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?' "