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Couroc - an incomplete but growing History

marigold05
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The Couroc Company was a Monterey California company that produced many different types and shapes of trays, boxes, ashtrays and glassware from 1948 until their closure in the early 1990s.  Their products have become and remain collectible because of their high quality and beauty.

Guthrie Courvoisier, owner of Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco formed Couroc in 1948.  His wife, Moira Wallace was a designer that was involved in designing manufacturing - sometimes even 'signing' her work.  Couroc was formed in Monterey an area that held strong artistic communes at the time.  Being located in a beautiful part of the Pacific coast had other advantages, Couroc relied on a plentiful supply of natural design elements, especially coral and shells.

Couroc's Early Years

Prior to the war, Courvoisier had worked with the Walt Disney Company and brought the first commercially available animation cels to market.  These cels are still known as "Courvoisier Cels" and are quite valuable today.

Courvoisier gained valuable experience with plastics while participating in the war effort.  Courvoisier soon began to put this experience to work - he and his wife began to tinker around with new techniques of producing household items with superior design.  The first generation of Couroc products were made of a heavy translucent material that was extremly prone to shattering.  The name Couroc was an amalgamation of 'Cour'voisier and 'rock' as in hard-as-a-rock.  These early pieces have early Couroc labels so the name was derived while their products were still highly breakable.  The products in that first generation tended to be large bowls and cake trays.  After much experimentation, however, the Courvoisiers created a proprietary formula of phenolic resin that was durable enough to form into trays.  This formula was extremely durable and resistant to alcohol and flame.  While this formula has changed over the years, that proprietary recipe served as the basis for several decades work.

In the early years, Courvoisier ran Couroc a little like an art-commune, employing many skilled artisans. During these early years, the artists carefully arranged bits and pieces of common metal items one might find at a hardware store into elements of the design. Items like springs, screws, glitter, safety pins and paper clips were commonly part of Couroc's best designs. The artisans also used pieces of brass and other metals and carefully bent them into shape.

Here is an example of an early Couroc tray:

Early designs often had sealife put in them.  It may have been among the very earliest of design ideas.  Trays with extensive use of coral and shell almost always have very early foot types.  They were also very prone to warping.  I suspect this has more to do with the formula of phenolic resin than anything else.  The use fish among the coral as a design element was an early experiment with mass production.  

Most often found in black, this tray is actually an early experiment in green Couroc.  The color is a mixture of black and green "pellets".


Other early examples

I have seen this design with a number of variations.  It sometimes has an overhead trellis made of a similar type of inlay as that found in the fish in the above tray.

Couroc changed the formula for the resin a great deal in these early years and there is a lot of variation in the surface "look".  It was seldom shiney and it was often not smooth to the touch.  The color was often a very deep coffee color rather than the black of the very early or later trays.

Couroc seemed to be experimenting with green during the first years of the business.  This is another example of green Couroc - probably an unsucessful experiment.



Couroc's Later Years

Couroc's founder was involved with the arts until his death in the 1970's.  Afterwards the company was sold several times, at one point even being owned by RC Cola.  The later Couroc years tended to rely less on the layout talents of artisans.   They show a greater reliance on larger pre-made designs during the later years.  While the early trays were much more individual and unique, later tray designs were far more standard.

Couroc often employed trendy or whimsical themes to design.  Couroc influenced and followed design preferences for four decades - that is one of the things that makes them particularly collectable.  One can see America's design preferences change through Couroc's products.  Couroc's early trays are known for "modern" design while the 1970's Couroc trays tended to be "Mod".   See the difference? 

Some of the designs are particularly thematic, for example, in the 1980's Couroc released a series of mosaic and eygptian themes.  These probably coincided with National Geographic's publishing of the Pompeii/Herculaeneum excavation in which fantastic mosaics were unearthed from the ruins of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 ad. The travelling exhibition of King Tut also caused a mojor cultural trend which I believe spurred Couroc to produce a series of Egyptian themed trays and other items.   

                                   


While tastes differ, some of the most desirable trays are the aquatic scenes, mosaics, abstract "atomic" bird characters, Walt Disney Tiki Room and the 1950's Capitol Records Tray.
In Couroc's middle and later years there were many joint ventures in which Couroc produced trays for high-end Department stores such as Nieman-Marcus, Filine's and Macy's.  Several top universities  (Wellsley and Smith) had trays made that featured their school crest or landmark.  Couroc also worked with several trophy and award manufacturers to product many award items, especially for golf tournaments.  There also seems to have been more of a focus on regional sales for a while, lighthouses and train stations for example.  These items were probably sold locally only.
Couroc trays were always expensive.  The only time I have ever seen a new one offered for sale, it was priced around $165 dollars - and that was in the 1980s.  Couroc was very high end and only sold by top merchants.  Having your own Couroc design (as in the Hotel Del Coranado, for example) was probably a status symbol.

So that is what I know about Couroc in a nutshell.  I will be adding more to this as I learn more and I ask that anybody with information about Couroc please contact me.  I will also be adding photos of Couroc details (like labels and feet).  Please peruse my other guides and by all means use the "safe shipping" one.  Send it to sellers when you buy a tray - it will save you countless broken trays.


 
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