morning, inquire about ‘his’ health, and hope he’ll work well for them. He’s very temperamental. He won’t fire anything with straight lines, for example.

Commenting in reference to shipping Cybis pieces off-site for exhibits or special events and insuring against damage, she said

If there is the least bit of turbulence between airports, Lloyds [of London] forbids the shipping of the pieces.

Having worked in the insurance industry myself during that decade, I find this a bit hard to believe, to be honest.  For one thing, such a restriction could cause unacceptable delays regarding scheduled events. But I found the bowing-to-the-kiln anecdote fascinating!

A mid-1970s article in Acquire Magazine about Cybis includes this in an otherwise prosaic description of a visit to the studio:

On another shelf are throw-aways which have a contemporary gallery look to them: a pile of guitars, ghost trees, sticks stacked against a column, a squashed ball and chain, pile of little white skulls like Mexican candies, hands behind bars. Many of these are not “throw-aways” but instead are accessory molds: a guitar will be used for each Folk Singer, and every Hamlet will hold one of those skulls.

The stacked sticks may have been props for use in the kiln. I have absolutely no idea what the ‘squashed ball and chain’ and ‘hands behind bars’ could have been, however.

A 1975 article in the Asbury Park Press reported that there were approximately 50 employees at the studio, and that Marylin Chorlton “has six artist designers to help her.”

This 1978 workroom photo shows an artist ‘cleaning up’ an Abigail Adams but what I find more interesting is the Good Queen Anne further back, below the light: Her shawl is waiting for much more detail work to be done. The artist sitting in the background in the 3-o-clock position works on a Sharmaine. Notice how many pieces are sitting on the shelves, waiting to be cleaned up and/or painted!

This 1978 press photo shows a ‘mystery man’ sitting at a worktable with a Crow Dancer. I have checked with three employees who were there that year and nobody recognizes him. Most of the Cybis in-house artists were women, so this fellow is really a puzzle.

This photo of the Cybis workroom can be dated to the late 1970s by the sculptures being worked on (Pip, the Elfin Player and Circus Rider, Equestrienne Extraordinaire), both of which were 1979 introductions.

The hallmark of working at the Cybis studio in the 1970s was camaraderie. It was very much a family atmosphere, very relaxed and with a sense that the artists were free to create as they pleased. Nobody was reluctant to bring ideas (either verbal or expressed in clay) to Marylin’s attention, and she always encouraged such experiments and new points of view.

Contrary to what the studio claimed in its advertising materials, pieces that came out of the kiln or workroom not quite good enough for retail were not always destroyed. If the error or accident was fixable with slip (or even glue) and/or some extra paint, that was what was done, and out the door it went. In fact, one of the artists specialized in doing exactly that, during the 1970s. If the issue was just a bit beyond proper fixing (i.e., if an untrained eye could spot it), the piece was put aside on shelves and reserved for the annual Christmas Party raffle among the employees. Test pieces and just-for-fun pieces also found new homes in this way.

The Cybis studio ownership was very much against unionization, so they kept that prospect at bay by voluntarily providing their employees with health insurance and a pension plan with matching contributions. Work hours and days were made flexible if needed; for example, when Lynn Klockner married and her husband started a horse training farm two hours away, she was allowed to start her Cybis day at noon and end at 7 pm, instead of the standard 7:30 am – 3:30 pm schedule.

Life at 65 Norman Avenue in the 1980s

 

Marylin Chorlton passed away in 1977. This photo of Joe in the studio’s courtyard is from a 1980 issue of Plate Collector Magazine, so it was taken in 1978 or 1979. The bronze plaque at base of the tree reads In Memory of Marylin Chorlton.

This is George Ivers (who will be profiled here later this year) in 1980. He was the Art Director at Cybis during that time. On the background shelves are a giraffe that was never used for a retail piece; a Jason bust that was, in 1978; two small female busts that look remarkably like Cordey, and a pencil sketch of Berengaria. The geometric shape next to Jason is the same one that would be used for the Millennium Ornament in 2000.

This early-1980s workroom photo shows Ginny MacCotter standing and talking to one of the decorators who is working on a group of five Cinderella at the Ball, three lilac Rapunzel, and a Christopher the Sea Listener. A plethora of other late 1970s/early 1980s pieces are seen in the background. Notice how close together the worktables are; shades of Church Street??!!?

In this 1980 photo from the same shoot, Ginny MacCotter discusses two Berengaria (1979-1981) while a workroom colleague looks on.

This snapshot shows a typical section of shelves in the 1980s studio. First, the photo as it was taken.
I have circled in red each item that was never produced by the studio for retail. Question marks are above those that are not clear enough to discern exactly what they are. Where did these come from? Marylin Chorlton often bought ready-made items and put them aside as sources of inspiration, and also bought pieces from freelance artists ‘on spec.’ The circled items could be any of those.

The next four photos were taken during the studio’s Christmas party in December 1982.
(left to right) Lynn Brown, Laura Lewis, Ginny MacCotter, William Pae, and Patricia Haluska. Near the top of the tree is a cherub/angel ornament with quite a history; it’s told in the Body Snatching post.
(l-r) Lynn Brown, Laura Lewis, Ginny MacCotter, George Ivers, and Pat Haluska.
Pat Haluska and Ginny MacCotter being goofy with Rudolph noses, along with Joe Chorlton making a fashion statement.
Ginny MacCotter and Pat Haluska. On the table at left are two unpainted Persephone; hanging from a top shelf in background are a finished Spring Promise and Summer Dreams. These were all new 1982 introductions.

In March 1983 the trade publication Ceramic Industry had a three-page article about the studio, titled Traditionalism Keeps Studio Style in Factory Production. I found it interesting that they describe Cybis as a ‘factory’ at that point. The following excerpts describe specific aspects of production as it existed in the early 1980s:

Many talented artists contribute to the manufacture of each piece. Only the model designers work independently.

Somewhere between model building and mold production, the artistic aspect of the studio gives way to factory procedures. Each mold is given a schedule for slip casting according to type of issue, current demand and the status of other operations. […] But after a cast, studio procedures take hold again.

Paste-up artists first assemble the sculptures and restore very fine detail typically not obtainable from plaster molds…Using fine wire tools, scrapers, brushes and occasionally some water, artists carve the final detail into each sculpture. The artists proof acts as a guide, but a number of craftsmen work on each sculpture.

Two automatic, rolling kilns fire most of the ware produced. Originally designed for firing decorations, Cybis transformed these into high-fire (2300 F) kilns for curing porcelain. The stationary setting beds and automatic lighting of these kilns are features Cybis finds beneficial to its processes…Precise peak temperature firing is made convenient by starting the heat-up cycle at 2 a.m. Since the kiln starts automatically, ware loading takes place the day before. Peak temperature is then reached during normal working hours, and a pyrometric cone establishes firing finish.

Kiln-loading definitely created some strange bedfellows! For example, on one shelf are two Lady Godiva along with a sheep, while on another we see Queen Guinevere and The Little Match Girl sharing space.

A 1983 photo of in-house Cybis designer William Pae. An unfinished Kitty Fisher (1983 intro) stands next to a box marked with her name. Five finished Humpback Whales and a Buffalo sit along the top shelf in the background.
A shot of Bill Pae’s worktable, showing the in-progress clay model of his Helen of Troy. Sadly, the studio never produced it for retail. If they had, she might eventually have been part of the Classical Impressions series, as was the white bisque Leda and The Swan on the opposite end of the table; or perhaps she would have been a Portrait in Porcelain like Persephone (just barely seen along the right-hand edge of the picture) whom he also designed.

This 1983 or 1984 press photo depicts a decorator working on a Carousel Charger. Press photos were sometimes staged rather than being candids, but notice that in this picture the artist is wearing a smock….which many artists did while doing actual work. The artist in the background is wearing one also. I have been told that these smocks had the Cybis logo on them but have never actually seen one.

This September 1984 photo shows Ginny MacCotter working on two Brannigan and Clancy beagle pups. Notice all of the photos and other notes on the large corkboard along the back wall. Also notice how little actual workspace is available amongst all of the brushes and paints.

A happy group photo taken at the wedding reception for William Pae and Patricia Haluska in 1985. Seated, from left: Iris Ivers, Laura Lewis, Ginny MacCotter, and Lynn Klockner Brown. Standing, from left: unidentified man; George Ivers; the fiancé (name unknown) of Laura Lewis; an unidentified man; and Joseph Chorlton.

Laura Lewis holds a Dapple Grey Foal in November 1985. This became a 1986 new introduction.

A November 1985 photo of Ginny MacCotter at work. There is a fascinating assortment of unknown items along the topmost back shelves. None of these made it into retail production except for the Fire Dancer at the far right with the frond-like thing pointing to it. However, it was not actually introduced until the 1990s.

Life at the Post-1989 Studio

I have very few first-hand accounts of what it was like at the studio after late December 1989, which was when the studio suddenly laid off all their employees and went through a restructuring of sorts before announcing a ‘Grand Reopening’ in November 1990 (see The End of the Cybis Studio for more details on this part of their history.)  From time to time, if the studio received a special commission for something, they would ask one of the veteran, experienced artists to come in on a temporary basis for a few days, but otherwise the post-1989 artistic staff were all ‘new people’.

I have heard from a number of people who bought items directly from the studio via the website or the studio’s eBay portal during the 1990s and early 2000s, and one recurring complaint was the extremely long wait for anything that was not in already-finished condition. This was the unfortunate result of the studio no longer having a full-time complement of artisans and artists. Some buyers reported waiting a year or more for their sculpture, an extremely frustrating situation because all orders were non-cancellable once placed. The shipping cost was billed to the customer after the fact, so they also had no idea how much that would cost.

That said, I can describe a more positive experience of our own from the early 1990s. We made a few Saturday trips to the studio (by appointment) during the first three years of that decade. At that time I had no notion that anything at the studio had changed from the 1970s or 1980s, and I am sure that most other collectors didn’t either. During a 1992 visit I asked Joe Chorlton if they would do a special Lady and The Unicorn in the same colors that had been used on Queen Titania during the late 1970s. If I recall correctly, it took about two months from the day of our visit until the box arrived on our doorstep. Because this was a custom paint job rather than the standard retail color (which was still being offered by the studio), I did not think such a delay was terribly unreasonable. It wasn’t until many years later, after I learned of the changes in the studio’s staffing and production, that I realized my good fortune in receiving my piece so quickly! (You can see her in the Unicorns and Pegasi post, if you’re curious.)

Cybis took advantage of the factory-tour craze of the 1990s and advertised studio tours in local newspapers such as the Asbury Park Press and Princeton Town Topics. I’ll be taking a closer look at those tours in an upcoming post about advertising and marketing strategies. Some of the tour advertisements specify “by appointment only”, while others cite specific hours and days in an open-house format. The last studio-tour advertisement or citation that I can find is from November 1998, in an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Of particular interest is this excerpt:

After wandering through the half-dozen showrooms full of Cybis figures, tours are ushered into a large lecture room, where the making of the porcelains is explained. Craftspeople come in from the adjacent factory and give demonstrations of molding, glazing and painting the figures.

It does go on to say that the tourists are not allowed to go “through the factory” (i.e., workroom area) itself. We were not even offered that opportunity when we came for our by-appointment visits, although that may have been because we had our six-year-old with us! I do wonder where the circa-1998 “large lecture room” could have been. I’m finding it hard to envision any of the public/showroom spaces that I saw there during the early 1990s fitting that description, although the adjective ‘large’ can sometimes be subjective! Perhaps they converted one of the other spaces to a lecture room later in the decade.

I hope that you have enjoyed this brief look inside the Cybis studio; and now, back to our regularly scheduled sculpture-information posts next time! 😀

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