Max Lawrence, a successful meatpacker whose appreciation of midcentury modern design led him to co-found Architectural Pottery, an influential Los Angeles company that produced sculptural planters and urns coveted by collectors today, died of natural causes July 25 at his Los Angeles home, said his son, Damon. He was 98.
Lawrence founded Architectural Pottery in 1950 with his wife, Rita, whose business and aesthetic savvy helped the company thrive for more than three decades. Showcasing the talents of potters such as David Cressey, John Follis and Rex Goode, they sold their creations to the vanguard of the modernist architecture movement that took root in Southern California in the post- World War II era.
"Their role in establishing the unique look of midcentury California design can't be overstated. They were key," Wendy Kaplan, curator and head of decorative art and design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said of the Lawrences. LACMA is featuring several works from Architectural Pottery and its offshoot, Architectural Fiberglass, in "California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way," a major exhibition scheduled to open in October 2011.
The hallmarks of Architectural Pottery were graceful, geometrically shaped vessels, devoid of ornamentation and often large in scale. Radical for their time, their pure forms — cylinders, cones, bullets, gourds and totems — startled the eye in 1950s America, where fat-lipped terra-cotta pots had been the standard for generations.
The company quickly made its mark, with several pieces from its first catalogue chosen for the 1951 "Good Design" exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Architects such as John Lautner and Richard Neutra ordered works from the Architectural Pottery line for the modernist houses they designed, and photographer Julius Shulman, the masterful promoter of midcentury design, featured its pots and sculptures in nearly every picture he took.
Although a fire at the Lawrences' Manhattan Beach manufacturing plant led them to shut down the business in 1985, their legacy has endured, evident particularly in the ubiquity in the California landscape of the cylindrical white planter, one of the most popular creations of Architectural Pottery.
"Whenever we see a white cylinder planted with a tree or flowers inside or outside an office building or a bank, and now quite often at gasoline stations, all of that is the heritage of Architectural Pottery," Bill Stern, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Museum of California Design, said in an interview Friday.
Stern described Lawrence as a modest man whose enormous success as a businessman belied an intellect finely attuned to the arts.
"He always gave all of the credit for the aesthetics of the products to his wife, Rita," Stern said, "but when he came and saw our examples of California designs, he revealed that he had a very sharp and discerning eye."
Lawrence, who was born Aug. 20, 1911, grew up in an East Harlem tenement community of poor Jewish immigrants. He helped his father sell produce from a horse-drawn cart and worked his way through night school at City College of New York to become an accountant.
In 1939, he moved to Los Angeles, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Rita Milaw. The couple were married for 59 years until her death in 1999. Lawrence is survived by their son; a daughter, Diane Kallet; and three grandchildren.
Lawrence became an office manager for Vernon Canning Co. and eventually owned it. The company prospered by supplying canned meat rations to the military during World War II and the Korean War.
Keenly interested in modern architecture, Lawrence and his wife developed a close relationship with architect Gregory Ain. They lived in a number of Ain-designed dwellings, including his classic 1930s Los Angeles apartment house called Dunsmuir Flats.
Architects like Ain emphasized the flow of indoor and outdoor spaces, with living rooms that opened onto patios. What was missing in the design world were the accessories, such as planters, that would work as well inside a house as outside.
In 1949, when the Lawrences saw the work of La Gardo Tackett and his students from the now-defunct California School of Arts in Pasadena, they recognized that their streamlined ceramics could fill the void. They offered what Rita Lawrence later described as a "portable landscape" that could unify the interior and exterior environments. Architectural Pottery would bring the new style of ceramics to the marketplace.
Architects began ordering the Lawrences' wares almost as soon as the first catalog was published in 1950. It wasn't long before a piece by Architectural Pottery was considered as necessary in the modernist home as an Eames chair.
The Lawrences respected their artisans, allowing them to take credit for their creations and paying royalties — uncommon practices at the time in California's ceramics industry. Their well-known potters included Malcolm Leland, who designed an iconic gourd-shaped bird feeder, and Tackett, who designed an hourglass-shaped ashtray that became a fixture in office building elevator bays.
The cylindrical white planter mushroomed in popularity after more than 200 were ordered in 1955 for the then-new Beverly Hilton Hotel.
"Wilshire Boulevard is almost an embarrassment to us," Max Lawrence said some years later. "The plants growing in front of every major building are in our pots."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times