I found this “pair” of melamine Mid-Century Modern mugs together at a reuse centre and paid a grand total of nothing! That’s how much I knew about melamine dishes at the time, too. I put ‘pair’ in quotation marks because, though these two mugs look like they are from the same set or even the same line, they have subtle differences and have completely different makers’ marks on them. How did this happen? Cue the eerie mystery music…
What’s so special?
My favourite features of these mugs are the satisfying thunk the thick plastic makes when I put it down. It’s not cheap, modern plastic; this stuff feels solid. Even some of the later melamine pieces I have found are much thinner and make more of a brittle-sounding tink. I also love the functional design which is a variation of the original design by industrial designer Russel Wright. (Wright’s design had the ridge on the side, but the handle flowed smoothly across the rim, without the dropped ridge connecting these handles to the cups.) In any case the style of handle and the ridge on the opposite side are both deliberately placed to allow for stacking the mugs straight up. I believe this came from a military design. Such utilitarian beginnings for some pretty little housewares!
I love a mug that stacks up!
Beyond the vintage functionality and cool shape of these mugs, I had no idea the conflict, drama and legal wrangling associated with the companies producing melamine dishes and in particular the production of this mug design. Good grief! For a well-researched melamine website, visit Melmac Central and read up on designer Russel Wright and the Cyanamid company because it’s darned fascinating. Certainly, there is much more to the story of the proliferation of Russel Wright’s melamine dinnerware designs and the myriad copies–even by the very company that contracted his designs–as well as his ill-fated battle for royalties than we’ll ever get to know. I’m not sure how these two mugs with two different makers came to be, or how they came to be made in Canada since they so closely match the original (and hotly contested according to Melmac Central) Russel Wright mug.
As for the production date of these mugs, the colours suggest late sixties because: harvest gold and avocado green. Need I say more? Okay, I will.
I always pounce on mass-produced housewares that are stamped “Made in Canada”. These three words nearly always guarantee a mid-20th century piece, since Canada’s housewares manufacturing heyday pretty well started and ended in that era (early 40s to early 70s for Canada vs. mid-30s to mid-60s for MCM design era). It seems like a logical conclusion that the 1968 stamped on the green one is a year. For the yellow one, there’s no year but here’s an interesting tidbit: the Cyanamid of Canada company was one of the six biggest chemical companies in Canada in the 60s, all of whom participated in the Kaleidoscope pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. Perhaps this mug was made around that time as well. Who knows? Maybe by posting them I’ll find someone who can tell me more…if you know anything or have more of the same, please post in the comments. I’d love to hear about it.
Melamine is a classic MCM material. The era was all about factories using the newest materials like plastic and plywood and designers capitalizing on the new techniques and mass-production capabilities while adding their own design flare. Ironically, these very principles of innovative design during the middle of the century have become dirty words in the new millennium. Unless you’re into vintage! Which is, in itself, ironic: vintage lovers going gaga over man-made materials and mass-produced design, rather than rare antiques…how bizarre! (Speaking of man-made and not particularly rare vintage: see also the resurgence in utilitarian Pyrex collections–I love this colourful screenshot I took from a “pyrex” search on Pinterest today.)
So, it’s the early 1940s and enter colourful melamine. Plastic was going to be the new fine china! Easy to ship, indestructible-ish, fun colours and graphic patterns. It was the antithesis of English bone china with it’s gold trims and floral bouquets.
A little about Melmac vs. melamine and the Canadian makers. Melamine is an organic compound which is used to make melamine resin that can be molded into any shape. Melmac was the trade name owned by the American Cyanamid company which made and sold its own brand of melamine powder to other manufacturers. Therefore, if the melamine powder used to make the product was purchased from Cyanamid, it’s Melmac. If the powder was made by someone else, it’s melamine, but it’s not Melmac. I have to assume the yellow mug is Melmac since it is actually a Cyanamid product that was made in Canada. The green one is from the Vanguard collection by Maplex so I’m not totally sure where the powder came from, but Maplex was one of the big three producers of melamine housewares in Canada at the time. (The other two were GPL and RPL.)
(More details on Canadian melamine dishes can be found in a post on the Melmac Central page, again, a fascinating history lesson that is so wrought with intrigue and corporate maneuverings that it reads like a novel!)
What I did to it.
I drank coffee from it! Lots of it.
After running these fun mugs through the dishwasher, the green one became my office coffee mug. I like that it’s a little bigger and can just fit the yummy cappuccino from our office coffee machine. The yellow one stays mostly in my cupboard because of its size, but I pull it out from time-to-time, especially when my mother visits and she wants a small cup o’ joe to satisfy the craving.
If you’re looking for an inexpensive collectible to funk up your kitchen cupboards, melamine might be the ticket.
I have also learned a tonne (that’s a metric tonne cuz it’s way more than an imperial ton!) about early plastics and the designer Russel Wright. It’s also been cool to learn about my own country’s manufacturing history. Apparently, Canadians weren’t big adopters of plastic dinnerware, so very little of it was sold compared to the U.S. I like to think it makes my mugs a little more rare, but really, they’re just cool to look at. For research purposes, it is also interesting to see these pieces popping out of the woodwork; the Maplex Vanguard mug is known to the melamine world, but this is the first reference I’ve personally seen of the Beaumont mug by Cyanamid; yet another version of the Russel Wright copies. Kinda cool!
I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more melamine and Melmac in my travels. It’s functional and funky. I’m also curious to see what other versions there might be of the Canadian produced pieces. Were the designs used legitimately? Were they patent infringements? Were the molds just cast-offs when the Americans grew tired of them? Was Cyanamid trying to make some cash on the sly by selling Russel Wright designs where they wouldn’t be seen by him (or his lawyers) and therefore avoid paying his royalties? Inquiring minds want to know!
Learn more about melamine, Russel Wright and Melmac
Bob’s Your Uncle, in cooperation with the Russel Wright estate, has re-released some of the designer’s most beautiful melamine dinnerware pieces from his 1953 residential line. Dreamy, swoopy lines and soft vintage colours. Find them at russelwrightresidential.com. (Note, they are made in China, not in the U.S. like the originals. Not even made in Canada, sheesh!)
Russel Wright was first known and still most famously for his ceramics. His “American Modern” collection is found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection in New York. Image shown at left.
If you’re into the science of melamine, I read more of this Wikipedia page than my brain will soon recover from.
If you’ve got more info to share on these Canadian made melamine pieces, don’t forget to post in the comments below. Thanks!