Elia “Russ” Russinoff spent his high school years in the 1940s doodling cars in the margins of his notebooks. That led him to a correspondence course advertised in Popular Mechanics. The Detroit Institute of Automotive Styling claimed the class would be “personally directed by Harley J. Earl“—the legendary GM executive the National Corvette Museum calls “the father of the Corvette.”
Russinoff began turning drawings into models. At 16, he submitted an entry for the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild. The following year, he earned third place in the Michigan state competition for auto design. The year after that, he won, securing a $4000 scholarship with a model of a rear-engined sedan. His love of design was cemented.
A Detroit native and lifelong GM artist who retired in 1995, Russinoff died in November at the age of 90. This weekend, Eclectic Attic Estate Sales will host a two-day estate sale at Russinoff’s Farmington, Michigan home. The collection includes abstract paintings, plenty of midcentury modern furniture, and it highlights his his drawings and prints, automobile memorabilia, personal tools, and even his drafting table.
“He was drawing up until a few years ago,” Russinoff’s son, Paul, says. “It was something that was in his blood.”
After high school, Elia Russinoff made his way to the Pratt Institute, which had a relationship with GM. In 1955, GM design honcho Bill Mitchell—another lifelong GM design legend recruited by Harley Earl—visited Pratt scouting for talent. Russinoff said the GM icon looked at his portfolio and told him he had gasoline in his veins. Two years later, Russinoff was seated as one of the new hires among the Chevrolet design team, working for the same man who’d guided his correspondence course.
During his nearly 40-year career, Russinoff said he preferred to stay in the concept studios where design wasn’t restricted by production feasibility, and he turned down promotions in order to stay in place. He ended up doing a few tours in the production studios, though, putting his pens and brushes to work on the tortured gestation of the Chevrolet Corvair and the second- and third-generation Pontiac Firebird.
Paul Russinoff says his father’s “whole life was devoted to automotive design, and he had a tremendous sense of style.” Paul says Elia was most proud of his work on the front end of the 1966 Pontiac Grand Prix, and the elder Russinoff assisted on the second-generation hardtop sports cruiser. The estate sale includes a framed montage of the Corvair and those Pontiacs, as well as another framed montage of a few of Russinoff’s concept vehicles.
Two of the designer’s original works are also part of the sale. One is a sports car idea from 2008 that stresses the “organic forms” Paul says his father favored. The other is a modern take on a Duesenberg that Russinoff drew for the League of Retired Automotive Designers. Among the most arresting works is a print of a concept from the 1970s that could have come from Syd Mead and looks like a proper accompaniment for Bertone’s 1970 Lancia Stratos HF Zero concept.
The automobilia includes brochures for everything from the Studebaker Commander Convertible to the first-gen Volkswagen Scirocco, vintage car magazines and books, a school bus lunchbox, and hand tools suitable for a professional modeler’s tool chest. And for the high schooler currently filling up his 21st-century class notebooks with car designs, Russ’ drafting or office tables would make a fine boost to inspiration.
Russ painted for his own pleasure, and alongside a print of Joan Miro’s Abstract, the sale offers two of Russinoff’s original abstract paintings.
Last November, the Detroit Institute of Arts debuted new exhibit called “Detroit Style,” chronicling 70 years of automotive design. The artwork is especially great—decades of sketches and paintings that rarely leave an automaker’s design studio, each image a step in charting the conceptual roads that cars take from idea to production. One of those sketches on the wall was penned by Russinoff, who died a few days before the exhibit opened.
“I’m kind of amazed that there’s been so much interest in the sale itself,” Paul says. “I know my dad is looking down and he’s very, very happy with the level of interest.”
If you’re reading this anywhere near Farmington, Michigan and wish to stop by, be forewarned: Eclectic Attic is hosting an estate sale, not an auction. Items will come with a fixed price. The sale runs Saturday, January 16 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The serendipitously named Tina Camero, the estate sale consultant, told us that in the interest of fairness she doesn’t do pre-sales, and she expects a crowd. There’s been a fair bit of coverage on the sale, so playing the early bird might not be a bad idea.
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