The phrase “California pottery” generally brings to mind the mid-20th-century output of Southern California potteries such as Bauer, Gladding-McBean, Metlox, Pacific, and Vernon. That’s understandable, since those “big five” firms, as they are known, produced countless vases, pitchers, and plates, as well as acres of ceramic tiles. But Bauer was actually founded in California in 1909, Gladding-McBean in 1875, Metlox in 1927, Pacific in 1892, and Vernon in 1931, which means the mid-20th-century perception of California pottery is actually off by a half-century or so.
Beyond the big five, the birth of California pottery in the modern sense can also be traced to 1911, when Arequipa Pottery was founded just outside the small town of Fairfax in Northern California. There, patients at the local tuberculosis sanatorium decorated vases designed by the likes of former Roseville Pottery art director Frederick H. Rhead, who would go on to create the Fiesta line for Homer Laughlin.
In 1926, Malibu Potteries enjoyed a brief run as Southern California’s foremost ceramic-tile manufacturer (a fire in 1931 forced the company to close its doors in 1932), enlivening a tile tradition that was started during the Arts & Crafts era by Ernest Batchelder. A year after Malibu’s founding, in 1927, chewing-gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr. launched Catalina Clay Products, which made vases, souvenirs for tourists visiting Wrigley’s island, and ceramic tiles until 1937, when Gladding-McBean gobbled it up.
Of the big five, Bauer and Pacific are often of most interest to collectors. Bauer has been the subject of museum exhibitions, so its forms and designers are reasonably well catalogued. Of the earliest pieces, the high-shouldered, multi-handled Rebekah vases made of red clay are especially sought—later vases in the Rebekah style were made of stoneware and then earthenware. Louis Ipsen was the firm’s most influential designer, creating the lines of colorful Bauer dinnerware that competed directly with Fiesta. There were various flavors of Ringware, patterns like Monterey and La Linda, and the most short-lived line, El Chico.
Pacific Pottery’s products emulated Bauer’s, especially its line called Hostessware, which was designed to compete with Bauer’s Ringware. For customers who admired the clean look of both but couldn’t handle the intensity of the colors, Pacific offer Coralitos, which was both lighter in weight and lighter in tone than Hostessware.
After World War II, California potteries readily embraced the Mid-Century Modern aesthetic, as well as its crazier cousin, kitsch. In the late 1940s, Edith Heath of Sausalito produced cylindrical drinking cups formed with a rolling pin—her work was soon featured in important design magazines of the day such as “Arts & Architecture.” Other designers were more expressive, from the figurative work of Marc Bellaire and Sascha Brastoff to the kitschy head vases of Betty Lou Nichols and friendly figurines of Hedi Schoop. And then there were the studio potters whose work was also a part of this movement, including Beatrice Wood and her Ojai neighbors Vivika and Otto Heino.