“Today in any definition of the craftsman there is still inherent the idea of the man who makes things by his hands, one at a time with his skill, his tools, his intuitive gifts of form, color, and use of materials and techniques.” These words, written by John Smith, appeared in the British Journal of Aesthetics in 1971. This definition of the craftsman (and by implication the handmade) is quite indicative of the attitude that fueled the crafts movement in the second half of the 20th century here in the United States. The GI Bill had educated thousands of men, many of whom became potters who were performing all the steps needed to produce each piece they made. At the same time, a large educated consumer class emerged that was eagerly seeking relief from the anonymous goods that had flooded the market. It was a perfect match and the result was a time that was rich in production and also in dollars. This rich relationship drove the marketplace and in turn defined how most clay pieces were produced.
However, this make-it-all-yourself approach wasn’t all that was going on in the clay world. For some working in the clay field, it was appropriate to produce pieces using industrial tools and thinking. Garth Clark, writing in the catalog Object Factory II for the exhibition of the same name at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, reminds us of the role of industry in our field. “Applied art as a critical movement has begun to take on its own character, not better but different from craft. Most importantly, its processes, even if they produce unique objects, are drawn from the factory floor.”
Beginning with the Arts and Crafts movement at the beginning of 19th century, the applied arts have grown in importance and recognition. The Bauhaus philosophy, and the work of many of the designer crafts people who worked and studied there, have driven the applied arts since the middle of the 19th century.
Ceramic history is filled with artists using various industrial techniques and approaches to produce their work. Eva Zeisel immediately comes to mind as a leader in the industrial ceramics field. Born in Budapest in 1906, she was a design force throughout most of the 20th century. Although her pieces were produced by other workers using molds made from her originals, her respect for and understanding of clay was always evident. After all, she began her career by apprenticing herself to a traditional potter in Germany, attaining journeyman status and working in a number of factories before she immigrated to the United States in 1938. Although now 103 years old, she continues to design sensuous pieces that are produced in porcelain by James Klein and David Reid (www.kleinreid.com).
Another believer in the philosophy that the hands making the object don’t have to be the hands of the person who designed it was potter and designer Edith Heath. A one-woman show in the mid-forties at San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor introduced her understated pottery, and her simple pieces were picked up for sale in Gump’s San Francisco store. Subsequently, she founded Heath Ceramics (www.heathceramics.com) in 1948 and the company quickly became known for its mid-century modern dinnerware and architectural tiles.
Russell Wright was a major star of 20th century industrial ceramics. Unlike Zeisel and Heath, he did not have a background in ceramics, but rather was a designer. Clearly he had an understanding and appreciation for clay, as is reflected in his American Modern dinnerware line that became the largest selling dinnerware up to that time. These designer craftsmen, along with their counterparts in the studio, were part of the engine driving the crafts movement that began to explode in the 1970s.
Makers and consumers alike have contributed to the natural evolution of our field over the last 40 years. In 2010 we find ourselves in the era of the “not so hand made.” The consumers are younger and bring very different product preferences and shopping habits to the marketplace. This younger consumer group, often called the Millennials, numbers about 71 million. The Internet is one of their major shopping tools, this consumer doesn’t have to touch to decide-just click. Their motivations are also quite different, they are probably not collectors but what might be called problem solvers. They need a gift, something to eat from, or have an empty shelf or wall. They are likely to become repeat customers if they find the shopping experience easy and pleasant and if they get the right feedback about their purchases. The Internet sites Artful Home, Amazon, and Etsy are just a few of the preferred shopping sites for this gang.
Potters today who have freed themselves from the constraint that everything must be made by their hands are exploring numerous other avenues to produce their work and get it to market. The models run from a potter working alone using industrial equipment in the studio to the clay designer who, once the piece is designed, never touches it again.
Nancy Pizarro and Andrew Witt began Circa Ceramics, (www.circaceramics.com) in 1999. They are life and work partners who make all their pieces themselves in their studio in a refitted industrial building on the north side of Chicago. They use only porcelain, which is either shaped using a jigger/jolly system or slip casting. This team didn’t turn to industrial processes to increase production, rather it was the look and the feel of the pieces they were producing and the level of consistency demanded by one of their first clients (a coffee company) that sent them in that direction. They have gone on to create a line of functional pieces that get their power from clean forms, vibrant color, and quirky decoration. Soon they realized they needed an efficient way to put client’s information on the pieces. Again they turned to industry for a solution and began screen printing to create decals. Andrew points out, “the major benefit of screen printing is its use of vector files that can be sent via email directly from the client so we can begin doing our work of producing the end result.” Mastery of this technology allowed them to create decals from their own designs that are used to decorate the surfaces of their brightly colored pieces. “For us, what keeps all this exciting is that we have been given a tiny glimpse of what the tableware industry is like,” they observe. “And this industry, much like the fashion industry, has trained people’s perception of what pottery should and shouldn’t be. It is through the use of industrial processes that we can enter into this world and play upon these perceptions.” Enter that world they have, and built a line that appeals to the forward looking consumer who is drawn to the vibrant colors and quirky decal images. Circa Ceramics markets their work at local retail shows, but in keeping with their interest in up-to-the-minute production techniques, it logically follows that they would make Etsy.com their major marketing tool.
A light-filled studio in Boston is the home base for Jill Rosenwald (www.jillrosenwald.com). She is a designer with an understanding of, and interest in, functional ceramic forms who sought a way to get her images on the surfaces of functional pottery. Not a potter herself, Jill found potters who could throw the forms she had drawn on paper. Today, all the pieces are thrown by a skilled potter working to Rosenwald’s specifications in her studio. She also creates the surface designs on paper and then works with her painter to transfer them to the ceramic surface. They work through a series of trials until the design suits her. The finished design is then added to her line and each subsequent piece is thrown and then glazed by this team. This arrangement is similar to the structure of many production potteries of the Arts and Crafts movement. Rosenwald continues to create new designs as she oversees the production of her work and continues to develop the marketing aspects of her growing business.
The Queens, New York, studio of James Klein and David Reid is an up-to-the-minute example of the use of molds. They attribute their interest in production pottery to their early years in Ohio, where they were exposed to the production pottery by Hall China Company, Homer Laughlin China Company, Roseville Pottery Company, and Weller Pottery. Each piece they produce is first carved by them from plaster. They use this master to create the molds that they use to produce the final product. In this studio, the use of molds has a place other than to speed production. “As our aesthetic developed, molds and plaster simply became the best way to make the thing we were picturing in our heads . . . sometimes challenging ourselves to make the use of molds vital to the pieces we were making.” In 1999, Klein and Reid began a collaboration with Eva Zeisel that resulted in a porcelain line that could only have been made using the industrial processes they have mastered. They sum up their process saying, “We want to be the invisible hand that created the thing and, to this end, molds are useful partners.”
Jonathan Adler (www.jonathanadler.com) began working with clay in high school; his resume says, “Spends entire adolescence in basement of parent’s modern house throwing pots.” He then went to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, to study art history, but spent most of his time at the Rhode Island School of Design making pots. In 1993, he showed a group of pots at Barney’s where they were a huge success, which led to more and more orders. Adler soon realized he wasn’t cut out to make the same pots all day. His solution to his production problems was to seek help from Aid To Artisans (www.aidtoartisans.org), which is a nonprofit organization that connects artists in the US to artisans in developing countries. In this instance, Adler was connected to a small clay studio in Peru. Again from his resume: “1997, flies to Peru and discovers paradise-a beautiful workshop by the sea with parrots and gardens and incredible artisans, creative explosion ensues.” Currently, the prototypes for each piece are developed at the New York studio and then shipped to Peru. The Peruvian artisans create molds and the line is cast and finished. Today, Adler is a designer working in numerous mediums, much like Russell Wright did in the last century.
Going forward the clay worker, whatever they call themselves, will be confronted with the realities of what might be called the new normal. The totally-made-by-hand object has become, by nature of its cost, a luxury product only available to more affluent consumers. It is certainly important that this facet of our field continue. It is, after all, how skills are passed on. However, the traditional collector group that has fueled the demand for studio pots is aging and fading from the scene. This, coupled with rapidly changing levels of appreciation for handmade ceramics (the mark of the hand is no longer the selling point), presents today’s clay worker with a marketplace that little resembles that of the last generation. These indicators, along with well-designed industrial tools and an ample number of studio models, suggest the studio potter can, with thoughtful care, embrace a broader approach to how their work is produced, and can continue to honor their materials.
the author Donald Clark is the author of Making a Living in Crafts (Lark Books), numerous articles on the business of crafts, and co-owner of Ferrin Gallery (www.ferringallery.com) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.