Moses Haskell (b.1855) and his wife, Fanny Lipschiz Haskell (b. 1863), immigrated to Des Moines, Iowa, from Russia in the late 1880s or early 1890s and opened a grocery store. They had at least four children, Mary, Joseph, Tillie and Louis. Joseph Haskell (b. 1893) married Mary Kalis (b. 1894) of St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1915. They eventually moved to New York City, where they had three children, Sylvan K., Edward Norton and Irene Marjorie.
Edward Norton Haskell (1920-1988) worked as a clerk for an ad agency after graduating from high school in 1939. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in February 1942 and served in Western Europe, including on the Rhineland and Normandy campaigns. He attained the rank of sergeant.
In August 1945, a month after returning from the service, Haskell married Shirley Jane Zirinsky (1923-2013) of Cedarhurst, Long Island. Her parents, Louis and Bertha Zirinsky, had owned a family jewelry store that failed during the Great Depression. They later had a suit and coat shop and worked for Republic Aviation before returning to the jewelry business about 1944.
After the war, Edward Haskell worked with his father as an ad rep for Merchant’s Trade Journal. With a partner, Josh Rothstein, he bought an artificial flower manufacturer. Edward and Jane Haskell moved to Riverdale, in the Bronx, in 1947, to be closer to the company’s offices.
Before and after serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II, Sylvan Haskell, known as “S.K.” or “Bud,” worked in the sporting goods department of Kaufmann’s Department Store, in Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh, after acquiring a small manufacturer of workbenches and drafting tables in Wilkinsburg, Pa., he streamlined the plant and redesigned the products. In 1948, he invited his younger brother to manage operations at the newly named Haskell Inc. while he headed sales. The following year, Edward and Jane Haskell rented an apartment in Shadyside. A few years later, they commissioned architect Herbert Seigle to design a house on Beechmont Road in Squirrel Hill.
With the increase in white collar employment in the United States in the years after World War II, Haskell Inc. pursued what it called “the Great Middle Market.” They targeted junior executives by producing sturdy and sleek office furniture at a lower price than traditional office furnishings. Proximity to the heart of the American steel industry allowed the company to secure materials at affordable prices even during the shortages of the post-war years. The company grew from nine employees in 1947 to 270 employees working two daily shifts in 1962.
As Haskell grew, the company moved to the Terminal Warehouse on the South Side and later to a custom-built plant in Verona, Pa. The company acquired the Riteform Chair Company in 1963 and the Illinois-based Bentson Manufacturing Company in 1967. By the mid-1960s, Haskell was accepting government contracts and distributing furnishings nationally to classrooms and offices.
Bud Haskell retired from the company in the early 1980s. Edward Haskell acquired his brother’s share of the company and became president of the board of directors. About 1986, he sold the company to its president, Joe Wodjack, and retired. After Edward Haskell died in 1988, Jane Haskell rejoined the board of directors to manage her husband’s interest. The company was eventually transferred to new owners and remains in business, based in Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
In the early 1940s, Jane Haskell used a loan from her grandmother to study painting and design at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. After graduating in 1944, she moved to Manhattan where she designed commercial window displays and packaging design for the cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein. In Pittsburgh, in 1953, after the birth of their third and youngest child, Haskell enrolled in a painting workshop led by Samuel Rosenberg at the Young Men & Women’s Hebrew Association in Oakland. She studied under Rosenberg for nearly a decade. At his memorial service in 1973, she recalled visiting him in the hospital: “Even in illness Sam was still the artist and the teacher. He talked to us about his feelings, and about sketching: about the vitality of catching a moving image on paper, about the importance of sketching continually in order to be able to capture this vitality. He said, ‘You know, life doesn’t stand still. The ocean didn’t pose for Winslow Homer.’” Haskell also studied with Virgil Cantini at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a Master of Arts degree in 1961. Early in her career, she signed paintings “J. Haskell,” believing she would have greater success in the art world if her gender was ambiguous.
Her early work included abstract oil paintings on natural themes and sculptural assemblages made from scrap found at the Haskell Inc. plant. In the mid-1960s, she moved into “optical” art, which used precise geometric shapes to create sometimes dizzying patterns. “However, the vibrations obtained through color relationships alone are not sufficient. Spatial intervals, determined by the ‘golden mean,’ combine with color to create optical illusions of varying intensity in my paintings,” she told a reporter in 1969. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, she started incorporating artificial light sources such as fiber optics, fluorescent bulbs and neon into sculptures and canvases to explore spiritual and natural themes through the diffusion of light.
Haskell used these techniques to celebrated effect in Rivers of Light, an installation in the Steel Plaza subway station in downtown Pittsburgh in 1986 — her first major public commission. She used a wall of glass bricks embedded with neon to mimic the way city lights reflected on Pittsburgh’s rivers. The highly publicized project led to other commissions, including works for the University of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh YMCA and airports in Boston and Ft. Lauderdale. She later added digital photography, glass blowing and other media to her repertoire.
Following her husband’s death, Haskell became a prolific creator and exhibitor of art. She was known across the country, particularly through her association with A. I. R., a cooperative art gallery for women in Manhattan, where she exhibited in 1988, 1990 and 1992. She also became a leader in the Pittsburgh arts community, serving on the boards of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and the Society of Sculptors. She taught art classes at Duquesne University and was a substitute teacher for Winchester-Thurston School. The Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition named her “Citizen of the Year” in 2003, and the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts named her “Artist of the Year” in 2006.