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It began with an unlikely friendship between a Vernon meatpacker and a pioneering Los Angeles graphics designer who shared a fascination with modernist design. One day, the designer, Lou Danziger, told his old friend from New York about a group of Pasadena students who had extended the modernist idiom into the world of ceramics, turning out large planters and sculptures that looked like white doughnuts, halved avocadoes and stacked pyramids.
And suddenly, an opportunity was born.
The wife of meatpacker Max Lawrence offered to check out the students' work, on display in 1949 at a nursery on Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles. "She saw the forms and the shapes and she knew there was nothing like it on the market," said Lawrence, now 92. His wife, Rita, believed that the artistic forms could soften the stark austerity of Los Angeles' newly constructed midcentury homes while honoring a prime principle of the modernist movement: functionality.
Within months, the couple had gone into business mass-producing and selling the students' creations as part of a new ceramics company called Architectural Pottery. By the mid-1950s, the company was selling pottery to architects and designers across the country. Lawrence closed his meatpacking business and went to work with his wife full-time.
The company's influence on design can still be seen today.
"If you go to a gas station or if you go to a bank or you go to a commercial building and you see the big white cylinder, it's because of Architectural Pottery," said Bill Stern, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Museum of California Design and author of "California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism" (2001).
Architectural Pottery pieces that sold for $100 during the 1950s can retail for thousands of dollars at Los Angeles stores and galleries specializing in 20th century furnishings. The old pots are simply difficult to find. Collectors, alert to the renewed popularity of mid-1900s home décor, spend weekends scouring yard sales and flea markets, trying to score a vintage pot.
Andy Hackman started his search for Architectural Pottery about 10 years ago and has about a dozen pieces for sale at California Living, his vintage store on La Brea Avenue.
"Architectural Pottery wasn't just about functional pots you planted trees or bushes in. It achieved a sculptural value," he said.
One sure sign of its collectibility: Even faithful ceramic clones can be as hard to find as the real thing.
"I can't make them fast enough," said Michael Stephenson, who reproduces some of the most famous Architectural Pottery pieces through his 5-year-old San Diego company, Vessel. His copies of matte-white hourglass ashtrays and gourd-shaped bird feeders start at $165 retail and are sold through stores in San Diego and Palm Springs.
"I always had an appreciation for postwar design and a real desire to collect Architectural Pottery," said Stephenson, a former house painter. "It was one of those things I thought was so great."
Max Lawrence marvels at the fact that Architectural Pottery has become the ceramics equivalent of an Eames chair or a George Nelson sunburst clock.
"We were establishing a basis for what exists [in pottery] today," said Lawrence, who closed the company in 1985 after a fire destroyed the production plant in Manhattan Beach.
These were pottery forms, Stern said, that "never, ever existed before."
Lawrence credits his wife for seeing the potential in the forms, created by ceramics professor La Gardo Tackett and his star pupils, John Follis and Rex Goode, at the now-defunct California School of Art in Pasadena. As the orders came in, dozens of other ceramicists were hired.
"We were living in [modernist architect] Gregory Ain's Dunsmuir apartments at the time," Lawrence said. "We knew about modern design because we lived with it. Our furniture in the house was Eames and Knoll. When Rita saw the pottery, she saw the possibilities."
Rita Lawrence worked as the firm's creative director while Max managed the business. Unlike most other California ceramics companies at the time, the Lawrences allowed the potters to take credit for their creations because they wanted to attract and retain talented artisans. The company went on to produce tens of thousands of pieces over 35 years.
"We were very proud of our relationship with the young designers," Max Lawrence said.
Tackett, who eventually left teaching to work for the company, quickly became famous for his white hourglass-shaped designs. The pots sold in the thousands, becoming a ubiquitous part of the aesthetic landscape. Follis was recognized for circular- and peanut-shaped pots that sat on simple metal and walnut stands. Ceramicist Malcolm Leland was known for creating the gourd-shaped birdhouse the company insisted on calling a "shelter." And artisan David Cressey's massive stoneware sculptures and pots were honored in the '60s for their intricate design.
In an interview at the time, Rita Lawrence said she believed that the pottery embraced the principles established by the modernist architects — among them Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler — who sought to blur the lines between indoors and out. The pots "provided a portable landscape and a focal point in garden plants, then carried the motif into the home and office," she said.
In 1955, more than 200 pieces were ordered for the newly built Beverly Hilton Hotel. Oversized circular planters, stripped of ornamentation, popped up in front of office buildings and banks throughout the city. "Wilshire Boulevard is almost an embarrassment to us," Max Lawrence said in an interview at the time. "The plants growing in front of every major building are in our pots."
It was common to find the pottery in Case Study houses, as part of program that sought to introduce the values of modernist architecture to suburbia. Many scenes by architectural photographer Julius Shulman from the era feature a modern building accented with an Eames chair and an Architectural Pottery piece, often an hourglass pot.
In the early 1960s — as design trends became more organic — the company introduced a line of sculptural earthenware and later color-glazed stoneware by Cressey, who had run his own pottery studio before joining the Lawrences. Dealers say Cressey's creations, more textured than earlier Architectural Pottery pieces, are considered the next big collector's item.
"David Cressey gave Architectural Pottery a totally different idiom," said Hackman, of California Living. "It's sort of like phase one and phase two."
In the 1970s, the Lawrences started making huge pots out of fiberglass at the request of landscape architects, who were looking for lightweight plant containers to put in malls and shopping centers. From there, the company started producing fiberglass furniture that could be used inside or out.
The Lawrence family retains one of the largest caches of Architectural Pottery in the city, although son Damon considers the collection modest. "If we only knew, we would have kept one of everything," he said. The family has several dozen pieces.
After Rita Lawrence died at 80 in 1999, Damon Lawrence, his wife and two sons moved into the Spanish-style Bel-Air house that Max and Rita shared for more than 40 years. Damon Lawrence, who works as an importer, hired an architect to double the size of the residence and build a series of outdoor courtyards to showcase some of the most famous, and rare, pieces of Architectural Pottery.
Several large white totem poles, a series of stacked hourglass shapes designed in the 1950s by Tackett, stand in the frontyard. The tall structures —which resemble sculptor Constantin Brancusi's "Endless Column" of piled-up pyramids — provide a modern twist to the traditional exterior of the house.
A half-dozen courtyard and patios serve as open-air mini-museums. One courtyard is an exhibit area for '60s abstract stoneware sculptures by Cressey, the company's only name potter who is still alive. Another patio is filled with curved chairs and settees made of fiberglass during the 1970s. On an exterior wall, the Lawrences have hung a stoneware light fixture shaped like a giant honeycomb. Pots ranging from large to gigantic, and filled with cactus and succulents, surround the pool.
Inside the residence, the company's bowls dot the white marble kitchen countertops. An international array of folk art — collected by the Lawrences during trips around the world — sits on built-in cabinets made by family friends Hendrik van Keppel and Taylor Green, Los Angeles designers who created casual, indoor-outdoor furniture from the 1930s through the 1970s.
Damon Lawrence shakes his head, amazed at the renewed interest in Architectural Pottery. He teases his father: "I bet you never thought you would be treated like a rock star."
His father laughs. "I'm not surprised about anything anymore."
Scott Nadeau, owner of 10 Ten gallery in Silver Lake, began collecting and selling Architectural Pottery pieces five years ago.
On weekends, his scouts visit yard sales in 1950s neighborhoods, where there's a higher likelihood that people have Architectural Pottery pieces stashed in their garages or sheds. He has a storeroom of 19 pieces, among them highly prized stoneware by Cressey. Nadeau — who also sells a variety of furniture from the 1940s and 1950s — is asking $2,500 each for two large Cressey pots that stand nearly 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
"Five thousand dollars sounds like a lot of money for two pots, but you can change the whole entryway of your house," Nadeau said.
Elaine Jones keeps three large Cressey pots inside the barnlike home near Century City that the widow once shared with her husband, Los Angeles architect A. Quincy Jones.
"It's in a form that comes naturally; that's what makes it good," said Jones, who owns nearly 20 pieces of Architectural Pottery and has become friends with the Lawrences.
California ceramics expert Stern said the designs just seemed to be a natural step. They were "one of those developments, one of those leaps forward that makes people say, 'Of course. How could this not have been here before?' "
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Where to find Architectural Pottery for sale in Los Angeles:
1716 Silver Lake Blvd.
816 N. La Cienega Blvd.
601 N. La Brea Ave.
Where to find Vessel's reproductions of Architectural Pottery:
Boomerang for Modern
2040 India St.
2755 N. Palm Canyon Drive