The term “art pottery” is a largely Western designation for traditional ceramic forms such as vases and bowls whose design and decoration distinguishes them from more utilitarian wares. In Japan and China, ceramic art pieces had been made for 1,000 years or more, but in Europe, the practice really only went back to the 16th century, when a Frenchman named Bernard Palissy produced vividly colored, high-relief, lead-glazed earthenware plates, platters, and pitchers in a style that came to be known as majolica.
For centuries, majolica was mostly a creature of the continent. Tin-glazed majolica was common in Spain and especially in Italy, where firms such as Ginori and Cantagalli became leading producers. In Germany, the Royal Porcelain Manufactory was known for its majolica, but it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that English manufacturers embraced the look. In 1851, when Minton & Company of Staffordshire exhibited a new line of ceramics at The Great Exhibition in London, the firm called it Palissy ware after its French inventor, but by then the world knew this type of ceramics as majolica.
Majolica quickly got a reputation for being a fun ware for the common man. The colors were bright, and the reliefs were frequently of animals and plants. Some potteries made teapots in the shapes of cauliflowers. Others, such as the staid Wedgwood, stuck mostly to basket-weave patterns and relief foliage on the outsides of its standard shapes—fun, in other words, but not too much.
In 19th-century America, a similar fascination with majolica took hold. As in England, potteries coated their ware with clear glazes so that their pieces shined. Griffen, Smith & Hill was one prominent Pennsylvania manufacturer, who sometimes marked its pieces with “G.S.H.” or labeled them as “Etruscan Pottery.”
Other American companies known for their majolica in the second half of the 19th century were Morrison & Carr, Chesapeake Pottery, and Edwin Bennett. They produced relish dishes, ice cream platters shaped like straw hats decorated with ribbons, and teapots in the shapes of cabbages.
One of the most popular majolica forms was the pitcher, which was sometimes designed to appear as if it had been formed from vertical slices of wide bamboo, with more slender bamboo branches employed for the pitcher’s handle. Other pitchers resembled ears of corn, while syrup containers were routinely festooned with fat sunflowers or clusters of lily leaves and flowers.
There were platters and plates, or course, with leaf-shaped plates being a collectible subcategory all its own (begonia leaves were especially popular). Sardine boxes and cigarette cases were also produced—many were topped by African-American figures, known then as now as blackamoors. And animals from bulldogs to pigs were deemed the perfect shapes within which to store loose tobacco...
By the 1890s, majolica was overtaken by examples of art pottery that took their inspiration from Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles. Clay, it turned out, was especially suited to the Art Nouveau aesthetic. Its malleable organic nature let turn-of-the-century artisans shape it into the sinewy lines, feminine curves, and scrolling vines. The introduction of new glazing techniques added luscious bright contrasting colors, which also appealed to Art Nouveau sensibilities.
Like the Arts and Crafts movement that had evolved in England, Art Nouveau was borne out of a rejection of mass-produced objects in stuffy Victorian styles. While Arts and Crafts embraced handmade simplicity, Art Nouveau was more about discarding rigid design rules and creating beautiful, asymmetrical, and sensual objects, so that utilitarian craft pieces were as gorgeous as works of fine art.
These new movements inspired major china and dinnerware manufacturers around Europe and the United States to open boutique art-pottery studios, where gifted artists and chemists were often given free rein to experiment, throw pots by hand, and test glazing techniques.
Some studios focused on glazing and firing techniques, striving to achieve the perfect color, opacity, and texture. In particular, the firing process often led to unpredictable outcomes, such as uneven color, veins, or blisters—such “imperfections” gave each piece a unique character. Often the pots were plain in shape, blank canvases to adorn with beautiful colors, textures, and painted imagery. French Art Nouveau craftsmen developed two-tone marbleized and crystalline effects, as well as deep flambé reds and metallic glazes in rich blues, yellows, oranges, and purples.
Other ceramists put their energy into creating unique shapes for their pots, making fluid-looking vases inspired by Japanese ceramics. Three-dimensional relief effects were achieved by sculpting damp clay into flower blooms, plant stalks, animals, or maidens. Handles were shaped like scrolls, branches, leaves, or even seductively arching women. The rim of the vase might be manipulated into the shapes of leaves or flower buds.
Finally, Art Nouveau pottery produced by major factories, as opposed to individual artists, tended to emphasize surface decoration over experimental glazes. These pieces were adorned with imagery inspired by Viennese Secessionists and Jugendstil artists as well as Japanese art, including blooming plants, exotic birds like peacocks, and the hugely popular femme-fleur, or flower woman.
In France, the top luxury commercial pottery Sèvres paved the way for new glazing techniques when Joseph-Théodore Deck took the helm in 1883. His shapes took their inspiration from the female form, as well as Chinese architecture and ancient Turkish, Persian, and Far Eastern motifs. Vases were usually painted in subtle pastel colors. Deck’s followers included Félix Bracquemond, Ernest Chaplet, Clément Massier, Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, and Taxile Doat.
One distinguishing feature of certain Sèvres Art Nouveau vases is the gilt-bronze mount, also called a plinth, which usually complements the theme of the pot. A vase painted with Monet-like lily pads, for example, might have golden frogs hugging its base.
In the Netherlands, the Rozenburg factory contributed major innovations around shapes. There, in 1899, Jurriaan Kok and M.N. Engelden introduced the remarkable “eggshell porcelain,” actually an extremely thin and lightweight earthenware, strengthened by glazing on the inside and out. This fine and delicate ceramic featured intricate and lovely images of flowers, insects, and birds painted by Samuel Schellink and R. Sterken.
Before that, architect, potter, and textile designer Theodoor Colenbrander left Rozenburg to form his own Gouda Ceramic Factory. He found the Art Nouveau style particularly suited to his tastes, as he favored bold colors and shapes inspired by Javanese batik ware.
Major German potteries like Meissen and Königliche Prozellan Manufaktur (K.P.M.) capitalized on the popularity of Art Nouveau and began adopting these decorative painting styles on their vases. Staatlich Porzellan Manufaktur in Meissen even contracted with designers like Herny van de Velde and Peter Behrens to help give their pieces a more current appeal. Goldscheider in Austria and Royal Dux in Czechoslovakia both specialized in sculptural figurines, particularly of women.
Some of the most sought Bohemian Art Nouveau pottery was made by the Reissner, Stellmacher & Kessel (R.S.K.) company. It dubbed its most ambitious line Amphora. This pottery was characterized by exotic and organic shapes, with incised or relief-molded decorations of flowering and fruiting plants, painted in bright surface enamel. Handles were shaped like branches and featured extreme curves.
The painted decorations on Amphora pottery, inspired by Jugendstil, often highlighted the daydreaming, pale face of a woman, surrounded by tendrils of long hair and a gilt halo. These Amphora styles were so popular that R.S.K. applied them to wall masks, sculptural figures, and earthenware pots adorned with glass cabochons.
Another innovative Bohemian company, Zsolnay, made breakthroughs in lustrous and iridescent glazes. Owner Vilmos Zsolnay brought in the most talented foreign artisans and scientists to formulate recipes and designs, including gifted chemist Vincse Wartha, who helped Zsolnay introduce a wide line of marbled, shaded, and crystalline glazes. The most popular of these was the iridescent glaze known as “eosin.”
In England, ceramist William Moorcroft made great use of the tube-lining technique for his popular line of Florian ware Art Nouveau pottery, outlining his imagery, inspired by Etruscan, classical Roman, and Far-Eastern ceramics, with thin pipes of colored slips. Designer Christopher Dresser also employed tube-lining for his work at the Minton Art Pottery studio.
Major salt-glaze pottery Doulton & Co., known as Royal Doulton after 1901, opened a studio in south London in 1871 to produce a hand-crafted, hand-decorated Art Nouveau style pottery. Thanks to its proximity to, and relationship with, the Lambeth School of Art, the studio had a talented pool of artists and designers to draw from, including Frank Butler, Hannah Barlow, George Tinworth, and Emily Edwards. These artists were able to choose the shape and decoration of the vases they produced. Their pots were usually simple in form and adorned with flora or fauna patterns.
In the United States, Rookwood, one of the largest ceramics manufacturers in the country, didn’t embrace the handcrafted philosophy of the Art Nouveau movement, but it was eager to adapt the aesthetic. The company hired top technicians to come up with innovative glaze recipes and decorative techniques. The first breakthrough was made by artist Laura Fry, who invented air-brushed backgrounds. Its most successful Art Nouveau lines include the floral “Iris Glaze” pieces and blurry-looking “Vellum Glaze” items.
Louis Comfort Tiffany also made pottery, but unlike his art glass and stained glass lamps, this is one arena in which he was not a success. He never covered his Favrile pottery with painted images; he wanted their shapes and glazes to speak for themselves, although his later pieces featured relief-molded imagery such as cattails, flower clusters, or fish swimming in a stream.
Perhaps the most remarkable American potter of this period is George Ohr, a Biloxi, Mississippi, artist, who made shockingly modern and brightly colored pots with paper-thin walls that turn, twist, and ripple in stunning organic shapes. Ohr dug the clay himself, formulated his glazes, and even built his pottery and kiln.
William Grueby also created a distinct American line of Art Nouveau pottery when he opened his Grueby Faience Co. in Boston with the goal of pursuing “organic naturalism.” His firm invented fine vegetal matte glazes, and when its pots were shaped, colored, and fired, they came out looking remarkably like they were made of broad, living leaves and gourds. While the pots were usually green, Grueby also employed its high-quality matte glazes in myriad colors to make beautiful ceramic tiles.
In the 20th century, art pottery, particularly in Europe, appears almost schizophrenic. Swedish pottery produced in the first half of the century have strong Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences, while Danish ceramics embraced a modernist aesthetic even before the Mid-Century Modern movement took hold after World War II.
The largest ceramics factory in Sweden was Gustavsberg, whose leading designer at the end of the 19th and through the first half of the 20th centuries was Josef Ekberg. Early Ekberg vases featured floral and Art Nouveau decorations using the sgrafitto technique. Later pieces from the 1920s had less decoration but were often fired in iridescent glazes.
Ekberg’s protege, Wilhelm Kage, is known for his tall, geometric spindle vases, which sit on incised bases resembling small inverted flower pots. Even more modernist was the work of Berndt Friberg and Stig Lindberg, but Gustavsberg’s most recognized designer is undoubtedly Lisa Larson, who produced stoneware menageries of domestic, farm, and wild animals for the company from 1954 to 1980. Today, Larson and her assistants continue to produce work in her studio.
The other major Swedish pottery was Rorstrand, whose stoneware from the 1940s and ’50s by Gunnar Nylund evolved from Art Deco-inspired pieces to the biomorphic sloped bowls and bulbous vases for which Rorstrand is so renowned. Another mid-century Rorstrand designer, Carl-Harry Stalhane, pursued a more geometric look, producing vases in the 1950s that, in hindsight, resemble the shapes of NASA landing modules in the 1960s.
The tradition of art pottery in Denmark is even stronger. Factories such as Royal Copenhagen and Bing & Grondahl employed designers such as Axel Salto, who worked for both firms, although his “Budding” and gourd-shaped pieces from the 1930s at Royal Copenhagen are perhaps his best known. Nils Thorsson spent more than 60 years at Royal Copenhagen, designing the Marselis line in the 1950s for the factory’s parent company, Aluminia.
One of the most sought-after brands of Danish art pottery are the vases and bowls produced between 1930 and 1968 by Saxbo, which was founded by Nathalie Krebs. A former glaze chemist at Bing & Grondahl, Krebs relied on Eva Staehr-Nielsen to devise many of Saxbo’s elegant forms, which ranged from bottle vases to star-shape bowls. Leon Galetto was known for his cylinder vases with relief triangles on their sides, while Eric Rahr designed asymmetrical pieces.
Meanwhile, in postwar West Germany, a style known as fat lava appeared in the 1960s and ’70s. The genre gets its name from the thick, encrusted glazes that typify many of these pieces, some of which look as if their surfaces are composed of frozen flows of lava in radioactive hues ranging from fiery reds to cobalt blues. While the glazes were referred to at the time as lava glazes, the “fat” designation is more recent, the result of the public’s particular fascination with pieces whose glazes are especially thick and textured.
Fat lava objects include large floor vases, smaller straight-sided jugs (some with ring handles near their mouths), and sculptural pieces that appear to have been chiseled and sliced, creating juxtapositions of smooth and gnarled surfaces. Some fat lava pieces seem to be outgrowths of the macrame-and-raku aesthetic of 1960s hippie culture, while others have a postmodern, almost pop-culture look to them, sporting deliberately childlike designs like flowers, some rendered in deep relief.