Lenox Group Inc., a housewares-and-collectibles maker with roots in Trenton and a long-time association with fine tableware, has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Lenox Group said on November 24 that it is seeking court approval to conduct business without interruption. It wants approval for a $85 million debtor-in-possession financing package, which would enable it to continue operations, pay employees, and make material purchases. The loan would be made through its current revolving lender group, which was not identified. The company is in the process of finding a buyer.

Lenox Group brands include Department 56, Gorham, Dansk, and the flagship Lenox label.

In its filing the company said that it is “fundamentally sound,” but that its business “has been significantly impacted by economic conditions and excessive debt levels incurred at the time Department 56 purchased Lenox Inc. in 2005.

In July, 2005, Lenox was bought by Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Department 56, which paid $196 million in cash to Louisville, Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corp., maker of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and other spirits. Brown-Forman owned Lenox for 22 years.

At the time of the sale to Department 56, Lenox was based in Lawrenceville. In 2006 the company announced a plan to consolidate sites in Lawrenceville and Langhorne, Pennsylvania, into a former Dial Soap factory in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

The company was founded by Walter Scott Lenox, who was born in 1859 in Trenton. Laced with transportation lines and located near sources of fuel and clay, the city became the country’s leading ceramics center in the 19th century, with some 200 potteries. Lenox founded his company, originally called Ceramic Art Company, in 1889.

It was organized as an art studio, rather than a factory, and offered one-of-a-kind artwares in ivory china, rather than a full line of ceramics. The painted and modeled vases, pitchers, and tea sets, produced at first by just 18 employees, were met with an enthusiastic reception. By 1897 examples of Lenox’s work were included in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

The fashion for art ceramics was overtaken by another trend in the early 20th century: fine home dining, often in a separate dining room. To meet the demand for tabletop ceramics Lenox began offering custom-designed and elaborately decorated service plates in about 1902, despite the domination of European china. The plates, painted by such acclaimed artists as William Morley, were so successful that Lenox turned his attention increasingly to complete sets of dinnerware and in 1906 changed his firm’s name to Lenox.

The company operates a retail outlet store in Cranbury. A spokesperson there says that the store has not been affected by the bankruptcy filing, and will continue to operate as usual throughout the holiday season.

Lenox China Store, 53 Commerce Drive, Cranbury 08512; 609-395-8051; fax, 609-395-0542.

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