Lost Porcelain Studios: Cybis, Part One (1940s, 1950s, and Animals)

The two largest art porcelain studios operating in the USA – both in Trenton, NJ, and both now defunct – were Cybis and Boehm. I’ve already profiled Boehm’s satellite studio (Boehm of Malvern) in this Lost Porcelain Studios series, and will be doing likewise for ‘Trenton Boehm’ later this year.

I hadn’t originally planned to include Cybis in the series, because I have a separate and very encyclopedic website about them, but have now decided that it makes sense to do so…and not only because the Cybis/Boehm rivalry was the industry’s equivalent of Yankees/Mets baseball, Islanders/Rangers hockey, or Army/Navy football. Although these three posts will necessarily only scratch the surface, I’ve included links for further reading within my Cybis Archive site, should anyone’s interest be piqued enough to see more. That site includes details of pricing, backstories on the designs, and of course more, larger, and better photos. It’s the definitive everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-Cybis resource, while this and the next post provide merely a glimpse.

The Birth of the Cybis Studio

Boleslaw Cybis (pronounced see-biss) was an established Lithuanian painter during the 1920s and 1930s, studying and working in various cities in Poland, Russia, present-day Ukraine (Kharkiv), and Turkey. He and his wife, Marja Tym, were among the artists commissioned to paint murals in the Polish Pavilion for the upcoming 1939 New York World’s Fair. As they were traveling home by ship, the news came that Hitler’s army had invaded Poland. The ship returned to its New York port and, not knowing if they would ever be able to return to their home, the couple rented living and studio quarters in a suburb of New York City. They lived there for two years before relocating to Trenton, setting up a studio there, and beginning construction on a home in nearby Princeton. A parallel venture in partnership with two Philadelphia businessmen, with shared production locations, was set up as the Cordey China Company (pronounced cor-day.) According to Marylin Chorlton, who was one of the first Cybis Studio employees and would eventually inherit the studio,

We didn’t start with porcelains. We were a fine arts studio, doing paintings, tapestries, designing furniture. […] The beginning pieces [at the first studio] were crude. I don’t want to talk about them. It took about a year and half before we became confident and got all the refinements down.

The output of the Cybis studio can be divided into three styles/genres, which roughly correspond to the 1940s, 1950s, and the ‘modern studio era’ that began at the end of the 1950s.

Cybis in the 1940s

Cybis items in the 1940s had two buyer targets: The retail shopper in department stores and boutiques, and those who had a more artistic bent and wanted ‘something completely different.’

The retail 1940s pieces were extremely similar to the items being produced under the Cordey branding, and indeed some of them have been found with dual marks: a Cordey mold impression and an M.B. Cybis signature, such as on this Mandarin Man and Mandarin Woman who also appear inside a Cordey salesman’s catalog. They are about 24” tall.
This pair of miniature vases, signed M.B. Cybis and dated 1945, is also decorated in the quintessential Cordey style.

This ‘bearded sage’ bust could easily be mistaken for Cordey, were it not for the Cybis signature on the underside. This too would have been slated for a retailer.

‘Lady busts’ were being made at the first (New York) studio as well as in the Trenton one later on. These were between 12” and 14” high.
Boleslaw Cybis himself preferred to create items a little more out of the ordinary, such as these mixed-media busts. They are about 14” high overall.

The 1940s pieces is where we find what the studio called ‘papka’, a soft malleable clay material that lent itself to designs like these angels. They were featured in a circa-1940 giftware trade journal, and are 14” high
A papka horse from the same era; it is only 7” high.

Although these two bird-on-tree pieces were made in papka, the Cordey operation found them very popular when produced in porcelain; those are regularly seen nowadays on eBay.

The 1940s studio also experimented with making reproductions of historic spatterware designs, like this teapot in the Rooster pattern and plate in the Farmhouse pattern. If the mold impressions are not clear, some people might mistake these for the real (antique) thing.

Among the more whimsical, and clearly one of a kind, items are these 14” porcelain figures that the modern studio described as ‘folk toys’ – although the wisdom of giving something like this to a child to play with is somewhat doubtful!

Production at the first Trenton studio on Church Street was shared, with some artists working on Cordey figurines and bibelots, while others worked on Cybis-branded items. It was incredibly crowded, so much so that there was barely space to walk between the worktables. Photos of the first (NY) and second (Trenton) studios, in this Archive post, give an idea of what it was like. After the Cordey operation split off and was sold during the mid-1950s, there was more elbow room but still not enough. That wouldn’t happen until the studio moved to a new building in 1969. Interestingly, the modern Cybis studio chose to completely ignore the existence of the Cordey operation and never acknowledged its existence in any public-facing literature – despite the fact that during the 1940s and early 1950s there was an unmistakable overlap in “look” – as can be seen in some of the examples above. It was a deliberate expunging of the Cordey name from any association with Cybis (both the man and the studio), and one can’t help wondering why.

Cybis in the 1950s

The 1950s was the decade when the Cybis branding became wholly mainstream, i.e., aimed at the generic retail market, although Boleslaw and Marja Cybis themselves were still creating artistic items (of all kinds, not just porcelain) at their home studio in Princeton. The retail Cybis pieces were heavily focused on religious-themed items, birds, decorative accessories (but not nearly as much as within the Cordey line), and some animal pieces. Almost all of the 1950s Cybis pieces were cast from molds they purchased from commercial companies such as Holland Molds, Atlantic Molds, Ludwig Schmid, and others. Cybis would add their own decorative touches, but the main pieces came from elsewhere, and were also being purchased by other companies as well as by hobbyist potters. Because the religious pieces made up the bulk of the 1950s output during most of that decade, let’s take a look at them.
This group of 1950s Cybis angel items, including candlesticks and a pair of cherub wall-heads, shows the Cordey heritage in the gold accents and the handmade rose decorations. These were all cast from commercially-purchased molds with the possible exception of the candlesticks (but only because I haven’t yet been able to match those up!). They range from 5” to 8” tall.
A similar group of 1950s madonna pieces. The seated madonna and the single bust are known Holland Molds that are often found on eBay as done by hobbyists.
Here’s a ‘rainbow’ of the same (Holland Mold Company) madonna bust that Cybis called Mother Most Admirable. Notice the different finishes (glazed, unglazed, white bisque, etc.). This bust would later morph into their Queen of Angels modern-studio piece via the addition of a crown of roses.

Cybis often produced the same 1950s piece in multiple colorways and/or decorations. Here we have Madonna ‘Immaculate Conception’ in not only different colors, but with a slightly different base treatment on one as well.
This Saint Francis has been found as shown (with doves and lambs), and with two doves but no lambs, and also with only one dove. The no-lambs version was on a much smaller base.Notice the painting differences in these two Saint Joseph figures.
All four of these Mary and Jesus bust molds are from Holland Molds. Cybis sold them separately but they were designed by Holland as companion pieces. The Jesus bust in the upper pair is done in a colorway that the studio called “Cypia”, a play on sepia. Sometimes the companion busts had adjacent Cybis design numbers, like the lower pair do, but not always.
The Kneeling Angels were among the few 1950s Cybis designs that were sold as a pair. They are 5” tall.
Cybis also produced several crucifix designs. Most were a porcelain corpus on a wood cross, but some – like the all-white Corpus Christi – are entirely porcelain. In this example, the cross is glazed but the body is bisque (matte.)Of course, with such an emphasis on religious items, Cybis offered a nativity set. They used the 21-piece mold set from Atlantic Mold Company (if you Google vintage atlantic mold nativity you will find dozens of hobbyist versions for sale), grouped several together on a single base, and called them Nativity Murals. These were available in a choice of color or white bisque.

Twenty years later, the modern Cybis studio issued another nativity series – this time as individual figures – called The First Christmas. My Cybis Archive posts for the first and second nativity series have much better photos of each item, as well as the different colorways that both series were produced in.

Religious items really dominated the Cybis retail line during the 1950s. In addition to the various human figures (saints, angels, Jesus, madonna busts and full figures) there were plaques, holy water fonts, and the aforementioned crucifixes. Animals weren’t that much in evidence, nor flowers per se, but there were a fair number of 1950s birds. These can be seen in my Early Birds post in the Cybis Archive; like the religious figures, almost all of them were cast from purchased molds. The post-1960 studio did introduce a few angels and madonnas but no Jesus figures, no saints, and no decorative pieces.

After the death of Boleslaw and Marja Cybis in 1957 and 1958, Marylin Kozuch Chorlton and her husband inherited the studio. She had already introduced a few original designs, but now she was able to institute that vision across the board for the studio going forward. The Boehm studio had already been producing original designs for quite a while, so there was some serious catching-up to do if Cybis wanted to compete in the same space.

Cybis Animals

The modern-day (1960 forward) Cybis genres are pretty evenly split between Animals, Birds, Flowers, and Human Figures, with a smaller percentage of production being decorative accessories such as plaques, trinket boxes, vases, etc. Within each of the four main genres there were limited-edition and non-limited editions (which the studio called “open editions”). The open editions continued to be made until the studio decided to ‘retire’ them. Limited editions had a declared number at introduction, which was deemed ‘completed’ if orders were received for all of them but the edition could be ‘closed’ at a lower quantity if the studio decided to make fewer than originally planned.

The studio claimed in its advertising that when a sculpture was retired, completed or closed, “the original designs are destroyed” but in reality, this was not true; any leftover production molds were destroyed, but the master molds were always kept. Theoretically, if by “original design” they actually meant “the original final-version clay model that was created by the person who sculpted it”, and if that clay model was destroyed, their statement would be true – but that is not how most collectors would interpret it. Collectors would assume that “original designs” meant the master molds, e.g., that it would be impossible for that sculpture to be physically made again. But as long as the master molds were kept – which they were – the exact same piece could indeed be cast again.

In their first catalog, it was also claimed that “Limited editions by Cybis are never renewed” but in 1990 the studio began producing downsized replicas of some previous sculptures and called them “Hall of Fame Editions.” Don’t even get me started on my opinion of those, or we’ll be here all day! Let’s just say that I am not a fan.

Cybis sculptures were created by in-house artists and by freelance artists who either worked to a design request from the studio, or sold an already-completed original to the studio. With only two exceptions, the studio never publicly revealed who had created a given sculpture. However, by dint of tireless sleuthing I have identified quite a few and thus properly credit them throughout the text of my Archive site.The Stallion, sculpted by Lynn Klockner Brown, is 10” high. Introduced in 1968 as an edition of 500, it was closed after only 350 were made.

The Appaloosa Colt is an example of an open-edition horse study. Made from 1971-1975 and sculpted by Susan Eaton, he is 9” tall. All of the Cybis horse studies are shown in my Cybis Horses post in the Archive site.

The Cybis studio was very big on bunnies, ever since introducing their entry-level open edition Mr. Snowball white rabbit in 1962. All were open editions.
The various bunny designs lent themselves to all sorts of accessorizing, each of which was given its own edition name and retail price. The original 1981 Bunny ‘Bon Bon’ is shown at left, along with two of the 13 (!!) eventual variants: Bunny Grad, Male and Bunny ‘Patriot.’ Other bunny designs had similar offspring, although not as many as Bon Bon did.
There were four Golf Bunnies introduced in 1989, differing only in their names (Bogie [shown above], Bunkie, Gimmie, and Mulligan) and the color of their cap and club handle.  On the other hand, Huey the Harmonious Hare was one of a series of animals called the Musical Menagerie in 1986. Both of these bunnies are 6” tall. All of the Cybis bunnies – all 47 named editions, though only 14 unique designs – can be found in their own warren on my Archive site.

The carousel series began in 1973 with Cybis’ first Carousel Horse. All of the full-size carousel pieces were limited editions; some were equines and others were animals. All are between 10” and 12” high overall including their wood base and pole. Freelance artist Susan Clark Eaton sculpted all of the 1970s pieces and a few of the early 1980s ones. Carousel Horse ‘Ticonderoga’ was made only in 1975, 1976 and 1977. He was originally meant to be an edition of 500 but only 350 were made. Carousel Bull ‘Plutus’ from 1981 was likewise intended as 500 but was reduced to 325. Archive posts show all of the carousel horses and carousel animals.

The circus theme was another popular one for Cybis. Their first circus elephant was Alexander, He’s the Greatest who debuted in 1975 as an open edition; he’s 7” high and about 12” wide. His ball is attached but about 50% of them that show up nowadays on eBay no longer have it. The Cybis circus pieces included four circus dogs, a monkey, a seal, a bear, and several clowns. Most were open editions but four (a horse, a circus rider, and two clowns) were limited.

Charming woodland animals were particularly well done by Cybis during the 1960s. Both of these are open editions: Squirrel ‘Mr. Fluffy Tail’ (1965-1971) and Raccoon ‘Raffles’ (1965-1980), and both are between 7” and 8” tall.Domestic cats and dogs weren’t forgotten, either. Although officially just called Kitten, everyone called this the Kitten with Blue Ribbon for obvious reasons even though there was only one other cat in the Cybis lineup at the time (which, unsurprisingly, was called Cat.) It is six inches high and was made for only two years (1967-1969.)

In the mid-1980s Cybis began introducing other open-edition young-animal figures, such as Hippo ‘TGIF’ and the similar Rhino ‘Monday’, Walrus ‘Wellington’, and even a few pigs. They are all about five or six inches tall. The hippo and rhino later got somewhat of the Bunny Treatment, in that they acquired various accessories as separate editions – but never to the extent that the rabbit variations multiplied!The fantasy-animal genre began with two limited editions: the Unicorn in 1969 and Pegasus in 1970. Both were editions of 500, sculpted by Lynn Klockner Brown and approximately 14” tall. The Unicorn sold out in five years, and Pegasus in six. All of the unicorns and pegasi that Cybis produced can be seen in their own Archive post.

The next two Cybis animal studies had what I call ‘spinoffs’ – there was a large multi-animal group and also a single-animal sculpture derived from it. However, all were limited editions.

In 1975, the studio created what they then described as a one-of-a-kind study of three American Buffaloes. They are all from the same mold, with only the colors being different. It was a massive piece, being 38″ long, 14″ wide, and 16″ high.  It’s not known why it was made, but a single buffalo, in white, was produced for retail and named, logically, American White Buffalo. This was an edition of 250; that piece is 18” wide and almost 14” high, with an accompanying solid mahogany base that would definitely break toes if it was dropped on your foot. The piece sold out in two years. Later, in the mid-1980s when the studio was experiencing financial stress, they issued the original buffalo trio under the name Charging Buffaloes, as an edition of 25; it has the same physical dimensions as the 1975 piece. At least 20 are known to have been made. Several years later, Cybis issued a downsized replica (a Hall of Fame version) of the 1975 single white Buffalo, calling it Buffalo II; that one did not come with a base.

Also during the 1980s the studio requested that a Pennsylvania freelance sculptor, Jerry Klein, create a “large sculpture of several deer.” The result was the White-Tailed Deer, an edition of 50 in 1986, which is 28” wide and almost 19” tall. Four years later, Cybis took the mold for the buck, changed his orientation to horizontal, placed him leaping over a fallen log, and called it Deer in Motion. That piece is 16” wide, 13” high, and was an edition of 750. Mr. Klein was surprised to learn, decades later, that a separate edition had been created from his original group.

The next Cybis post looks at their birds, flowers, and decorative accessories such as plaques, vases, boxes and giftware; the third and final post focuses on their most successful genre which was human figures, and reveals the fate of the studio.

Browse the Lost Porcelain Studios series

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