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Refrigerator Pitchers, Clarence M. Burroughs (1904-1998)
mfg. by Burroughs Mfg. Co, Los Angeles, c. 1948
Photo: Daniel Chavkin

iMac G3 Jonathan Ive (b. 1967)
mfg. Apple, Inc. (in production 1998-2003)
plastic, metal
Photo: Daniel Chavkin



Plastics from Paradise:
California Modernizes the American Lifestyle

Curated by Bill Stern

Presented by the Museum of California Design
in conjunction with Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale
Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 North Avenida Caballeros,
February 17 to 20, 2017

Plastics from Paradise: California Modernizes the American Lifestyle (detail),
featuring Glasspar G2 sports car: fiberglass (glass-reinforced plastic) body by William R. “Bill” Tritt ,
chassis by Harold "Shorty" Post, Santa Ana, CA, c. 1952.
Photo courtesy Museum of California Design.

By exhibiting popular consumer products made between 1935 and 2010, this show is the first to honor how California designers have put the myriad forms of plastic – fiberglass, polymer, Lucite, Styrofoam, Micarta and others – to imaginative and attractive new uses. Their creations have affected the way millions of Americans, and millions more in other countries, have lived, and continue to live, their daily lives.

From a Streamline Moderne serving cart made of war-surplus aircraft aluminum and Micarta (cloth-reinforced resin) to one of the first fiberglass-bodied cars, the 1952 Glasspar G2, to the architectural lines of Frank Gehry’s 2010 polymer Heller Easy Chair the exhibition features original uses of plastics that California’s designers have contributed to the American lifestyle. Other notable objects in the exhibition are a Charles and Ray Eames fiberglass chair from 1948; a 1961 Hobie surfboard made of fiberglass and polyurethane foam; a 1983 Judith Hendler necklace made from repurposed glass-surfaced acrylic; a centerpiece bowl by Herb Ritts Sr. made from rejected aircraft windshield acrylic; and an RKS Guitar, the first guitar made of a sustainable wood flour and polymer compound.

“Plastics from Paradise: California Modernizes the American Lifestyle” was a special exhibition in association with the Palm Springs Modernism Show & Sale produced by Dolphin Promotions. The exhibition was open free to the public in the lobby of the Palm Springs Convention Center during the opening hours of the Modernism Show and the adjacent Art Palm Springs show.

Tray, “Magnolia” by Dorothy Thorpe
for Dorothy C. Thorpe Inc., c.1941.
Glass and acrylic
Photo: Lorca Cohen

Beverage and food service cart, 2 glass tumblers
Aero-Art by Frantz Industries Inc., Los Angeles, c.1946
Aluminum and Micarta
Photo: Daniel Chavkin

Floor lamp by Mitchell Bobrick,
mfg. by Control Light, Los Angeles, 1949
chrome-plated steel, fiberglass, glazed ceramic, birch, enameled aluminum
Photo: courtesy Museum of California Design

Cuff Bracelet, Zahara Schatz
war surplus acrylic, metal, paint, c. 1955
Photo: Daniel Chavkin

Sling Chair by Charles Hollis Jones
for Hudson-Rissman, c. 1963
stretched acrylic and chromed brass
Photo: Courtesy Museum of California Design

Limelite by Bill Curry for Design Line, Inc.
El Segundo, CA. c.1970
plastic, metal
Photo: Daniel Chavkin

Fruit bowl by Herb Ritts for Astrolite,
Los Angeles, c.1972
rejected aircraft acrylic
Photo: Daniel Chavkin

“Lemon Drops” Necklace, Judith Hendler
Mfg. by Acri-Gems, Inc., c. 1984
glass-coated acrylic rejected for a stained glass window
Photo: courtesy Museum of California Design

Exhibition (detail)
Photo: Courtesy Museum of California Design

Ruby Guitar, Ravi Sawhney, Lance Hussey and Dave Mason,
mfg. 2005 by RKS Guitars, Thousand Oaks, CA,
Tenite Cellulose Plastic, Rosewood, Alder, Maple, Metal
Photo: RKS

Exhibition (detail)
Photo: Marcia Godinez











Frank Gehry, Club Chair and Coffee Table,
Heller, 2010
Photo: Louis Jacinto

Frank Gehry: 40 Years of Product Design 1972 to 2012

Curated by Bill Stern
At JF Chen@1135, Highland Ave. Arts District, Los Angeles, CA.
Oct. 25, 2015 – Nov. 7, 2015

Banners designed by Felis Stella, 2015

Although Frank Gehry has been amply recognized for his architecture, he has not received similar attention for his product designs, which were produced over the same period of time. That’s puzzling, because many of those products contain or are made of unexpected materials, materials that impart new vitality to the object’s form in much the same way Gehry’s building materials animate the forms of his structures.

As I researched Gehry’s products for our exhibition “Frank Gehry: 40 Years of Product Design 1972 to 2012,” I was stunned to discover that it would be the first-ever survey of his products. Of course, the exhibition included Gehry’s well-known corrugated paper chair in the Easy Edges line plus a wiggly ottoman. But that was just the beginning of four decades of creativity.

There were the several lines of jewelry produced by Tiffany & Co., among them Torque, Axis, Equus, Fold, Orchid, Flux, Wave and Fish: more than one hundred different pieces in all, including bracelets, earrings, cufflinks, pendants, necklaces, rings and bangles. And in a stunning variety of materials: from sterling silver to agate to diamonds.

And lighting - looming Clouds and extravagant Fish lamps – as well as an elegantly twisted glass bottle for Wyborowa Vodka in Poland, a handsome fish-themed tea kettle for Alessi in Italy and a sterling silver and cement ring for Tiffany & Co. Yes, cement!

Bill Stern

Sponsors of the Exhibition: JF Chen, Heller, The Jaffe Family, Knoll Inc.

Exhibition (detail)
Photo: MOCAD

Exhibition (detail)

Tiffany & Co., 2006
Onyx, pernambuco wood, nephrite green jade, acacia wood & sterling silver

Tiffany & Co., 2006
Sterling silver

Tiffany & Co., 2006
Brown-banded agate

Tiffany & Co., 2006
Sterling silver

Fossil GH-1023

Kettle, Alessi
Designed 1988, produced 1992-present
Mahogany, 18/10 polished stainless steel

Dishes and Vase
Tiffany & Co., 2006

Emeco, 2004

Frank Gehry Furniture Collection
Heller, designed: 2004
Rotational-molded polyethylene

Side Chair
Designed 1969-1972, produced 1972-present
Corrugated cardboard & fiberboard

Exhibition (detail) with Raymond Lee. Bret Witke, John Van Hamersveld and Alida Post


Credit for photos unless otherwise noted:






Curated by Bill Stern
Executive Director, Museum of California Design

August 10, 2012 through January 6, 2013

This exhibition "is a landmark of cultural legacy with the potential to inspire."
                                                            -- Jeffrey Head,
Modern Magazine, Fall 2012.



The Autry
4700 Western Heritage Way
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 667-2000

Kavanaugh Textile

This unprecedented exhibition focuses on the work of 46 of the many exceptional women who, working state-wide from San Francisco to San Diego, helped make California a preeminent center of American commercial design and fine craft. Among them are: Esther Bruton, Edith Heath, Dorothy Thorpe, Gertrud Natzler, Beatrice Wood, Ray Eames, Marilyn Kay Austin, Jade Snow Wong, Gere Kavanaugh, Deborah Sussman, Judith Hendler and April Greiman.

The combination of California’s climate of innovation, freedom from restrictive traditions and a highly competitive business climate provided creative and business opportunities for women designers which probably would not have been available to them elsewhere. In California they helped transform the stereotypically female vocation of decorative arts into the gender-neutral realm of design with its frequent ties to industrial production and commerce.

The utilitarian and decorative objects in this exhibition reflect developments in an array of technologies from hand-cut wood block prints to computer-aided graphics and in materials from wood, metal, clay, paper, cloth and enamel to fiberglass and acrylics and in all the major aesthetic movements of the 20th century, from Art Nouveau to Mid-century Modern and beyond.

The exhibition is dedicated to our late board member Alan Jaffe.
Elizabeth Eaton Burton Lamp

Elizabeth Eaton Burton
United States, 1869-1937
Worked in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles
Table lamp
Circa 1910
Copper and shell
Private collection

Esther Bruton
United States, 1896–1992
Worked in San Francisco and Santa Fe, NM
Rabbit Hunt
Floor screen
Circa 1929
Gold and silver leaf on wood
Collection of the Annex Galleries
Photo: Annex Galleries

Ester Bruton Screen
Thorpe Tray

Dorothy Thorpe
United States, 1901-1989
Worked in Los Angeles
Circa 1939
Dorothy C. Thorpe, Inc.
Collection: Margaret Bach
Photo: Lorca Cohen

May Hamilton
United States, 1886-1971
Vieve Hamilton
United States, 1887-1976
Worked in Pasadena and Culver City
Circa 1936
Private Collection
Photo: Peter Brenner

Hamilton Bowl
Hamilton Plaque

May Hamilton de Causse
United States, 1886–1971
Worked in Pasadena and Culver City
Two Women
Circa 1934
Hamilton Studio
Private collection
Photo: Susan Einstein

Ray Eames
United States, 1912–1988
Worked in Los Angeles
Magazine cover
Arts & Architecture
August 1943
University of California, Los Angeles
Special Collections
Photo: Museum of California Design

Eames Cover
Marilyn Kaye Austin planter

Marilyn Kay Austin
United States, born 1940
Worked in Los Angeles
Floor vase
Circa 1962
Architectural Pottery
Collection of Bill Stern
Photo: Susan Einstein

Margit Fellegi
United States, 1903–1975
Worked in Los Angeles
Scandal Suit
Bathing suit
Nylon knit jersey
Cole of California
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Photo: © 2011 Museum Associates/LACMA

Margit Fellegi Scandal Suit
Hender Lemon Drop Necklace

Judith Hendler
United States, born 1941
Works in Huntington Beach
Lemon Drops
Circa 1984
Acri-Gems Inc.
Collection of Judith Hendler
Photo: Mario Almarez

Arline Fisch
United States, born 1931
Works in San Diego
Shoulder ornament
Fine and sterling silver
Collection of Arline Fisch

Arlene Fisch Shoulder piece


DW-title wall DW-Arts and Crafts DW-Screen

Exhibition wall, Autry National Center.

Photo: Steve Aldana

Florence Lundborg
United States 1871–1949
Worked in San Francisco
Poster, The Lark November 1896,
Woodcut print
Publisher: William Doxey, San Francisco

Elizabeth Eaton Burton (1869–1937)
Worked in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles
Document chest
Circa 1910
Walnut, copper and abalone

Desk lamps
Circa 1910
Copper and shell

Pair of candleholders
Circa 1910

Photo: Museum of California Design

Esther Bruton (1896–1992)
Worked in San Francisco and Santa Fe, NM
Rabbit Hunt Floor screen Gold and silver leaf on wood
Circa 1929

Photo: Museum of California Design

Esther Bruton was an artist, muralist, and advertising illustrator. Born in California and educated in New York and Paris, she returned to California to work as a fashion illustrator for the I. Magnin department store in San Francisco. She painted this screen while in Taos, New Mexico, in 1929. It was shown in an exhibition of work by Esther Bruton and her two sisters, Helen and Margaret, at Bullock’s Wilshire Gallery in Los Angeles in 1930 and at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco in 1932. This is its first museum showing.


May Hamilton (1887–1976) and Vieve Hamilton 1886–1971
Worked in Pasadena and Culver City
Head With Hair Earthenware, circa 1936
Manufactured by Vernon Kilns

Photo: Museum of California Design

Jane Bennison (1913–2001)
Worked in Los Angeles
Bowls and rectangular vases
Earthenware, circa 1936
Manufactured by Vernon Kilns

Photo: Museum of California Design


Ray Eames (1912–1988)
Worked in Los Angeles
Splint sculpture
Molded plywood, circa 1943

Photo: Museum of California Design

Ray Eames, a native of California, collaborated with her husband on the design of some of the most widely used and influential designs of the twentieth century, including their revolutionary fiberglass and molded plywood chairs. But Ray also produced significant works under her own name. In the early 1940s she turned several of the Navy splints she and her husband designed into abstract sculptures.

Wilmer James (1917–1999)
Worked in Los Angeles
2 cache pots, 1 vase, earthenware, circa 1950

Photo: Museum of California Design

Wilmer James, one of California’s first African-American designers of commercial ceramics, learned the technique of producing crackle glazes while working for Barbara Willis in North Hollywood. After the importation of inexpensive European and Japanese ceramics, -- which had stopped during World War II, -- rebounded in the late 1950s, many California ceramics manufacturers, including James, went out of business. She went on to become a printmaker, a commercial artist and a prominent arts educator.


Ellamarie Woolley (1913-1976)
Worked in San Diego
Twice Over
Wall plaque, enamel on copper, circa 1972

Photo: Courtesy Museum of California Design

This two-dimensional piece produces the optical illusion of 3-dimensionality with the help of subtle color differences that produce the impression of shadowing.

Furniture by Muriel Coleman (1917–2003)
Worked in OaklandThe room-divider/shelf unit was made of surplus rebar and local redwood.

Photo: Steve Aldana


Cher Pendarvis, born 1950
Works in San Diego
Surfboard Fiberglass, polyurethane foam, circa 1976
Manufactured by Channin Surfboards and Mike Casey

Photo: Museum of California Design


Middle two:
Mary Ann DeWeese (1913–1993)
Worked in Los Angeles
c. 1932, c. 1965

Right two:
Margit Fellegi (1903–1975)
Worked in Los Angeles
c. 1965, 1965.

Photo: Museum of California Design

Ceramics made by Gertrud Natzler (1908–1971)
Worked in Vienna, Austria, and Los Angeles
(glazes by Otto Natzler)

Furniture by Dorothy Schindele (1915–2004)
Manufactured by Modern Colro, INc.

Photo: Museum of California Design


Center: Furniture by Greta Magnusson Grossman (1906–1999)

Photo: Bill Dow

Dorothy Thorpe (1901–1989)
Worked in Glendale

Umbrella stand/vase
Circa 1972
Manufactured by
Dorothy C. Thorpe Inc.
(Sun Valley, California)
Monterrey creamer,
Santa Barbara compote,
Brocade cup
earthenware, circa 1965
Manufactured by
Crown Lynn Potteries (New Zealand)
Silver Band decoration for glass table wares
silver dipped, circa 1970
Manufactured by Dorothy C. Thorpe Inc. (Sun Valley, California)

Pepper mill, glass and steel, circa 1968
Manufactured by Dorothy C. Thorpe Inc. (Sun Valley, California)

Photo: Museum of California Design

DW-Arlene DW-Sussman DW-Kavanaugh

Arline Fisch, born 1931
Works in San Diego

Halter, Sterling silver, 1968

Shoulder ornament, fine and sterling silver, 1986

Photo: Museum of California Design

Deborah Sussman, (1931-2014)
Worked in Los Angeles
Supergraphic, circa 1986

Recreation of the original installation in Joseph Magnin, San Jose, California.

Photo: Museum of California Design

Gere Kavanaugh at the opening of CALIFORNIA'S DESIGNING WOMEN1896-1986 at the Autry National Center.

Photo: Bill Dow



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Curated by Bill Stern
Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles
September 27, 2009 - January 10, 2010

MYTH AND MANPOWER encourages the visitor to experience the power of graphic design to communicate ideas — from the selling of commercial products to the promotion of social issues.  The exhibition accomplishes this by juxtaposing labels created for promoting California citrus fruits -- and California itself -- with posters that the United Farm Workers of America created to mobilize for agricultural workers’ rights.

Each exhibit in MYTH AND MANPOWER presents one of the glamorous lithographed labels that adorned crates of California citrus fruits that used to be displayed in grocery stores throughout the United States next to one of the tough labor union posters distributed by the United Farm Workers of America.

CAFAM exhibit page.


Carefree Brand
Redlands Orangedale Association
Redlands, California
Designer: Unknown, c. 1940
Printer: Unknown
Medium: Offset lithograph
Dimensions: 10 3/4 in. x 9 7/8 in.
Collection: Museum of
California Design

United Farm Workers of America
Designer: Barbara Carrasco, c. 1999
Printer: Self-Help Graphics
Medium: Silkscreen
Dimensions: 26 in. x 18 in.
Collection: Self-Help Graphics Archives
California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives, Dept of Special Collections, Donald Davidson Library, University of California, Santa Barbara

Miracle Brand
Bradford Bros. Inc.
Placentia, California
Designer: Unknown, c. 1940
Printer: Western Litho. Co.,
Los Angeles, California
Medium: Offset Lithograph
Dimensions: 10 3/4 in. x 9 7/8 in.
Collection: Museum of
California Design

Cesar Chavez: Portrait of La Causa
United Farm Workers of America
Designer: Octavio Ocampo, n.d
Printer: Unknown
Medium: Lithograph
Dimensions: 25 in. x 17 1/2 in.
Collection: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles

Although they draw on similar themes each graphic in a pair uses its own style to convey its message. Thus, the key element in each — whether that be the California landscape, women, modes of transportation or animals — is represented in a radically different way.

The names of few of the artists who designed the citrus labels — which were printed in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the first half of the 20th century — are known. However, most of the Untied Farm Workers posters in the exhibition, from later in the 20th century, were designed by well-recognized Chicano artists and designers — Barbara Carrasco, Octavio Ocampo, Peter Gallegos, Ricardo Favela, Juanishi Orozco, Estaban Villa, and Xavier Viramontes — and Chicano art collectives — Graphic Arts Group (San Francisco), Royal Chicano Air Force (Sacramento) and La Raza Silkscreen Center (San Francisco).

Both the citrus industry and the United Farm Workers played significant roles in the economic development of California in the 20th century and continue to be mainstays of the state’s economy. Each has had a significant impact on the multi-faceted character of the state, from the wealth that produced “millionaires row” on Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena to the strides made for social justice by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and activists of the farm workers movement. MYTH AND MANPOWER honors their contributions to California’s design history.

The United Farm Workers posters were lent to the exhibition by the California Ethnic and Multicultural Archives at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles and All Of Us Or None Archive, Berkeley, courtesy of Lincoln Cushing.  The citrus box labels are from the collection of the A. K. Smiley Library, Redlands, California, Museum of California Design, Los Angeles, California, and Jill and Lily Collins. Exhibition paper conservator and framing consultant: Kene Rosa.

Tom Cat
Orosi Foothill Citrus Association
Orosi, California
Designer: Unknown, c. 1930
Printer: Unknown
Medium: Offset lithograph
Dimensions: 10 in. x 11 in.
Collection: Archive, A.K. Smiley Public Library

Side with the Farm Workers
United Farm Workers of America
Designer: Unknown, c. 1970
Printer: Unknown
Medium: Silkscreen
Dimensions: 22 3/4 in. x 14 1/2 in.
Collection: Center for the Study of Political Graphics, Los Angeles


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Architectural PotteryClick Here For Exhibition Photos

On February 16, 17 and 18, 2007, the Museum of California Design presented “Ornament is a Crime: The Classic Modernism of Architectural Pottery“ at Palm Springs Modernism 2007. This exhibition of 22 Modernist works by Architectural Pottery, the recipient of the Museum of California Design’s 2006 Henry Award for its contributions to American design, was curated by the museum’s director, Bill Stern. More than 3,000 people visited the exhibition during its three-day run at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

Whenever you see a tree or a plant in a white cylinder -- in a home or an office building or at a gasoline station -- it is because of Architectural Pottery. When the company’s designers introduced their large format undecorated ceramic vessels in 1950 -- vessels equally suited for home interiors and patios, as well as commercial buildings - they helped fulfill one of the major goals of Mid-century Modern architecture, breaking down the distinction between interior and exterior space.

Architectural Pottery was founded in Los Angeles in 1950 by Max and Rita Lawrence, John Folis and Rex Goode after the Lawrences, who lived in Gregory Ain’s famed indoor/outdoor Dunsmuir Apartments, saw large-scale modernist ceramic planters and sand jars designed by LaGardo Tackett and his students, among them Folis, Goode, Douglas Deeds, and Lawrence Halperin at the California School of Art in Hollywood.

In addition to revolutionary planters/sand jars, “ORNAMENT IS A CRIME“ will include Malcolm Leland’s iconic bird shelter and Gordon Newell’s Matisse-inspired birdbath and. The other designers represented in the show will be Marilyn Kay Austin, Raul Coronel, David Cressey, John Folis and Mr.Tackett.

“Ornament Is A Crime,” the dictum of Modernism, was formulated by the Czech architect Adolf Loos in 1922. This phrase sums up the belief of strict Modernists that design should include only those elements essential to the structural composition of an object or a building. And though the strictest of Modernists contend that color is ornament, such eminent practioners of the style as Charles and Ray Eames and George Nelson made color an essential part of their designs.

Current production Architectural Pottery pieces by Vessel USA - both white and colored -- are available for purchase through the Museum of California Design’s on-line DESiGN STORE at

“Ornament Is A Crime” was made possible through the lead sponsorship of deasy/penner&partners, Beverly Hills & Palm Springs; Pacific Union, Palm Springs; and Wright, Chicago, with additional sponsorship from Fat Chance, Los Angeles; Reform Gallery, Los Angeles; and Dolphin Promotions, Inc., Chicago


Garden fountains/sculptures,
c.1957 LaGardo Tackett,
Architectural Pottery,
Collection Museum of California Design
Photograph: Bob Lopez

Sand Jar / Jardiniere, c.1963
Marilyn Kay Austin,
Architectural Pottery earthenware
Photograph: Lorca Cohen


Architectural Pottery Catalog 64, 1964
Collection: Museum of California Design

Photograph: Uncredited


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JULY 14 - OCTOBER 31, 2004


   Mark: Winfield Pottery
   Plate modified by Tyrus Wong
   Porcelain, 17" diameter, c. 1945
   Collection of Tyrus Wong
   Photograph by Peter Brenner


Paintings by the Chinese-American artist Tyrus Wong have been exhibited at the Pasadena Art Institute, the Los Angeles Museum of Art (now the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) and the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1939, he won the Los Angeles Art Association’s first-prize purchase award judged by two of California’s most respected artists, Stanton Macdonald-Wright and Lorser Feitelson.

This is the first exhibition of the paintings Wong produced for the Winfield Pottery of Pasadena between about 1944 and 1950. His canvases were 48 plates, bowls and a teapot designed by Margaret Mears Gabriel (1888-1987), which were made in molds for nation-wide distribution. Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein, Keith Haring, Andy Warhol and Ed Moses are among the artists who have created decorations for commercial ceramics, but Wong is apparently the only one to have decorated them entirely by his own hand: the other artists either produced paintings for staff decorators to copy or line drawings that could be applied as transfers. Thus this aspect of Wong’s oeuvre seems to occupy a unique place in the continuum between studio and commercial ceramics.


Wong has lived in Los Angeles since coming to the United States from Guangzhou (Canton), China, in 1919. In 1938 he created the scenic look for the Walt Disney Company’s film "Bambi." And, for Warner Bros., "Rebel Without a Cause," "Around the World in 80 Days" and "The Wild Bunch." While at Warner Bros. in the 1940s he worked at the Winfield Pottery evenings and Saturdays. Winfield sold Wong’s original artworks on porcelain at prominent department stores across the country -- including Bullocks Wilshire in Los Angeles, Neiman Marcus in Dallas and Marshall Field in Chicago. Wong also painted images for himself, his family and friends.

The exhibition consists of two sections: pieces Wong painted for commercial distribution and those he did for himself and friends. The commercial pieces include traditional subjects done in the monochromatic black ink style of painting that developed in China’s Sung Period (960-1279 AD), notably a series of horses in motion. Among the personal images are whimsical children’s subjects.

This is the first time that these works have been assembled in one place. Wong himself was very surprised by the display: "I’d certainly never seen them all together before," he said. Then he added, "It’s been so long [more than half a century], that I don’t even remember doing some of them."


Exhibition Catalog

At the Opening


California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism

By the early 20th century “California” had become as marketable a brand as “Champagne,” a distinction no other part of the United States could claim. Although “California” didn’t signify luxury the way Champagne did, the name “California” could be counted on to get America's attention. Today we still expect it to be attached to something new to use or pretty to look at or even a whole new approach to life, for California has been responsible for innovations ranging from Levi’s to patio living, from hot tubs to iMacs, from the Miata to modernist pottery.

California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism, an unprecedented exhibition drawn from forty-seven California collections, documents a significant aspect of the Golden State’s contribution to American design. Its displays of aesthetically and historically significant tableware, gardenware, and tiles were produced by forty-four of the more than 600 commercial potteries that flourished here between 1900 and 1955. They range from color-splashed interpretations of traditional forms to radical innovations that changed the way we have lived for almost a century.

Practical pottery was first made in California by indigenous peoples, but the first pottery multiples—roof tiles and floor and patio pavers—were formed in the late eighteenth century from local red clay at Spanish colonial missions and military outposts. This same type of clay was used by the commercial pottery industry that burgeoned—along with the state’s population—in the first decades of the twentieth century. It was then that California pottery producers began freeing themselves from the European ceramic traditions that had dominated American taste since the founding of the Republic. The state’s fresh contributions to American design were the result of a unique interaction of cultures in the United States: Mexican, Spanish-Moorish, Chinese, and Japanese.

The first great cultural fusion in California pottery design took place when the planners of the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego hired Bertram Goodhue to design the event. The New York architect chose to ornament the exposition’s Balboa Park buildings with glazed tiles featuring Spanish-Moorish geometric designs that Muslim invaders had brought to Spain in the eighth century. Almost immediately, California designers reconfigured those traditional patterns and then replaced the pale Hispano-Moresque tones with saturated Mexican colors.

The next big event took place in the 1930s when California pottery’s solid-color revolution—led by Brayton Laguna, Catalina Pottery, J. A. Bauer Pottery Co., and Pacific Pottery—swept America from west to east. This was followed by an extraordinary burst of innovation in both form and decoration. Between 1941 and 1945, however, many of California’s commercial potteries focused their production on the defense effort or merely imitated the English and Japanese dinnerware and decorative items no longer available on the American market.

But the immediate post-World War II decade was a time of extraordinary innovation out of which came much of the subsequent good design in American ceramics. In this period J. A. Bauer; Gladding, McBean/Franciscan; Metlox; Vernon Kilns; and other California potteries represented in this show added modernist designs to their lines. But even before this development, the new era was heralded by two young ceramists—Barbara Willis and Edith Heath—who would make lasting contributions to the quality of commercial ceramic design in America. Their work, which can also be seen in this exhibition, is notable for its unprecedented introduction of studio pottery techniques and aesthetic standards into commercial pottery production.

This extraordinarily colorful exhibition ends with some strikingly color-free work by a company whose fifty-year-old designs seem remarkably modern even today. Ever since Architectural Pottery was established in Los Angeles in 1950, its white cylindrical planters and other ceramic forms—and their imitators—have greeted us in office buildings, banks, gasoline stations, and other public places, as well as in private homes. Unlike other commercial California potteries, Architectural Pottery was honored right from the beginning: products from its first catalog were selected for inclusion in the 1951 Good Design exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism includes the work of such recognized figures as famed tile maker Ernest Batchelder, eminent painter/illustrator Rockwell Kent, and acclaimed ceramic designers Harrison McIntosh, Beatrice Wood, and Eva Zeisel. Also on view are designs created by numerous heretofore unheralded talents, among them Fred H. Robertson, Gale Turnbull, May and Vieve Hamilton, Jane Bennison, Tyrus Wong, Rupert Deese, George James, Malcolm Leland, and LaGardo Tackett.

Although the production of some of the pieces in this exhibition involved varying degrees of hand finishing, they were all made as multiples for commercial distribution and are not artworks in the conventional sense of the term. It is no surprise that even when the creator of an individual commercial piece cannot be identified, his or her mark is inherent in its design. What is astonishing is that many of these works had never been exhibited publicly before their inclusion in this exhibition.