Western Europe and its former colonies in the Americas were long fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious”—specifically their exotic and luxurious trade goods. This is the second of two blog posts that examine this European and American fascination with Asia and the way that was expressed in the decorative arts. In the first post, I discussed the China trade in the 17th and 18th centuries, specifically Chinese export porcelain and the related tea trade. This post focuses on the 19th century, with the decline of the China trade, the opening of Japan to the West, Western eclecticism in the decorative arts, and the beginning of Western understanding of Asian design.
The China Trade in the First Half of the 19th Century
By the early 19th century, Europe and America had learned the secret of “hard paste” or true porcelain, so Westerners could produce their own high-quality wares. In the early American republic, porcelain factories popped up as early as the 1820s. This is not to suggest that that trade in Chinese porcelains declined; rather, it entered a new phase.
The serving bowl above would have been a prized possession of an American family in the first half of the 19th century. Part of a dinnerware set, this Canton ware, or “Blue Willow,” pattern appealed to middle-class Americans as an example of the exoticism of a faraway place, and implied the owners’ good taste and sophistication. Compared with the expensive and highly prized 18th-century wares, Canton china was inexpensive. This porcelain was shipped from Guangzhou, then called the Port of Canton by the English, to serve as a ship’s ballast under the more valuable tea chests.
These wares usually depict a landscape with Chinese buildings and a bridge in the center and have a decorated rim. This pattern was widely copied by English makers in the late 19th and 20th centuries and became so inexpensive that it was sold at five-and-ten cent stores in the 20th century. This example is interesting as it broke at some point during its working life and was mended with visible staples, indicating that it was indeed a valued possession.
Watercolor Painting, Two Rooms of a Chinese Painter's Studio, circa 1865 / THF119916
The remarkable image above shows the interior of a Chinese porcelain studio, with craftspeople decorating ceramics for the Western market. Visible on the wall on the left are prints or drawings supplied by Western agents, which were then copied by the artists in the foreground. The table on the right is filled with finished pieces of decorated ceramics. This piece itself was a souvenir intended for the Western market.
While the China trade continued throughout the 19th century, imports to America declined with the Civil War in the 1860s and never rebounded. After the Civil War, the United States and Europe became fascinated with another Asian nation, Japan.
Japan and the West
Japan, like China, traded with the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch beginning in the 15th century. However, by the middle of the 17th century, Japanese authorities closed their doors to Europeans, primarily due to the undue influence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. In 1853, the American Commodore Matthew Perry, under the direction of President Millard Fillmore, arrived in Yokohama harbor with a fleet of steam ships, which impressed the Japanese with their high degree of technology. The Japanese grudgingly agreed to open their markets to the Americans and the West. During the next few decades, traditional Japanese arts flowed to the West, where they profoundly influenced European and American fine and decorative arts.
Japanese River Scene Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292625
Japanese Travelers in a Snow Storm, Wood Block Print, 1900–1929 / THF292633
The wood block prints above are good examples of Japanese exports that excited Western artists and designers. The compositions were like nothing ever seen in Europe or America. The use of flat, unmodulated colors laid down next to each other, combined with diagonals, provided a sense of depth. This influenced the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists in France and designers everywhere.
The influence of images from Japanese prints on Western decorative arts can be seen in the carved cranes on the side chair above, painted in black to imitate ebony, an expensive wood that late Victorians associated with Japan. This is known as Anglo-Japanese style, which began in England in the 1870s and spread to America by the 1880s. Like many of the Asian imports, this Western style had little to do with Japan itself; rather, it suggested the “exoticism” of the Far East.
Pitcher, 1870–1875, Made by Tiffany and Company, New York, New York / THF190746
Like the side chair, Tiffany and Company’s elegant silver pitcher uses stylized images of birds and foliage done in the Anglo-Japanese style.
The highly stylized wallpapers shown above were derived from the floral patterns of Japanese prints. European and American designers called these abstracted patterns “conventionalized” ornament. These wallpapers appealed to those interested in what was called the “aesthetic” taste. This taste tended to be high style, although by the 1880s, middle-class Americans applied elements of it in their interiors. For example, the sample above was found in the middle-class Firestone Farmhouse, now in Greenfield Village. The date of our interpretation is 1885.
Eclectic Design in the Late 19th Century
What we’ve looked at so far has imagery directly linked to either Chinese or Japanese originals, but there is another category of decorative objects that contain more interpretive elements derived from Chinese, Japanese, or other Asian designs. Some of these pieces contain imaginary elements that the designer created out of thin air.
“Crown Milano” Vase, 1888–1893, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF163595
“Burmese” Caster, 1885–1895, Made by the Mount Washington Glass Company, New Bedford, Massachusetts / THF167758
The ornate and elegant glass pieces above are clearly influenced by Japanese designs but have been transformed by late-19th-century American glassmakers into something unique. They are highly decorative and distinctly of their time.
Silver Tea Caddy, 1875, Made by the Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF190070
Tea and Coffee Service, 1883–1884, Made by Gorham Manufacturing Company, Providence, Rhode Island / THF154882
In the late 19th century, wealthy Americans demanded ornate silver sets, and above are notable examples of just how wild they could get. The tea caddy references Asian design elements—as perceived by Americans, who had little true understanding of Asian cultures. Likewise, the full tea set picks up on the Anglo-Japanese style, but takes it much farther, into something truly Victorian—and, like the glass examples, totally unique.
Attempts at Understanding Asia
Vase, 1896–1908, Made by Hugh Robertson at the Dedham Pottery, Dedham, Massachusetts / THF176707
By the beginning of the 20th century, there were several designers looking for true sources of inspiration in Asian design. One of the most interesting of these was the English-born potter Hugh Robertson (1845–1908). During his time at the Dedham Pottery in Massachusetts, Robertson was obsessed with recreating the well-known Chinese oxblood glaze, seen on the vase above. He spent decades experimenting and perfecting the glaze, first at his family's Chelsea Keramic Art Works and later at Dedham. He was also interested in recreating the forms of Chinese porcelain made for domestic production rather than for export.
I hope you have enjoyed this quick journey through The Henry Ford's collection of Asian-influenced decorative arts. All of these artifacts, as well as many more, are available for browsing online in our Digital Collections.
Western Europe and its colonies in the Americas have long been fascinated with the Eastern cultures Europeans depicted as “mysterious,” and specifically their exotic trade goods, such as spices, silk, porcelain, and, later, tea. In fact, this interest was the motivation behind the European arrival in the Americas, as Europeans sought a shorter route to reach China and India in the 15th and 16th centuries. This is the first of two blog posts that examine the European and American fascination with Asia and how that was expressed in the decorative arts.
The earliest form of decorative arts that fascinated Europeans was porcelain. Around the 7th or 8th century C.E., the Chinese first produced what Westerners call “hard paste” porcelain—clay that consists of a compound containing the mineral kaolin and is fired at an extremely high temperature, usually around 1400 degrees Celsius. The kaolin in the clay fused the body with the glaze on top during the firing process. The resulting vessel proved to be extremely durable, almost glass-like, and resisted chips and cracking. Should the piece break, it would be a clean break.
Western ceramics were mostly made from earthenware, usually fired at a relatively low temperature with a slip (watered-down clay) glaze or a true glaze. Both processes cover the vessel with fine particles which fuse into a glasslike layer, sealing the pores of the clay body. There are two main types of glazed earthenware. The first is covered with a transparent lead glaze, where the earthenware body to which this glaze is applied has a creamy color, known as creamware. The second type, covered with an opaque white glaze, is called tin-glazed earthenware, popularly known as majolica, faience, or delft. Both types of earthenware chipped and broke easily.
When Europeans were first exposed to Chinese porcelain in the 14th and 15th centuries, it was seen as wondrous and innovative. In addition to its glasslike qualities, the pure white color of the porcelain amazed Europeans. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch traders competed to secure Chinese porcelains for the European markets. The teacup shown below is a good example of what the Europeans craved.
Teacup from Vung Tau Shipwreck, Late 17th Century / THF188797
Teacup from Vung Tau Shipwreck, Late 17th Century / THF188796
This teacup was salvaged from a shipwreck dating around 1690 in the South China Sea, about 100 miles from Vung Tau, Vietnam. During the early 1990s, thousands of porcelain items destined for the Dutch market were brought up from the wreck and sold at auction. The Henry Ford acquired this item from one of the auctions. This small cup would have been prized in the household of a wealthy European. It might even have found its way to the American colonies as a luxury item during the late 17th or early 18th centuries.
Items like this teacup provided a design source for European ceramic makers beginning in the late 17th century. Basically, they attempted to appropriate the Chinese designs in earthenware, as in the storage jar shown below.
Storage Jar, 1710-1750, Made in the Netherlands / THF190255
Storage Jar, 1710-1750, Made in the Netherlands / THF190254
What is so interesting about this piece is that the Dutch decorator is drawing Chinese figures in a Chinese inspired landscape for a European audience. Even the form, known as a ginger jar shape, is based on Chinese precedent. The only missing element here is the circular lid. This is helpful for us because the top rim, where the lid should be, shows us the chips in the glaze that occurred though use. We can see that this is not Chinese porcelain, as the dark-colored earthenware body shows through. Chips are also visible along the base. Clearly this jar was not only a prized object but was used.
Punch Bowl, 1700-1730, Made in England / THF188783
The punch bowl and plate shown above, both made in England, attempt to copy the look of Chinese porcelains—but, like the storage jar, are made of earthenware. We could really call these the first "knock-offs" in history. They represent the beginnings of what collectors and scholars call “Chinoiserie”—the appropriation and interpretation of Chinese and East Asian design motifs by Europeans. The idea was to create the spirit of a faraway place and give the owner the cachet of owning a luxurious and expensive object. The underlying idea was to project a sense of worldliness and sophistication.
Tea Box and Cannisters, 1800-1840, Made in China for the Western Market / THF190059
During the 17th and 18th centuries, tea from China became an important trade good, especially in England and America. Elegant Chinese lacquer boxes, complete with Chinoiserie scenes, became the rage, as did tea caddies, a necessary part of a tea set designed to safely store and dispense tea leaves.
Tea Service, 1765–1770, Made by the Worcester Porcelain Company, Shropshire, England / THF154881
In the later 18th century, tea equipment became extremely sophisticated, as the set above shows. This service uses Chinese or Chinoiserie decorative elements and combines them with the popular French Rococo decorative style to a luxurious effect. The English Worcester Porcelain Company tried to imitate Chinese porcelains with their “soft paste” porcelains, which were close approximations of the true “hard paste” Chinese wares. By 1800, the chemistry of Chinese porcelains was known in Europe—first by the Meissen firm in Germany, then later spreading out across the continent.
Western Tea Pots and Slop Bowl in Silver Next to Chinese Versions in Porcelain, Late 18th Century / THF139315
An interesting aspect of the China Trade was the production of Chinese versions of Western forms in porcelain. Western traders or agents, known as “supercargoes,” brought examples of Western wares for copy to Guangzhou (then called the port of Canton by the English). There, they presented them to their Chinese counterparts, who took these items to the porcelain factories located in Jingdezhen, then the porcelain capital of China.
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Made in China for the Western Market / THF190085
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Showing Trading Offices, Indicated by the Flags of Great Britain, the Hanseatic League (Now Germany), and Sweden / THF190086
“Hong” Bowl, about 1780, Showing the Port of Guangzhou and the Trading Office of Denmark, Indicated by the Flag / THF190088
One of the most interesting aspects of the China Trade was souvenir “Hong” bowls that showed panoramic views of offices, warehouses, and living spaces for foreign merchants in Guangzhou in the late 18th century. These were brought back to the West by supercargoes and used for serving punch at parties. Western merchants were allowed access only to the port area and needed Chinese intermediaries to send their orders to the porcelain factories inland.
In addition to porcelain tea and lacquerware, Westerners sought out luxurious Chinese silks, but relatively little else was imported to the West. One exception is the teapot shown below, made of a Chinese alloy of nickel and copper known as Paktong that resembles silver. In fact, the term “Paktong” is a corruption of the Chinese “bai tong,” meaning “white copper.”
Teapot with Stand, Made for Export, circa 1800 / THF92948
This teapot, made around 1800, was created for sale in the newly independent United States. Following the Revolutionary War, Americans were eager to establish international trade, and the lucrative China Trade was at the top of their list. This teapot would have appealed to Americans as it was executed in the fashionable Federal or Neoclassical style, which emphasized geometric forms, ovals, and cylindrical shapes.
By 1800, the China Trade began to transform. The American market broadened the China Trade, especially as the 19th century progressed and the United States grew. Also, Chinese goods were no longer viewed as unique and luxurious, as they were in the 18th century. This is partly due to the Western discovery of true or “hard paste” porcelain. The Chinese monopoly was gone. Still, Asian goods were depicted as exotic and the romanticized mystery of the Far East continued. In a second installment of this story, we will examine the transformation and role of Japanese influence on the West in the later 19th century.
When thinking about the celebrated figures in decorative arts history, one first thinks of individuals like Thomas Chippendale, Duncan Phyfe, and Gustav Stickley in furniture, Paul Revere and Tiffany and Company in silver, and Josiah Wedgwood in ceramics. All these prominent figures have something in common—they all are men. There are few celebrated female leaders in the decorative arts. This may be due to the scholarly focus on great men, to the detriment of women, until recent years.
Cover of Tried by Fire by Susan Frackelton, 1886. / THF627718
One of the most important and underrecognized women in decorative arts history was Susan Frackelton (1848–1932). She was a founder of the field of women’s china painting in the 1870s and 1880s. She was also a catalyst in transforming that pastime into a profession with the evolution of china painting into art pottery in the 1890s. Unlike her more famous peers, Susan Frackelton earned her living and supported her family on the proceeds of her publishing, teaching, and collaborations with like-minded artists.
Susan Frackelton faced many challenges in her personal and professional life. In many ways, she was a trailblazer for the modern, independent woman. Only in recent years have her contributions been recognized. Like other major figures in the decorative arts, including Thomas Chippendale, she is best remembered for a publication, her 1886 Tried by Fire. In the introduction, she states, “If the rough road that I have traveled to success can be made smoother for those who follow, or may hereafter pass me in the race, my little book will have achieved the end which is desired.”
Why Was China Painting a Means for Women’s Liberation?
Many factors fueled the growth of amateur china painting in late-19th-century America. As America became wealthier after the Civil War, women of the middle and upper middle classes gained more leisure time for personal pursuits. China painting became a socially acceptable pastime for women because it allowed them to create decorative objects for the home. Further, the influence of the English Aesthetic movement and later the Arts and Crafts movement advocated that the creation of art should be reflected in the home. By the 1870s and 1880s, wealthy women were freer to leave the confines of the home through organizations that they set up to create and exhibit their work.
What Is China Painting?
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. / THF176880
This pitcher is a good example of the work of an amateur china painter. The artist would take a “blank”—a piece of fired, undecorated, white porcelain, in this case a pitcher made by the English firm Haviland—and paint over the glaze. These blanks could be purchased in multiples at specialty stores. One of the most prominent of these was the Detroit-based L.B. King China Store. It was founded in 1849 and closed during the Great Depression, about 1932. According to a 1913 advertisement, the retailer sold hotel china, fine china dinnerware, cut glass, table glassware, lamps, shades, art pottery, china blanks, and artists materials. Elbert Hubbard, founder and proprietor of the Roycrofters, a reformist community of craft workers and artists that formed part of the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote enthusiastically about the products of the L.B King China Store: “The store is not only a store—it is an exposition, a school if you please, where the finest displays of hand and brain in the way of ceramics are shown.” A woman seeking to learn about china painting could literally walk into the L.B. King Store and walk out with paints, blanks, and a manual like Frackelton’s Tried by Fire and start painting her own china.
The pitcher above is part of a large group of serving pieces in our collection. Also in our collections is a full set of china decorated by a young woman and her friends who learned china painting at what is now Michigan State University. They decorated the dinnerware service in preparation for the young woman’s wedding in 1911. According to family history, the young woman purchased the blanks at the L.B. King Store.
How Did China Painting Evolve in the Late 19th Century?
During the 1870s, Cincinnati was the center of American china painting. The movement was led by two wealthy women, Maria Longworth Nichols (1849–1932), who later founded the Rookwood Pottery, and her rival, Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939). Both studied with European male ceramic artists who had made their way to Cincinnati. Both evolved from amateur status into extraordinary artists, who moved from painting over the glaze to learning how to throw and fire their own vessels, create designs, and formulate glazes for their vessels. This all occurred during the late 1870s, following a display of ceramic art at the Women’s Pavilion of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Both sought to outdo each other in the formulations of glazes. It is generally believed McLaughlin was the first to learn the technique of underglaze decoration, although Nichols later claimed that she was the first to do so. Nichols’ most important achievement was in creating the Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati in 1880. It was essentially the first commercial art pottery company in America, and it led the way in the development of new techniques that were widely imitated by other firms. Rookwood and its competitors began to hire women to decorate ceramics, opening a new livelihood for women less well off than Nichols and McLaughlin.
Vase, 1917, decorated by Lenore Asbury at the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176918
Tile, 1910–1920, made by the Rookwood Pottery Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. / THF176941
Essentially, through the pastime of china painting, a new industry, art pottery, came into being by 1900. Under the influence of popular magazines like the Ladies’ Home Journal and House Beautiful, Americans eagerly acquired art pottery. In fact, tastemakers like the young architect Frank Lloyd Wright filled his houses with art pottery. He considered it very much part of his total aesthetic. Through the first three decades of the 20th century, art pottery was considered a must in any well-furnished American home. It only fell out of fashion in the 1930s, when the Great Depression drastically altered lifestyles.
How Does Susan Frackelton’s Story Fit into All of This?
Susan Stuart Goodrich Frackelton was a contemporary of both Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin, born in 1848 like Maria Longworth Nichols, and just a year older than Mary Louise McLaughlin. Unlike either of these women, she came from a modest background. Her father was a brick maker in Milwaukee, and she was raised in a middle-class environment. Susan began her artistic career studying painting with the pioneer Wisconsin artist Henry Vianden. In 1869, she married Richard Frackelton and eventually raised three sons and a daughter.
Richard’s business was importing English ceramics and glass and was relatively successful. Within a few years, however, the business began a sharp decline and Susan stepped in to help. She later said that she learned about American taste in ceramics and business while working with her husband. Concurrently, she began to experiment with china painting, applying her experience in painting with Henry Vianden. She was essentially self-taught, unlike her contemporaries in Cincinnati. Through publications, she was aware of what was going on in the field. She was also aware of the innovations of Mary Louise McLaughlin in glazes, and by the late 1870s was experimenting in underglaze painting herself.
Frackelton’s contributions to china painting began in 1877, when she opened Frackelton’s Decorating Works in Milwaukee. She trained young women in the art of china painting. By 1882 she opened a related business called Mrs. Frackelton’s Keramic Studio for Under and Overglaze, where she sold her own work, wares made by her students, commercial china, and glassware, as well as painting supplies. Like Detroit’s L.B. King store, she created a one-stop shop for young women interested in exploring china painting and, later, art pottery.
Frackelton made a national name for herself in 1886 with the publication of Tried by Fire. It differed from other manuals for china painters in that it was written by a teacher for beginning students. Frackelton’s conversational style and advice on not expecting too much too soon appealed to readers and the book became a best seller, reprinted in two revised editions in 1892 and 1895. As a teacher, Frackelton had no equal in the world of art pottery. She advocated that both wealthy and poor women could enjoy the art of china painting: “Beauty is the birthright of the poor as well as the rich, and he lives best who most enjoys it.”
Pitcher, 1890–1910, decorated by an amateur china painter. Note that the botanical decoration on this pitcher is similar to the Tried by Fire color plates. / THF176879
Another major innovation was the development of a patented gas-fired kiln, first offered in the advertising section of Tried by Fire. By 1888 she was granted a second patent for a new and improved version.
Advertising section of Tried by Fire showing Frackelton’s portable gas kiln. / THF627793
By 1890 Frackelton was a well-known figure and was noted for displaying her work in international exhibits. In 1893 she won eight awards for her work in a competition held at Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Additionally, she became renowned for her work in a variety of ceramic media, especially for her blue and white salt-glazed stoneware. She also worked to create new and easier-to-use paints for decoration. She went so far as to organize the National League of Mineral Painters in 1892, an organization “aimed to foster a national school of ceramic art and provide a link between china painters throughout the country.”
By the late 1890s, Frackelton’s reputation was secure, as were her finances. In 1897 she divorced Richard Frackelton and moved to Chicago and spent much of her time lecturing and promoting ceramic art. She collaborated with several ceramic artists, including the now famous George Ohr, a unique artist who called himself “the mad potter of Biloxi.” Together, they created several highly unusual pieces, now in the collections of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
In her later years, Frackelton moved away from working in ceramics, preferring to return to painting and working as an illuminator of manuscripts. However, Frackelton’s promotion of the ceramic arts made her one of the most admired female artists in America in the first decade of the 20th century. Susan Frackelton was a remarkable figure in American ceramics, justifiably earning her status as one of the prominent figures in the decorative arts and certainly in broadening the role of women in American society.
Charles Sableis Curator of Decorative Arts at The Henry Ford. Many thanks to Sophia Kloc for editorial preparation assistance with this post.
Michele Michael, who discovered ceramics in 2010, likes to create utilitarian objects for the tabletop, loving the feel and meditative properties of the clay in her hands. She is always experimenting with new techniques and processes to make her housewares, like painting freehand with indigo and cobalt underglazes. / Photo by Michele Michael
Michele Michael and Patrick Moore understand the importance of ordinary days and have a renewed appreciation for the concept of time.
Today, Michael creates ceramics that reflect the natural beauty, quiet, and peacefulness that surround her in midcoast Maine. Mostly she creates utilitarian objects for the tabletop. She builds, fires, and glazes her wares—typically porcelain, sometimes stoneware—on the first floor of, or in season outside on the porch of, a light-drenched, barn-style studio that she shares with her husband, Moore, a woodworker.
Michael came to ceramics serendipitously back in 2010. At the time, she and Moore were leading a higher-octane lifestyle in New York City, where they owned a successful prop house together. Michael curated a large collection of tabletop items that she would rent out for photo shoots for magazines, cookbooks, and advertising. Moore built surfaces and other props for their business and also sets for film and music videos, often out of wood he salvaged from dumpsters at construction sites around the city.
On one fateful spring day, Michael ventured into a ceramics studio in their Brooklyn neighborhood (to see if they had any plates or bowls she might want to buy for her inventory), then on a whim signed up for a class that started that very week. It was kismet. Michael loved everything about her experience: the feel of the clay in her hands, the meditative process of forming it into her desired shapes, the warm and supportive community of fellow makers.
“In my career as a magazine editor, then photo stylist and business owner, I was constantly multitasking,” Michael said. “Right away, it felt so good to do something where I was fully in the moment, plus it was just nice to be using my hands to make something again.”
Here, Michele Michael created texture by rolling out the clay between two pieces of handwoven linen. / Photo by Michele Michael
Within just three years, Michael and Moore had sold their apartment and moved full-time to what had until then been a summer home in the small town of Dresden, Maine. By consigning their prop collection to another company similar to theirs, they could keep some of that income stream flowing while changing their way of life dramatically. They would build a studio where Michael could devote herself to her ceramics practice and Moore could do his woodworking.
Today, they are able to live a life they fantasized about away from the city: in sync with not only the natural world that nourishes them but also the creative curiosity that drives them. Michael creates her wares—mostly platters and vases—and then photographs and posts them to their retail website, called Elephant Ceramics, in batches several times a year. Moore’s one-of-a-kind cutting boards, which he makes out of birch, maple, black walnut, cherry, oak, and hickory he sources from a nearby mill, are also for sale on the site. Inventory sells out fast but isn’t replenished until months later, when they feel ready to create a new body of work.
Patrick Moore seeks out wood with unusual grain with which to make his cutting boards. As he cuts, planes, sands, and finishes each piece, his aim is to showcase and maximize the wood’s natural beauty. / Photo by Michele Michael
“We are constantly in a process of learning and trying new things,” said Michael. “I can’t imagine a life without making things. I think it’s in my DNA.”
In between these bursts of making, the two are able to slow down and enjoy ordinary pleasures: walks, birdwatching, gardening, cooking nourishing meals, kayaking on the river that borders their property—and following those ever-important whims. Moore might transform random lobster rope that washes up on the beaches into boat fenders and other nautical knots, weave sticks and saplings collected while pruning in the yard into vessels to be used as planters or compost bins, or teach himself to knit, inspired by a collection of old needles he picked up at a yard sale. Michael sometimes sets off on trips to faraway places and takes workshops—block printing in India, ceramics and cooking in Japan, and weaving in Mexico so far—or she might stay home and hook a chair cushion using yarn from her stash and strips of wool cut from old clothing.
As Michael shared, “Often my inspiration comes from an idea of something I’d like to have but cannot find. I think making things yourself helps you see the value in items that are handmade. You realize how much goes into something that is carefully thought-out and crafted. It also teaches you patience."
With our hands, we take agency over our lives. We connect with others, past and present, near and far, with a similar passion. We feel a sense of belonging, not only to one another but to the planet.
FROM TOUR TO TILES: A tour of the Heath Ceramics factory in Sausalito, California, led House Industries co-founder Andy Cruz to a collaboration with the owners of the storied ceramics maker that produced objects like decorative clocks and tiles. (Carlos Alejandro)
How House Industries and Heath Ceramics turned a happenstance online meet-and-greet into a creative collaboration
Heath Ceramic owners Robin Petravic and Catherine Bailey (Aya Brackett)
After Andy Cruz’s blog post about the Heath Ceramics men’s restroom caught the eye of Catherine Bailey, co-owner of the distinctive California ceramic manufacturer, she reached out to House Industries.
Realizing they shared a mutual appreciation for each other’s work, the two decided that House Industries and Heath Ceramics should collaborate. “Andy is a genius. Working with him is a guarantee that you’re going to learn something new, that you’re going to see something differently and that you’re going to find yourself paying attention to the next level of detail you didn’t even realize existed,” said Robin Petravic, who co-owns Heath Ceramics with Bailey.
Recognizing Heath Ceramics founder Edith Heath as a California design legend for her elegant designs accented by raw finishes, Heath and House decided to pair her legacy with those of two other greats — Charles and Ray Eames and Richard Neutra. After working through an arduous process of trial and error, House Industries fonts inspired by the Eameses and Neutra were applied to a series of tiles that later inspired a ceramic wall clock collection, both of which have been in production ever since.
“Along with Andy’s immense and unique talent comes a great collaborator,” said Petravic. “We’ve come to trust that, as the conversation goes one way, then the other and then off in yet another direction, we’re going to end up in a great place in the end.”
As to House Industries’ willingness to follow those other directions and learn from its own mistakes, it was the original drawings and hours of tweaking, proofing and redrawing of the stencil numbers for the Heath Ceramics clock project that ended up providing inspiration for another landmark House Industries work — Yorklyn Stencil, the house typeface of House Industries.
It’s been three months since my first visit to our Pottery Shop to learn about our potters’ studio pottery challenge. Since then the team has been hard at work not only finishing their pieces but getting back into the day-to-day routine that comes with the village being open to guests. Recently I paid my last visit to the group to see the final results and learn more about what each team member took away from the project.
For Alex Pratt, he was very surprised by how his pieces turned out. Some results were very unexpected, but that made for good results. He’s very excited by the promise of some new slip colors he was working with.
“I’m really pleased where this let me go,” he said. “I’ve got a lot to take away mentally; it was a really energizing project.”
Melinda Mercer was also very pleased with how her pieces looked after being fired, specifically the colors that were achieved. Our new salt kiln has been fired just four times so far, so it’s still very exciting to see how the pieces are developing. Melinda’s custom-stamped piecing required a lot of time-consuming glazing, but in the end it was totally worth it. The contrast between the glazed and unglazed portions are some of her favorite results.
“It was a very valuable experience to try things we don’t normally do,” she said.
For John Ahearn, the sculptural bowl he created was his favorite piece. He was very excited to see that his cake plate made it through the firing process. After all, “lots of funky things can happen in firing,” he said. As I took photos and admired the team’s hard work, John said how cool it was to see the group’s pieces finished and on display, especially thinking back to the first day he was given the creative assignment. He then summed up his feelings with a smile and this statement that I think we can all be appreciative of.
“I’m just really glad to be a potter.”
Keep an eye on the Pottery Shop and our Liberty Craftworks store in Greenfield Village in the coming weeks; not only may you be able to see the team’s hard work up close, but purchase one of these one-of-a-kind items, too!
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford.
In February I took my first visit to the Pottery to learn about the studio challenge our potters were given at the beginning of the year. It’s been a few busy weeks for the team as they work on both their challenge pieces and get ready for the opening of Greenfield Village on April 15.
It should come as no surprise that the pieces are all looking fantastic and completely different from one another, as they should be. Vessels now look like teapots, hand-crafted stamps have been busy stamping and over-the-top sculptures continue to be developed. For anyone who enjoys art and design, it’s a welcomed sight.
Taking my tour through the shop I visited Alex’s station first. He’s experimenting with some special stains for his collection. These pieces are covered in wax and when fired the wax burns away to reveal the true colors. Like the other potters, Alex isn’t worried about uniformity this time around.
“It’s been really interesting to work outside my comfort zone,” he said. “This is a learning process, but I’m feeling really optimistic about it.”
Melinda Mercer has been focusing on incorporating bold patterns and textures to her pieces, which is a new creative direction for her work. She’s also been focusing part of her project on hand building, a technique that’s a bit different for her.
To create her patterns and textures, Melinda decided to make her own custom stamps. To achieve the look she was going for she hand carved the designs into porcelain and then fired them in a kiln to make them permanent.
John Ahearn has added a few additional pieces to his artistic roundup of work for the challenge since I saw him last. While his pieces aren’t meant to be functional, he did create a cake stand that you can’t help but imagine holding a delicious, huge cake in the coming weeks.
“This project, in whole, has made me realize the power of art,” John said. “Doing something over and over is how we show guests what the production techniques from the past were. But the power of art is more than just production work. Now I understand what potters during this movement were doing at the time. They were being different on purpose.”
As the team agrees across the board, it’s been a lot of fun to see how their individual projects have been developing; and that includes being very different in size, scale and approach, which is the complete opposite direction of their daily production work and responsibilities. While initial sketches helped define the origins of each of their pieces, they haven’t kept themselves too married to those original ideas as the project takes shape.
“These pieces allow our personalities to come through,” Melinda said.
“These pieces really reflect who we are as people. Our styles have really influences our interpretations of the challenge.”
Check back soon for a final update from the team as they show off their finished pieces.
Lish Dorset is social media manager at The Henry Ford.
On any given day inside the Pottery Shop in Greenfield Village you’ll find our team of potters and decorators creating a variety of different handmade items, from mugs for Eagle Tavern dining to new-baby birthday plates and even Christmas tree ornaments. But right now in the snow-covered shop our artists are taking on a new challenge that’s all about creativity and exploration instead of out-of-the-box, obvious function.
Senior Manager of Program Operations Tom Varitek issued a challenge to potters Melinda Mercer, Alex Pratt and John Ahearn at the beginning of the year to each create a piece of pottery that best reflected their interpretation of the studio pottery movement. It didn’t have to be functional and it didn’t have to look like something you’d see on the kitchen table inside the Ford Home. There could be revisions and further exploration along the way; it didn’t have to be perfect after the first firing. It just had to reflect who they are as potters.
Studio pottery is work created by artists that isn’t mass produced, either by a large pottery or factory. The pieces can be functional, but tend to lean more toward the artistic, individual expression side of design. Simply put, factories equal function, studios equal art.
The studio pottery movement took hold of America in the early 20th century, most notably in the 1930s and 1940s as large factories began to consistently produce pottery in masses. Artists looked for creative outlets in their work; those opportunities were often found in smaller potteries and studios across the country. Detroit’s Pewabic Pottery is one example of the transition the Arts & Crafts Movement reflected in the early 1900s. As founder Mary Stratton said:
“It is not the aim of the Pottery to become an enlarged, systematized commercial manufactor in competition with others striving in the same way. Its idea has always been to solve progressively the various ceramic problems that arise in hope of working out the results and artistic effects which may happily remain as memorials....or at least stamp this generation as one which brought about a revival of the ceramic arts and prove an inspiration to those who come after us."
Getting a chance to see what the potters have been up to with their challenge assignments so far this winter, my visit to the pottery shop this week was met with smiling faces and enthusiastic displays of their work made so far.
For lead potter Melinda, the assignment has been a great chance to depart from the production pottery the team is responsible for throughout the year. However, its this background in producing goods visitors see across the Village and for sale in our shops that gives the team the confidence to let their creativity lead the development process this time around.
“Doing production work is invaluable,” Melinda said. “It builds your skills so that you can achieve whatever it is you want to make.”
Alex echoed similar sentiments. He feels his production work here at Greenfield Village has strengthened his own skills and gives him a greater understanding and appreciation of well-crafted work, no matter its function.
“I appreciate a really, really nice piece of pottery now,” he said.
When given such a big, open-ended assignment like this, I was curious how the team got started in the research and design process of their pieces. For John, his development process began with a lot of reflection of his craft and the work of artists before him.
“During the Industrial Revolution, things were just made so quickly. Some potters couldn’t keep up,” he said. “With studio work, they could take a step back and think, ‘What’s the purpose? Why should I make it if a machine can do it faster than I can?’ I’m using a piercing motif in my piece; I’m not worried about the function right now, I’m worried about the production. I’m literally piercing into my piece, almost into its soul, and evaluating it to determine what it should be.”
Alex also spent time thinking about artists from the past, especially those working during the 1950s. For his collection of vessels, he’s experimenting with transferring images to them and trying new glazes. One piece could turn into a teapot, another into a coordinating sugar bowl.
“I’m taking my inspiration from the world around me. Colors and lines in the city, colors and lines in the country.”
An appreciation of nature and a longing for Spring were the source of Melinda’s inspiration.
“I looked at seeds, seedpods, nuts and vegetables to explore ways to create an interesting surface. I’m thinking about the texture of the natural world, of water and plants.”
Her colorful sketchbook is a collection of nature-related drawings, from large bowls meant to serve big salads at a dinner party to serving platters that look like peapods for a potluck. She’s even making her own collection of stamps to add texture and pattern to her pieces.
Next to Melinda John is creating as he goes. His tall vessel is covered with perfectly carved holes, both created by hand and, believe it or not, a Dremel rotary tool.
So far, Tom likes what he sees.
“Greenfield Village is all about telling stories with ‘stuff.’ We want to create some new ‘stuff’ to show this transition in form. I wanted to give our potters a chance to express themselves and show off.”
What will Melinda, Alex and John discover next in their work? You’ll have to check back to the blog next month to see how they’re moving along with their pieces as Greenfield Village gets ready for opening day.
Lish Dorset is Social Media Manager at The Henry Ford and a wannabe potter.