Sunday, October 11, 2015

Carstens-Hirschau: Rounding the curve

I HAVE BOUGHT ZEISEL pieces from all over the globe. It is often intriguing to speculate how they got to where they were. I once bought a Schramberg teapot from a lady in Argentina. When you think of the German diaspora before and after World War II, one could just imagine that  little teapot's journey. Schramberg is relatively easier to find than her designs for another German pottery, Carstens-Hirschau, where Eva may have worked for a year between 1931 and 1932 before she decamped for the Soviet Union.

Similarity in form between Schramberg (top, marmalade jar 3417 with attached underplate) and two Carstens butter dishes (below)

Many of Eva's designs at Carstens were a continuation of her experiments at Schramberg. The most intriguing development on this phase is the appearance of the curved handle on the T-series. I believe this is the first instance where Eva employed the curve ergonomically. When you hold the teapot, the thumb rests firmly on the flat handle, the index and middle fingers grasp the top loop, while the ring and pinky fingers are nestled in opposition on the outside curve. The act of pouring tea feels balanced and comfortable. We would see her explore this further in the S-1 series for Dulevo and the early down-turned teacup handles for Castleton.

The creamer and sugar bowl (both marked T-2) and teapot (marked T-3) are part of Eva's T-series for Carstens-Hirschau.

About Eva's work at Carstens

Eva designed 5 (maybe 6) different coffee and tea sets while at Carstens-Hirschau. They are labeled with C, R, S, and T.  Shapes numbered between 140 and 215/218 are acknowledged to be her designs and they include, among others, bowls, butter dishes, smoker's sets, eggcup trays, and vases.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Schramberg: Deco beginnings and Bauhaus blues

MY PARTNER, BRAD, does not want any Schramberg in the house. It's "too deco" for him.

This asymmetric vase is the only Schramberg piece that is allowed in the house. It stands over 8.25" high. To appreciate its monumental size, here it is with a ball jug (3366) which is reminiscent of designs by Bauhaus alumni, Marianne Brandt
Indeed, most people who associate Eva Zeisel with curves and playful shapes are utterly shocked when they see the work that she produced in Europe prior to coming to the United States before the war. Produced between 1929 and 1931, her pieces for Schramberger Majolika Fabrik (SMF) are art deco to the core, and foreshadow none of the curvelinear forms that she will eventually become famous for.
Ring-handled teapot (3249) and matching creamer (3250)
Some say that during this time, Eva designed with a ruler and a compass and not with her hands. One can see perfectly round teapot bodies and handles, flat trays and underplates, and stepped bases on vases and tea stands.
Stepped tea stand in the sought-after matte green glaze with a traditional Russian granyonyi tea glass.

But as she grew within Schramberg, we can see her start to explore economies in design and manufacturing. Teacup handles become finials for teapots and side handles for sugar bowls. Lids for various pieces become interchangeable.
Jug (3287), teapot (3211) and sugar bowl (3213). Note that the lid on the sugar bowl is actually a transposed teapot lid. Also note that the same shape is used for handles and finials.
She also starts to question established conventions—why not put the handle on the side so that the act of pouring tea consists of merely turning one's wrist? This is a concept that she would continue to explore for many years in her designs for Hall Kitchencraft and Monmouth Western Stoneware.
Side-handled teapots (3356) and creamers (3358). The polka dots may have been designed by Eva, but there are differing opinions on this matter
Although she was definitely aware of, and was influenced by, the teachings of the Bauhaus, Eva would eventually turn away from what she called their "soulless formalism". It is ironic, however, that her entire later work would essentially follow two of the movement's tenets: uniting creativity and manufacturing, and rejuvenating design for everyday life.
An ensemble of Schramberg pieces in the matte green glaze. It is said that the solid matte glazes were the ones that Eva wanted for her designs - but the prevailing taste at that time were for the more decorative airbrush and deco patterns. Hence, these pieces are very hard to find.

About Eva Zeisel's work at Schramberg

SMF produced over 200 of Eva's designs between 1929 and 1931. Most pieces numbered between 3195 and 3472 can be attributed to her. There are more than nine coffee and tea sets along with various other household items, from hanging baskets to cigarette paraphernalia. There is considerable debate on which decorations were designed or influenced by her. It is generally accepted that she advocated the use of the solid matte glazes on her pieces, while many of the airbrushed and hand-painted patterns were designed by other in-house artists.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Monmouth Western Stoneware: Adventures in Bird Hunting

I HAVE TO ADMIT that I was one of those who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the San Francisco Bay Area during the height of the first dot-com boom. It’s not that I hated San Francisco (and there were certainly many reasons to hate it then) but it was because we really loved Chicago. We had a beautiful apartment in Oak Park near the Frank Lloyd Wright houses, and we spent almost every weekend in the city or out and about hunting for “our stuff”. Chicago, at that time, boasted some of the best flea markets every weekend— from the giant one in Kane County, to the smaller ones in Grays Lake and DuPage. Our favorite was the flea market set in the bucolic farmlands of Sandwich, Illinois. It was here on a cool autumn day, as we wandered through the rows of vintage country treasures, that we found our first set of Monmouth Western Stoneware plates. Cream glazed with blue stamped decorations and impossibly thin for stoneware, we were mesmerized. 
Monmouth Western Stoneware had a line of bird-shaped serving pieces (above top: teapot, lidded sugar bowl, and creamer) as well as more traditional shapes (above bottom: sugar bowl, coffee pot, stick-handled creamer, and teapot)
Our fascination must have showed on our faces as the seller came forward and said, “They’re nice, huh? I just sold a huge set of these to a dealer in Nauvoo. Can’t remember the guy’s name, but he runs a hardware store there and sells antiques in the back.”

OK, if this happened today, I would whip out my iPhone, go to Google maps to find Nauvoo, and get the directions pronto. But this was 1997 and the fastest computer we had was at home with dial-up to AOL. Even there, we found nothing. I naturally turned to the Yellow Pages and started ringing up hardware stores in Nauvoo. With no clues other than the unusual hardware/antique store combo, I was able to track the dealer down. “Yup,” he said. He had a set for sale—plates, cups, and some weird duck-shaped bowls. $300 for all of them, he said, as I blanched on the other end of the line. Yes, he would hold them for us but we would have to come right away. I was able to convince Brad (my partner in crime) to come with me after teaching his class the next day, and off we went on a 270-mile trek to the Iowa border.

As luck would have it, we would pass through the town of Monmouth on the way to Nauvoo. It’s always a thrill to “go to the source”, and although the factory was long gone, we were able to hit a couple of antique stores, one of which yielded a beautiful duck-shaped covered dish with a hand-painted multi-color decoration. 
Bird-shaped casseroles, tureens, and shakers. The duck-headed ladle for the soup bowl was a lucky find.
By late afternoon, we reached Nauvoo and promptly found the hardware/antique store. The set was HUGE. Chop plates, luncheon/salad plates, cups, saucers, butter pats and serving pieces in the most charming decorations, from dots to scrolls, prancing horses and barnyard chickens. There were dinner plates with fishes, tadpoles, snowflakes and funny turnip-like creatures. 
Butter pats or coasters with whimsical motifs
Most fascinating were the bird-shaped bowls, covered casseroles, tea set, and cruets with bird heads for stoppers. There was also one odd piece that he brought up from the basement. “You can have this one for free,” he said. “I can’t figure out what it is.” (The odd piece turned out to be the main body of a soup bowl. We later bought the bird head-shaped ladle from none other than Schiffer Books author, Jo Cunningham.) (see photo 3 top center) With the loot stowed safely in the backseat, we started our journey back to Chicago as the evening was setting in.
Dinner plates with tadpoles, ponies, and polka dots
I need to be honest at this point and let you know that I am not the best car owner. It actually took me a year before I realized that I had to change the oil in my GMC Tracker. Even then, I had no idea where the oil dipstick was located. So my poor 10-year-old car, which had already endured several cross-continent treks and was now being used for impromptu weekend foraging trips to far flung Milwaukee, Madison, and Minneapolis, was probably not in the best of shape. As we climbed a hill toward the town of Galesburg, the engine began to sputter. We slowed to a crawl as a couple of pick-up trucks full of teenagers passed and threw McDonald’s bags at us. We reached the top just as the engine died and, by pure luck, we rolled right into a gas station. Unfortunately, the shop was closed and we would have to spend the night at a nearby motel. The next day, the mechanics declared that they could not repair the car, so we had to arrange for a rental and a tow truck to take us back to Chicago. 
Salad plates with some very rare decorations
Our little adventure ended up costing us about $500 (dishes included). It was a lot of money back then for a young couple living on an associate professor’s salary—but it is a story that we have told time and time again with much laughter and love. These pieces of Monmouth Western Stoneware have now come to represent for us a time when we were happiest—when we were optimistic enough to follow a whispered lead and young enough to throw caution to the wind and just go.
Stoppered cruets with a bud vase that can also serve as a candleholder.
A bit about Eva Zeisel Fine Stoneware from Monmouth Pottery
I really can’t improve upon the scholarly work done by Scott Vermillion on this subject that is included in the book, “Eva Zeisel: Life, Design, and Beauty”. Designed in 1953, the stoneware line included conventional and unconventional shapes, the bird-shaped dishes being the most unconventional. Eva’s design was daringly modern because it pushed traditional stoneware into the realm of fine china, yet unabashedly sentimental in its use of folk decorations similar to those from her native Hungary. When production ceased at Monmouth, several molds were transferred to the Hollydale Factory in California, which introduced a short-lived line called Eva Zeisel Hi-Fi Stoneware in 1957. The next evolution of this design came from Schmid International in 1964. Although made from ironstone and a completely new set of molds, the Schmid line retained the playfulness and whimsy of the original Monmouth line, albeit more formal in silhouette and sophisticated in presentation. Some pieces from this line have recently been revived by World of Ceramics/Orange Chicken and Eva Zeisel Originals.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Red Wing Town & Country: Bohemians Among Us

MARTHA STEWART introduced us to Town and Country. Pictured among the Zeisel dinnerware in the "Collecting" column of her June 1996 issue were colorful organically-shaped dishes called Town and Country. Designed in 1946 for Red Wing Pottery of Minnesota, and inspired by that era's bohemian Greenwich Village scene, this line is famously assymetrical, humorously irreverent, and today, prohibitively rare and expensive.

Town and Country creamer, sugar, and teapot
We found our teapot in Galena, Illinois during one of our frequent long drives through the Midwest countryside. It was priced at an astronomical $200. We just couldn't afford it at the time, so we left it behind regretfully. But we never forgot it, and every time we were in the neighborhood, we would check to see if it was still there. After two years of admiring from afar, we finally bought the teapot before moving to San Francisco (fearing that we would never find Town and Country in California). We also pledged that hot water will never ever touch it. This teapot was too precious!

Left: seven comma bowls around a mustard jar; Right: seven coasters or spoon rests 
One reason for the appeal of this line are the colors of the pieces—dusk blue, forest green, chartreuse, sand, peach, rust, metallic bronze, and gray. They look great mixed together and each person around the table can have their favorite shade. The most famous pieces are the salt and pepper shakers (nicknamed "schmoos") with their expressive faces and fat little bodies. Similarly, the oil and vinegar cruets with their ceramic stoppers are beautiful to the eye and feel great in the hand.

Left: oil and vinegar cruets with ceramic and cork stoppers;  Right: salt and pepper shakers
Ironically, the rarest color in this line is white. The most elusive pieces are the lidded soup tureen, soup ladle, and left- and right-handed salad servers. We were fortunate enough to find these pieces quite early on before eBay. We have never seen any of these pieces in this color again in the sixteen years that we have been collecting.

Left: white soup tureen with lid;  Right: wood-handled salad servers in white
When we first read the Martha Stewart article, we were shocked that some of the collectors actually used (gasp!) their pieces. One of them even let their 4-year-old play with (read "break") the stuff . How awful, we thought. But, as the years have gone by, we found that Town and Country served our every day needs. We sip our first coffee from a Town and Country mug. We use the comma bowls for snacks, the cereal bowls for ice cream, and the deep vegetable bowls for pasta. Almost every piece has found its daily use. The teapot, however, still has yet to see hot water.

Our dish cupboard

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hall Kitchencraft: The Quest for Domestic Bliss

IF YOU ASK ME which Zeisel teapot is my favorite, I would be hard pressed to choose which one. I mean, it would be like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. Would I choose curvy Classic over stately Museum? Quirky Town and Country over rustic Western Stoneware? It would be impossible. But if you ask me which teapot I use most often, that would be easy. It is the Hall Kitchencraft teapot. We use it so much that it doesn't even make it into the display case. It's always in the cupboard ready for the next brew. And, in a way, I think that's how it was meant to be.

Hall Kitchencraft: sugar bowl, teapot, creamer

Designed in 1954 as a line of purely utilitarian items, Kitchencraft was not without its innovations. The most beautiful piece in the line, in my opinion, is the refrigerator jug. Echoing Aalto's Savoy vase in its organic form, the jug was meant to be grasped by the hand through an indentation near the neck of the cylinder—a natural action by which Zeisel seems to question the need for regular handles. Why can't a handle be more like a stick (as on the creamer and the individual teapot), or large ear-like protrusions (like those on the casserole and beanpot)?

From left to right: bean pot, cookie jar, refrigerator jug

Not surprisingly, this line had no place settings, and instead of a cup, it has a mug for sipping that afternoon tea. The most common patterns are Casual Living (brown body with abstract feathers and dots on the white lids), and Tri-tone (overlapping fields of pink, blue, and teal). The cookie jar and the bean pot in this line can also be found in white, as well as a wide variety of decorations, from Hall's classic Autumn Leaf to all sorts of hideous gold polka dots and squiggles.

Left: Tri-tone pattern; right: Casual Living pattern

Our set in the Casual Living pattern was the first Zeisel line that we "completed" (that is, we were able to collect very piece.) Even now, Kitchencraft is relatively under-appreciated and can be found easily and purchased for not a very bad price—and to be really honest, this is probably the biggest reason why we use this teapot every day. We know that if we ever broke it, we wouldn't have to take out another mortgage to buy another one.

Bottom stamp: Hall Kitchencraft

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Hallcraft Century: The Perils of Porcelain

WAY BACK BEFORE 1stDibs, and definitely back before eBay became the largest flea market on earth, the place online to find people who had mid-century modern things to sell was a little forum on AOL called Deco Echoes. There was no real-time bidding, sniping, or Paypal. You posted what you were looking for or what you had to sell, and wait for the e-mails to come. Once a sale is made you snail mailed your check or money order to the seller, and, if you happen to be buying something as fragile as china, you held your breath until the package arrived at your doorstep. Which brings me to Century.

Hallcraft Century creamer, sugar bowl, and teapot

Century was the second of the three lines that Eva Zeisel designed for Hall. Showing unusual restraint this time around, the company only made a few lines available with applied decoration, the most common of which are Fern, Sunglow, and Garden of Eden. Pure white pieces are exceedingly rare and highly desired. Although aesthetically as beautiful as (some might even argue that it was a more sophisticated design than) Tomorrow's Classic, it had a fatal flaw—it was prone to breakage during shipment. Released in 1956, Century is distinguished by its teardrop-shaped plates, platters and bowls. One of the most iconic photographs of Zeisel's designs is a nested stack of white Century bowls and platters against a black background. Used on the cover of the exhibition catalog "Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry", the pieces resembled a frozen milk drop caught on a high-speed camera.

Left: Century bowls and platters; right: book cover, Eva Zeisel: Designer for industry

Unfortunately, the lovely points of the teardrop shapes did not stack well and would chip or break during shipment. Of the close to thirty pieces that we bought from our lovely Deco Echoes seller for $200 (which was quite a big expense at the time!), only a handful survived the shipment. Of course, the fact that he just threw all the pieces into a box with no bubble wrap in between the pieces, or insulation on the outside walls of the box, probably did not help. Although we managed to get only some of our money back (the seller got the bulk of the insurance money and we were refunded the considerably lesser purchase price), we did learn what eventually became the mantra of our collecting—bubblewrap, double box, insurance!

Bottom stamp: Hallcraft Century

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tomorrow's Classic: It's Just a Fantasy

IF YOU POLL most Zeisel collectors, chances are their first pieces were from the Tomorrow's Classic line of dishes from Hallcraft. They are easily the most common line of Zeisel designs available in the secondary market. Brad and I have a game that we play when we go to flea markets or antique stores—the first one who spots a Zeisel gets a kiss. More often than not, a piece of Tomorrow's Classic will present itself somewhere in the aisles.

Tomorrow's Classic creamer, coffee server, sugar bowl, and teapot

Although the unadorned white pieces are the most sought after today, when the line was designed in 1952, Hallcraft saw them as the perfect vessels for applied decoration. And decorate they did—from the popular floral Bouquet to the quirky gold marbled Surf Ballet. In addition to the patterns, there were also pieces in solid black, gray, and orange. We have even seen lobsters printed on the large platters, and advertising applied to the jugs. Brad once had this ambition to collect a place setting of each pattern but we wisely realized that we would never have enough cupboard space to store all that china. So, our final set consists of white and black pieces, along those decorated with Fantasy—a pattern of black squiggles and gold dots conceived by Ross Littell, who along with William Katavolos and Douglas Kelley, would later design the iconic T-Chair.

Fantasy pattern

With close to forty pieces in the line, it is one of the most extensive commissions that Eva has designed. In addition to the usual place settings and serving pieces, there are candlesticks, cruets, and after dinner servers. There are even pieces that we probably have no use for today, such as marmites, onion soup bowls, and asparagus trays. Innovations included handles that flare up gracefully from the body of the jugs and pots (as opposed to being applied), oblong plates (as opposed to being round), lug handled platters, and reversible egg cups (one end for a hardboiled egg or use the other end for poached).

Tomorrow's Classic gravy boat, vase, and reversible egg cups.

I think my favorite piece is the basket-shaped gravy boat, although the hardest one to find was the flower vase. Tomorrow's Classic makes for an elegant, though formal table, so they come out only during Christmas, Thanksgiving, or when the Queen comes to visit (long may he reign).

Bottom stamp, Hallcraft Tomorrow's Classic

Crate and Barrel and Royal Stafford recently re-released Tomorrow's Classic and married them with pieces from another of Eva's lines for Hallcraft. The combined line is called  Classic Century. The new pieces have a slightly yellower cast than the vintage ones, and they added a mug to the line, which is just an elongated version of the classic cup. Needless to say, we prefer the older stuff, but overall, the re-released pieces have successfully kept the integrity and playfulness of Eva's design. So, the next time you and your significant other find yourselves at a Crate and Barrel, you too can play "Spot the Zeisel". Opportunities for free kisses should never be wasted.