New spin on a pottery classic
At a flea market in San Diego nearly 30 years ago, Janek Boniecki spotted a yellow dinner plate that changed his life. ¶ “There was nothing else like it I had ever seen,” said the London-born Boniecki, who then was a surfer and owner of a bodyboard business. ¶ “The plate was heavy, solid,” he said. “And such a bright, happy color.” ¶ On the flip side, indented into the plate, was the name “Bauer.” ¶ Dinnerware made by J.A. Bauer Pottery Co. of Los Angeles during the Depression and World War II years had become a darling of collectors because of its colors and retro designs. Prices skyrocketed, museums had Bauer exhibitions and books were written about the company’s plates and other items that generations of moms and dads had used to serve meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
Unfortunately, you couldn’t own a Bauer plate and safely eat off it too -- at least according to modern science.
Bauer ware, like much glazed pottery of its period, contained lead at far higher levels than what is now considered healthy. And the original Bauer company was out of business long before lead standards were tightened.
Boniecki now manufactures a line of nearly unleaded Bauer, slavishly copied from the originals.
His Bauer Pottery Co. of Los Angeles, which turns out 85 different Bauer items that are sold in shops nationwide and online, has 23 employees and last year had sales of $2.7 million. In October, he bought the 40,000-square-foot factory near San Bernardino where the pottery is made.
The route from surfer to retro pottery baron was not a direct line. Along the way he packaged travel tours for Costco Wholesale Corp., published a directory of filmmaking services and started a candle-making business in his kitchen. By the early 1990s, Boniecki had a well-paying job as a production manager for TV commercials.
Still, he was restless.
“I was in my 40s, and I started to see that in TV production, a lot of guys never survive past that,” said Boniecki, now 53. “I began to look for something for the next stage of my life.”
He had developed a love of Bauer and had collected several pieces.
“I decided one day to go looking for the trademark,” he said.
The original company, founded in 1885 by J. Andy Bauer in Paducah, Ky., moved to the booming city of Los Angeles in 1910. Among the early products the Lincoln Heights factory turned out were outdoor pots and vases that fit in well with bungalow-style houses.
Bauer died in 1923, probably before his company got into the dinnerware. Its hallmark Ringware line, which got its name from concentric circles worked into dishes and other pieces, was introduced in the early 1930s, according to the book “Bauer: Classic American Pottery” by Mitch Tuchman.
A page from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog of 1948 shows a five-piece Ringware mixing bowl set for $1.69 and a now-classic two-quart water pitcher for $1.25. In the 1990s either of those, in good condition, could fetch $100 or more.
The original company didn’t make an easy transition to a more modern, postwar look. Finally, in the wake of a bitter labor dispute, J.A. Bauer closed in 1962.
By the time Boniecki researched the trademark, it had been abandoned. “I just re-registered it,” he said, “and then it was an easy transition to thinking I would make new Bauer ware.”
Boniecki was starting from scratch. He couldn’t locate any of the original Bauer dies or molds used to turn out the pieces.
“To our knowledge, all the original dies and molds were destroyed when Bauer shut down,” he said. “There is a myth that some of them survive, somewhere. But we’ve never found them.”
Using his own classic Ringware pieces and others he bought as models, Boniecki hired artisans to make dies that could be used to produce copies. In 1998, working with a variety of ceramics manufacturers, he turned out the first pieces of his new Bauer company, complete with a copy of the original imprint on the underside. They were sold in museum shops and other outlets.
Longtime aficionados of classic Bauer didn’t entirely appreciate the revival of the brand. They complained that the new Bauer pieces were lighter and felt less substantial than the originals.
“Nothing was as heavy as the old stuff, that’s for sure,” said Greg McDermott, a collector in Palm Springs.
McDermott praised the design and color of the reproductions, however, and began carrying them in his home decorating shop.
Also, the new Bauer products probably contributed to a softening of prices for original pieces in the late 1990s.
“The prices that collectors got tended to drop,” McDermott said. “Now, people didn’t have to buy vintage to get Bauer.”
Not that new Bauer is cheap. Currently, a Bauer 2000 dinner plate retails for about $27, although Boniecki has an annual December sale during which seconds are sold at discounts.
After dealing with several local ceramics makers, Boniecki became a steady client of a factory housed in a former fruit packing plant in the small city of Highland. When the owner announced last year he was going to retire, Boniecki bought the operation in San Bernardino County for $1 million.
“Now I have to make this work,” he said.
Luckily, his income isn’t the only one in his household. He lives in Los Angeles with his production designer wife, Ruth Ammon. She oversees the look of the science fiction TV hit “Heroes.”
Built in 1923, the factory has 30-foot-high ceilings with skylights and chicken wire to discourage pigeons from nesting. The floors are of well-worn wood and the freight elevator is driven by an old-fashioned hydraulic system.
Workers at the plant prepare clay (3 tons of it arrive weekly), mix colors, operate presses to form the pieces and fire the eight on-site kilns.
Tall, deeply-colored Bauer urns -- so large that they are meant to be used in outdoor settings or inside hallways -- dry on long tables. Streamline-design pitchers and stacks of deeply colored plates and bowls sit in rows. This year, only about 30% of the operation’s revenue will come from the Bauer line. The rest is contract work, such as producing tiki-themed tchotchkes or silk-screening graphics on coffee mugs.
“One day,” he said, “I would like our output to be 100% Bauer.”
It’s a hallowed name. In 2004, a woman arrived unannounced at the company office after attending a funeral at nearby Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.
She was the great-granddaughter of J.A. Bauer.
The woman wanted to show Boniecki something from his upstairs office, which had a clear view of the cemetery.
“We walked upstairs,” he said, “and she pointed out the window and said, ‘That’s where J.A. Bauer is.’ ”
The grave of the company founder was so close it could be easily picked out. “I couldn’t believe it,” Boniecki said.
After she left, he made his first of several visits to the grave.
“I paid my respects,” he said, “on a number of occasions.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Business: Bauer Pottery Co. of Los Angeles has revived the classic everyday Bauer dinnerware of the Depression and World War II years.
Owner: Janek Boniecki
Revenue: $2.7 million in 2007
Bauer line: 85 items, including plates, bowls, pitchers, vases and dog bowls.