Today Malibu means surf, sand and movie stars. Fifty years ago, it meant tile.
From 1926 to 1932, Malibu Potteries, located right on the beach in Santa Monica, produced some of the most prized ceramic tile in the United States. Hand-glazed in colors a parrot might envy, the tiles were available in more than 1,000 designs, including lines called Moorish and Saracen that echoed the traditional Islamic patterns of Moorish Spain and the Middle East.
Once a fixture of the finest facades, floors and soda foundations, Malibu tile is making a comeback. Described in a recent issue of Metropolitan Home magazine as “the most exquisitely wrought decorative tile this side of the Alhambra,” Malibu tile has become eminently collectible, with single 6-inch squares commanding $200.
It is also being reproduced by a handful of Southern California ceramists, including Richard Thomas Keit, who makes copies of the glowing tiles, as well as other designs, in a shop at his home in Thousand Oaks.
Malibu tile’s “visual festivity” is a major factor in its growing popularity, Keit said. It is especially attractive to Southern Californians “who are looking for something to feel culturally rooted in.”
Like many other Angelenos, Keit first experienced the vivid beauty of Malibu tile a decade ago at a show organized by collector David Greenberg at the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles.
“What really struck me was the richness of the color,” said Keit, who was especially taken with pieces that featured swirling combinations of blue, red and turquoise.
Keit, 32, has been fascinated with tile since he was a youngster. “We spent vacations on Catalina Island. As a teen-ager, I used to take rubbings of the old tiles there.” Catalina had its own famous ceramics plant, but as Keit pointed out, Malibu tile was also used extensively on the island.
Keit bought books on ceramics and taught himself to make and decorate tile. He mastered such traditional techniques as cuerda seca (dry rope), often used for Malibu tile, in which areas to be colored are first outlined with an oily material that keeps the glazes from running into each other. After firing, a dark line remains around each area of color.
Keit’s first commercially successful tiles were reproductions of tile bird scenes found on buildings in Catalina. The bird sets sold so well at the 1981 Catalina Art Festival that Keit was able to quit his job with a computer company to make ceramics full time.
Made With Rancho Malibu Clay
According to a new book on “The Ceramic Art of the Malibu Potteries” published by the Malibu Lagoon Museum, Malibu tile was originally made with red and buff clay from Rancho Malibu, the vast land holding of company founder May K. Rindge (Rancho Malibu ran along the Pacific Ocean for 22 miles, from Santa Monica to Zuma Beach).
Rindge hired ceramic chemist Rufus B. Keeler to run her seaside factory, whose 100-plus workers often swam in the afternoon after work. Keeler’s most important task was creating the glazes that gave the tile its characteristic richness and depth of color.
As the book recounts, the glazes were Malibu’s treasure, and the company guarded them accordingly. Employees who wandered unauthorized into “the holy of holies,” as the glaze room was called, were not only fired, they were blacklisted in the ceramics industry.
Like Keeler, Keit formulates his own glazes. “I’ve developed about 6,000 glaze formulas,” he said. Glazer Diane Henson actually decorates many of the tiles. She works much as the old Malibu glazers did. A pattern is silk-screened or transferred onto unglazed tiles in some other way.
The tiles are arranged on a Lazy Susan, and Henson moves from tile to tile, using a bulb syringe to apply the full-bodied glazes that re-create the characteristic Malibu look. The tiles are fired at 2,000 degrees. They remain in the kiln for 36 hours, including 20 hours for cooling down.
Ironically, modern ceramic technology is so good that it is sometimes difficult to get an authentic Malibu look. The kilns of Malibu Potteries and other ceramics plants of the period produced much less consistent temperatures than modern equipment, Keit said, and, as a result, produced more variation from tile to tile.
Keit makes it a point to find out exactly what customers want before he starts producing their tiles. “Most people, when they are paying $15 a tile, want it to be perfect, but more informed people sometimes want more ceramic spontaneity,” he said.
Keit regularly produces Catalina, Victorian, Art Nouveau and Art Deco tiles, in addition to Malibus. He also creates his own designs. Influenced by M. C. Escher, his originals include interlocking panthers, griffins, unicorns and maidens. Keit accepts minimum orders of $500. Orders are usually filled in six to eight weeks.
Boosted by good word of mouth, Keit has done a number of celebrity commissions, either on his own or while he was with Malibu Ceramic Works (1981-83).
Film maker George Lucas ordered a Malibu-ish original design for his Marin County swimming pool. Jane Fonda had the kitchen and bathrooms in her Santa Monica house done in Malibu tile. Keit’s favorite client was the late musician Carmen Dragon, who would buy imperfect tiles or seconds from Keit and use them to make fanciful works in the style of Spanish architect Antonio Gaudi.
Malibu Potteries closed in 1932, destroyed by a fire and the Great Depression. Today its work can be seen in all its glory in Los Angeles City Hall and, most especially, in the Adamson House, home of the Malibu Lagoon Museum in Malibu Lagoon State Beach.