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A Lot on Their Plates

TIMES STAFF WRITER

About 12 years ago, Brenda and Ken Fritz walked into an antique shop and opened up Pandora’s box. Actually, it was a cupboard, a piece of Americana they were considering buying to add to their already well-established collection of folk art. It was a pricey piece, and Brenda wanted to see the inside. And in that one small act, she got distracted--a distraction has kept the couple busy ever since.

“There was a piece of pottery,” she remembers. “And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And the dealer said, ‘It’s nothing you collect; it’s a piece of Czech pottery.’ ” The pair walked out of the store with the pitcher and left the cabinet behind. Neither can remember how much it cost: Ken thinks $45, Brenda says $65, but both agree they paid much less than what the sales tax would have been on the kind of collectibles they were used to buying.

Two weeks later, they were in another shop in another state, again looking for folk art. In a dusty cabinet behind a counter, they saw two vases and a pitcher with the same decorative pattern as the pitcher they now owned. “I said to Brenda, ‘Any time you have three or more of something, you have a collection,’ ” Ken says. Today, the couple own 1,000 pieces of Czech and German ceramics, all dating from the period of that first piece--about 1919 to 1933. Two years ago, in downsizing from their Westside home of 30 years, the place where they raised their two now-adult daughters, they sold virtually all of their vast folk art collection, but they kept the ceramics. Over the past decade, they have become--they and others believe--the foremost collectors in the United States of Eastern European Bauhaus-style ceramics, a very specialized and not at all well-known arena.

The ceramics that fill their current home--a lovely Mediterranean-style manse on a quiet Venice Beach canal--do not resemble the expected image of classic Eastern European tableware. There are no floral patterns, no gold-leaf flourishes. Rather, these hefty-yet-well-proportioned dinner plates and cake platters, mantle clocks and vases, biscuit holders and spatulas all are decorated with bright, colorful geometric patterns that draw upon the international abstract vocabulary of 1920s and early ‘30s Modernist art--the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists, the Italian Futurists and the German Bauhaus school.

A pie-slice quarter of the surface of a platter is decorated with a gray-and-white grid, for example; the rest of the circular surface is a more erratic red and gray pattern of lines and squares. A set of plates, cups and saucers is striped red, green and blue in colors reminiscent of a Tartan plaid, then overlaid with a thick black spider web of radiating lines. A clock and two candleholders on a mantle display a mix of partial circles, stepped lines, arrows and other eccentric geometric forms.

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It is a vocabulary of forms that to this day can be identified with its forward-thinking period, shorthand for what was considered truly modern among people interested in being avant-garde. The Czech and German ceramics that the Fritzes collect are not art in its high form, but rather objects made to be used every day--to serve dinner and dessert, or to top a sideboard. But for a brief time, such quotidian objects brought the art world into people’s homes and made it an integral part of daily life. Until the Nazis stopped all that.

For the Fritzes, the attraction takes on many layers. They love the forms and marvel at the variety of the patterns. They love the hunt and have endless stories of uncovering troves of long-forgotten treasures at flea markets and in shops all over the world. And they care deeply about poignant story behind the goods, which were made in factories largely owned by Jews who employed Jewish workers, people whose vision the Nazis abhorred and whose mark on the world can be remembered today, in many cases, only by these remaining mass-produced objects.

At the Fritzes’, the Czech and German pottery pops up everywhere. A corner display of dozens of cake platters covers the walls, floor to ceiling, in the dining room. The long upstairs hallway is lined with rows of biscuit jars, each pot different in shape and pattern and all of them delicately decorated with the geometry of Modernism.

It is a beautiful and somewhat unfamiliar sight, the useful turned into formal, artistic arrangements. For the Fritzes, the pieces are still valued for what they once served up, and they have some pieces that they actually use as they were originally intended. As collectibles, however, most of these objects have now become more precious than their original manufacturers ever could have imagined.

Married 39 years, Ken and Brenda Fritz finish each other’s stories, laugh at each other’s jokes and clearly love the same things. Ken is a producer and manager of musicians who got his start with the Smothers Brothers--he was executive producer of the folk-singing duo’s original TV show, “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour"--and has worked with such legendary artists as Peter, Paul and Mary. These days he’s scaled back considerably, representing only one singer, a jazz vocalist named Steve Tyrell who’s been touring this summer with Linda Ronstadt.

Brenda is active in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s volunteer Art Museum Council, helping to place art in corporations, and is a co-chair of the Los Angeles Antiques Show. The pair travel often, much of their unscheduled time centered around looking for treasure.

On one trip to Germany a few years ago, Brenda says, they went to every small decorative-art museum in every small town, just to educate themselves. “Nobody was in them but us; nobody goes to them,” she says. They also shopped along the way, traveling by train throughout. “We looked like fleeing refugees,” she says, laden with packages of goods to bring home.

Exploring often yields some real high points for such passionate collectors. “We were in Darmstadt” three years ago, Ken remembers, “one of the major factory centers where a lot of this stuff was made. We were walking down the street, on our way to get lunch, and there was a junk shop--a knickknack shop for antiques. And I said, ‘OK, let’s go in.’ The room was small, and when we walked in the front door, we did what we always do: She went in one direction and I went in the other. I walked over to this corner, and there under these shelves ... I put my hand over my mouth and I said ‘Bren, it’s the mother lode.’

“I couldn’t believe it,” he continues, smiling broadly at the pleasure of the memory. “It was as if someone had picked up our collection and put it under these shelves. And I was on my hands and knees pulling stacks of dishes and objects out, and I started carrying them over to the counter. And the woman said. ‘What would you like?’ She spoke to us in English, and I said, ‘Everything.’ And she just was so flustered, and she said, well, this will take me a long time; I don’t have enough packing material. And I said, ‘We’re going to have lunch, and we’ll come back. Let us know how much it is.’ ” Many of the best platters now on display in their dining room came from that one fortuitous find.

Ken won’t say how much they paid that day, but he does say that in the early days, you could buy pieces for $20 or less. These days, the same material would cost many hundreds. Pieces they’ve bought for $35 can now go for $250 or $350. A friend paid $3,500 for a bowl, and they have one like it that they found in Australia for less than one-tenth the price, Ken says. So where buying in bulk once made sense, today the Fritzes carry pictures of what they own to make sure they’re not duplicating themselves. And the time they’ve spent looking and holding the materials has made them connoisseurs, settling now only for the good stuff. “We’ve never thought of it as investments,” Ken says. “If it doesn’t appeal to you, it doesn’t matter if you get it for a nickel.”

Ken says that having bought 1,000 pieces, they’ve probably considered--and handled--about 25,000.

“If my eyes are closed and I pick up a piece, I can tell generally whether it’s German or Czech by the weight, and almost always by the feel. There’s no question that a German glaze is different than any other glaze. It’s more silky, it’s more a satiny, silky feel.” And because much of the work was made for export, the finds can come anywhere. The Fritzes have found pieces in England, Argentina, Brazil and even Australia.

Gerhard Westermeier, an art and antiques dealer whose gallery is in Munich but who also often brings material to New York, says that over the last eight or so years he has come to know the Fritzes as friends and as customers. “When they first visited me in my gallery and saw some pieces, I was astonished that somebody from America was interested,” he said by phone from Munich. “Most Germans don’t know what it is. Ken asked me if I had any more, and I said, ‘Yes, it’s in the backyard,’ a place where I put things that have minor value, that I don’t want to show. I like these works personally, but most people don’t know about it. He was so eager, I invited him to come to my house.”

The relationship grew, and as Westermeier over time brought hundreds of such pieces to the U.S. to sell at New York antiques shows, the Fritzes were always there, getting the first look. “They came when I was unpacking,” Westermeier said with a laugh.

“That’s the way you have to do it,” Ken says when told what Westermeier said. “We have climbed in and out of the back of a lot of vans in our lives.” Adds Brenda: “The fun of it is the exercise of your eye being honed--it’s easy to buy from a dealer on Madison Avenue.”

If it means getting up at 5 a.m. to be first at a flea market, even after working on a concert that ended just three hours before, the Fritzes don’t mind. It’s their passion. “I think there’s a feeling all collectors have when they see something they want to own. It gets you emotionally. You’re compelled to buy. You appreciate the aesthetic of the thing, and you just want to live with it.”

They’ve slowed down on the ceramics now--their house is full, and they regret that some of the pieces have to be stored in the garage, waiting for Brenda to create a new corner where they can place them.

The advent of EBay has also changed things, replacing and diminishing the camaraderie of the swap meet, with its exchange of not only goods, but also information. But the Fritzes are still researching what they own, cataloging and looking for new finds. They say they are ever ready to buy, in bulk or not, when something catches their eye.

“If you see things, and they’re really good, you have to buy it right then,” Ken says. “You don’t get a second chance, usually, to consider.”


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