While California is rightly famous for many things, there are a few areas where its heyday has come and gone. One of them is making art pottery. At one time, there were literally hundreds of manufacturers, many of which were clustered in and around Los Angeles. Today, there are barely a few. Where did they all go?
First the backstory. Prior to around 1900, California was barely on the radar in the pottery world. The action took place in southeastern Ohio, an area flush with lots of clay suitable for shooting. Towns like Zanesville, famous for nothing else, produced pieces of pottery by the hundreds of thousands. The big names were there too, companies like Roseville and Weller, and an area along the Ohio River was rightly known as the pottery capital of the world.
Nonetheless, California was not without its own native makers, especially those with Mexican and Spanish roots. As the state began its growth spurt, pottery was suddenly in high demand. Builders not only needed drainpipes, but they also wanted to adorn their work with a unique Californian touch. Tiled floors and ceilings were in, wood and stone were out. Driven by the Arts and Crafts movement from 1910, architects like Julia Morgan noticed and used Californian pottery extensively in their designs at Hearst Castle and elsewhere.
By the 1930s, art pottery as a cottage industry was booming in the Golden State. Over 300 makers were spread along the coast, making everything from tableware and cookware to figurines and tiles. A few of the makers grew in size, forming what became known as the “Big Five” (JA Bauer Pottery, Metlox Potteries, Pacific Clay Products, Vernon Kilns and Gladding, McBean & Co.). While these companies formed the backbone of the industry, many more have joined the fray, entering and exiting business over time. Demand was booming, until it was no longer the case.
Beginning with the advent of World War II, a series of bodily beatings served to burst the California pottery bubble. Lower-cost Asian imports began pouring in from overseas, putting domestic manufacturers at a significant disadvantage. Tastes had also changed and the mid-century movement was on the way, combining modern materials like fiberglass and plywood with sleek, no-frills designs.
The Big Five slowly disappeared, bought out by other companies or forced into insolvency. Many other makers have come and gone without a trace, companies like West Coast Pottery with their jazzy Ruby Lane figurines. Collectors today covet pieces like these, reminiscent of a time when, at least for a while, California pottery was king.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award-winning catalog editor and authored seven books, as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Palm Springs Antique Galleries. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Write to him at [email protected].