Photo: Peter Brenner © 2001

Putting Design on a "New" Footing

At the beginning of the 1930s, when the Depression devastated the American economy and ended the housing boom of the 1920s, some of the biggest California potteries, which had been making architectural and agricultural products—including roof tiles, glazed tiles, and animal feeders—began producing inexpensive pottery dinnerware.

In their rush to design new shapes that would distinguish their products from their competitors’, each company adapted forms that had been made with other materials— stone, wood, metal—and forms that came from other cultures including Chinese, Japanese, and Mexican. The sometimes-witty results reveal the freethinking that would become a hallmark of California design.

Among the adaptations of traditional Mexican shapes was the shrimp cocktail server made by Catalina Pottery in about 1932 (on the right), its base undoubtedly inspired by the molcajete, or mortar (on the left), used by the pottery’s Mexican workers in the preparation of their meals. The three-footed form, which dates to the Mayan period, became one of the characteristics of California pottery.

-- Bill Stern

Photos: Peter Brenner © 2001

Esta James:
A Commercial Designer Takes the Credit She Is Due

Unlike works of studio pottery, each of which is individually designed and handcrafted by an individual artist or craftsperson, commercial pottery is usually created by a designer and a glaze chemist plus, sometimes, a decorator; it is then produced in quantity in molds. Also unlike studio pottery, which is almost always inscribed with its creator’s name or symbol, commercial pottery sometimes isn't marked, and even when it is, the designer’s name is usually absent. Most often, the only identification is the name of the company that made it. There are, of course, some exceptions, for example, when a designer or decorator has an established reputation, such as artist/illustrator Rockwell Kent, or is the owner of the company, like Barbara Willis.

The lack of recognition accorded to designers has been known to reach extraordinary extremes. To cite just one example, to this day no one knows who designed Pacific Pottery’s "Hostessware," a dining service of about one hundred pieces that includes several of California pottery’s most striking contributions to American pottery design.

Often the only way we know who was responsible for commercial pottery design is through the diligence of researchers who learn the designers' names from former company employees. Esta James, who decorated several dinnerware patterns for Franciscan Pottery of Los Angeles, is a notable exception. Among her designs was "Trio", a stylized floral motif used on a shape adapted by her then husband George James, a staff designer and later the company’s Design Director, from Morris B. Sanders’s "Metropolitan" shape. Although Franciscan would produce hundreds of patterns during its long history, "Trio" is the only one to carry a designer’s name and then only on some pieces. Ms. James subverted the company’s no-designer-credit policy by hiding her first name in the center of the dandelion-like flower that appears on some "Trio" plates, including the one shown in this exhibition.

-- Bill Stern

"Our America" coffeepot, Vernon Kilns, Vernon
decoration by Rockwell Kent, 1940

Photos: Peter Brenner © 2001

Rockwell Kent:
Not Just Another Pretty Pot

As California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism shows, pottery design is often remarkably beautiful as well as functional, but it also can be used to express ideas. In 1939, when Vernon Kilns asked Rockwell Kent to design the images for the "Our America" dinnerware service, Kent was a celebrated illustrator, painter, and author with a progressive point of view. For this set he created images that represent several sections of the United States, and some of those images express his well-known social concerns.

Among the images Kent included under the rubric “Southern Colonial States” is the scene on the salad plate, which shows a plantation mansion with an African American woman—probably a slave—picking cotton in the foreground. Since it is inconceivable that cotton would be grown, much less picked, in front of a plantation house, this scene is clearly Kent’s invention. And the reason for it seems apparent from the pose of the overseer whose head is turned toward the mansion as if to say, “This is the labor that made such luxury possible.”

Kent’s social consciousness also is apparent in the image on the "Our America" coffee pot, which is part of the “Pacific States” section of the set. Although it shows the construction of a massive suspension bridge—undoubtedly the Oakland Bay Bridge—the foreground is dominated by the stylized figure of a workman. Once again, Kent is showing us that it is labor that builds a country’s wealth.

-- Bill Stern

Barbara Willis, North Hollywood.
Square flower floater bowl. c. 1945: low bowl. c.1945
and rectangular vase. c. 1950

Photos: Peter Brenner © 2001

Barbara Willis:
A Modernist for the Masses

Barbara Willis made major contributions to the quality of commercial ceramic design in America. Her work had a strong impact when it was introduced in the 1940s and is even more appreciated now due to its incorporation of modernist studio pottery aesthetics into commercial pottery production.

In 1941, with her husband off in the Air Corps, Willis, then twenty four years-old, began making pottery at her parents’ Los Angeles home, and in 1943 she established the Barbara Willis Pottery there. Willis had studied at UCLA with the noted studio ceramist Laura Andreson, whose hand-thrown work was known for its combination of bisque and crackle-glazed clay. In her work, which was not handmade, but made in molds, Willis used the same techniques, including the crackle-glaze, in what at the time were cutting-edge glaze colors: intense turquoise, citron/chartreuse, and deep Chinese red, colors that seem to have been made to order for today's Modernist Revival sensibility.

In Willis's work we see once again the democratizing aspect of California pottery. By adapting the essence of Andreson's handmade technique to a commercial production method, Willis and her fifteen employees were able to produce pieces that looked handmade and make them available to the general public at a fraction of the cost of individually thrown pieces. According to Willis, at that time a piece of her work that would retail for $5 was comparable to one of Andreson's that would have cost five times as much.

Adapted from the book California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism by Bill Stern. Photographs by Peter Brenner © 2001. Published in the U.S. by Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco. Used with permission.

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Photos: Peter Brenner © 2001

Pottery Marks

As a rule, commercial pottery can be identified by a mark on the base that includes the name of the company that made it. Occasionally the mark also includes the designer's name or the name of the pattern. Marks may be incised as seen on Brayton Laguna (3) and Barbara Willis (17) pottery, in-mold as on Catalina (6) and CALCO (California Clay Products Co.) (4) pottery, or stamped as on Franciscan Ware (7) and Metlox (11) pottery. Several companies also used paper or foil labels at various times, but these rarely survive.

Incised marks are worked into pieces of pottery by hand after they are removed from the mold and before the clay has dried. This is done with either a stylus or a metal stamp. In-mold marks - whether recessed or raised - are integral parts of the molds themselves. Stamped marks are applied to the clay after it is fired, but before it is glazed.

  1. Architectural Pottery, Los Angeles
  2. J. A. Bauer Pottery Co., Los Angeles
  3. Brayton Laguna Pottery, Laguna Beach
  4. California Clay Products Co., South Gate
  5. California Faience, Berkeley
  6. Catalina Pottery, Avalon
  7. Franciscan Ware, Los Angeles
  8. Garden City Pottery, San Jose
  9. Gladding, McBean & Co., Los Angeles
  10. Heath Ceramics, Sausalito
  11. Metlox Potteries, Manhattan Beach
  12. Pacific Pottery, Los Angeles
  13. Padre, Lincoln Park
  14. Vernon Kilns, Vernon
  15. Vernon Kilns, Vernon Designer: Jane Bennison
  16. Vernon Kilns, Vernon Designer: May & Genevieve Hamilton
  17. Barbara Willis, North Hollywood

Pacific Pottery, Los Angeles.
Hostessware waffle batter pitcher (left)
maple syrup pitcher, and tray. c. 1934

Photos: Peter Brenner © 2001

Is There Lead in California Pottery?

The answer is yes. But you can use California pottery if you're sensible about it. There is no reason to fear that admiring, living with, or even, in extreme cases, fondling old pottery will be harmful to your health even if it does contain lead. But when it comes to using it for food, remember the following guidelines: Since it takes time for lead to leach out of glazes, avoid using pottery for acidic foods like fruit juices, tomatoes, pickles, coffee, and wine. Use pottery for serving, but never store food in it. And do not microwave food in it.

Although federal regulations have substantially reduced the danger from lead in new dinnerware production, even many of today's glazes are achieved through the use of lead. As surfaces become abraded, cracked, or crazed, the lead can leach out of dishes and into foods and beverages over a period of time.

Uranium oxide was formerly used in red, orange, and yellow glazes, including those made by Bauer, Catalina, Pacific, and Vernon Kilns. As for Fiesta, the Homer Laughlin Company of Newell, West Virginia, was using much of America's uranium supply for its glazes until 1943, when the federal government confiscated its stock of the radioactive mineral, leading the company to announce: "Fiesta Red has gone to war."

The following guidlines are from the Web site of the nonprofit organization Environmental Defense:
  • Don't store food or drink in questionable china pitchers, bowls, etc.

  • Don't serve highly acidic food or drink in questionable china, especially to children.

  • Don't heat or microwave questionable china.

  • If the glaze is corroded, or if there is a dusty or chalky gray residue on the glaze after the piece has been washed, don't use it. This type of china could be dangerous.

How to Test Your Pottery:

Lead in pottery can be tested at home by using a simple yes/no procedure that reveals whether or not the surface tested contains more than the Food and Drug Administration's maximum allowable content (0.5 parts per million for cups, 3.0 parts per million for plates). You can test at home to determine whether lead is leaching from your dinnerware by using any of several home test kits. Among them:

LeadCheck Swabs
P.O. Box 1210
Framingham, MA 01701

Know Lead Kit
Carolina Environment
P.O. Box 26661
Charlotte, NC 28221

From the book California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism by Bill Stern. Photographs by Peter Brenner © 2001. Published in the U.S. by Chronicle Books LLC, San Francisco. Used with permission.

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