Four Famous Ceramicist Couples: Power Couples at the Potter’s Wheel

Diego and Frida. Dora Maar and Picasso. Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Creative collaborators span the history of art, but there is something particularly special when a couple that are romantically involved engages in an artistic dialogue. These famous couples of art history are widely celebrated, with their relationships often serving as the essential narrative for some of art’s most treasured works. The same, though, can be said in the realm of other artistic media like ceramics. The shared passions bring a uniquely lively energy to the work that is created and, in the case of the 20th-century power couples of the potter’s wheel, some of the most influential ceramic pieces to be conjured in the period.

Four Famous 20th-Century Ceramicist Couples

This article celebrates four of the most dynamic duos of 20th-century ceramics through a brief showcase of their life and work. Though their styles differ, they share a powerful connection to their medium and encouraged others to collaborate and learn as the field progressed. 

Rose & Erni Cabat, taken from the Pima County Library's Centenarian Project, 2012. Image credit: Lisa Bunker.

Rose & Erni Cabat, taken from the Pima County Library’s Centenarian Project, 2012. Image credit: Lisa Bunker.

1: Rose (née Katz; 1914-2015) and Erni Cabat (1914-1994)

As a duo that would eventually become leaders in the Midcentury Modern ceramics field, Rose Cabat and her husband Erni first met while still in school and soon after married. Erni pursued a career in both fine art and advertising art while Rose turned her attention to raising their family. Throughout, though, Rose cultivated a passion for pottery that Erni, also a ceramicist in his free time, nurtured at every turn. In fact, it was Erni who first brought home some clay from work that spurred her earliest experiments in the field of ceramics.

From that point Rose continued to develop her skills from New York to Arizona as the family moved for Erni’s profession. This training, combined with her in-depth study of the chemistry of glazes in the later 1950s, helped launch Rose’s now coveted form: the “Feelie”. These vases, characterized by their small, palm-sized scale and luscious, vibrant glazes, became Rose’s focus for more than ten years. Throughout she experimented with her glazing, including sanding between phases or layering different colors – to create an array of vessels that reflect organic forms and brilliant hues. Though humble compared to other ceramic creations of her generation, Rose Cabat’s Feelies – on many of which Erni collaborated – continue to be sought after by collectors. 

Rose & Erni Cabat collection of twenty-one Feelies, showing the Cabat signature beneath the pot.

Rose & Erni Cabat collection of twenty-one Feelies, showing the Cabat signature beneath the pot. Sold for $11,520 via Wright (October 2015).

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2: Gertrud (née Amon; 1908-1971) and Otto Natzler (1908-2007)

Gertrud and Otto Natzler - Bowl, 1958, and bottle with flaring top, 1959.

Gertrud and Otto Natzler – Bowl, 1958, and bottle with flaring top, 1959. Sold (Est: $10,000 USD – $15,000 USD) via Phillips (Dec 2013)

Gertrud & Otto Natzler

Gertrud & Otto Natzler, image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When Gertrud Amon met Otto Natzler, the two were on very different paths. He was training to become a classical violinist; meanwhile, Gertrud worked as a secretary. The two connected, however, over a shared passion for art, and specifically ceramics. This connection ushered in an exciting turn in their lives and careers that would result in some of the era’s most successful ceramics.

The couple married in 1938, a year after they had debuted their silver medal-winning work at the Parisian World Exposition. Soon after, they emigrated to Los Angeles to escape war-torn Europe. There they established a thriving workshop where Gertrud’s talent for throwing vessels was matched in Otto’s expertise in an incredible variety of glazing colors and techniques. This powerhouse combination of Gertrud’s understanding of aesthetic form and Otto’s mastery of color resulted in an incredibly diverse output that spanned vessels with unbelievable translucence to earthen solidity.

Their nearly four-decade career working side-by-side is widely recognized as one of the most prolific and captivating of their generation. Estimates place their total production at around 25,000 pieces, many of which are housed today in museum collections across the globe. Sadly, Gertrud died from cancer in 1971, and for a period afterward Otto was too overwhelmed with grief to return to the studio. As a testament to their enduring connection, though, Otto eventually completed the glazing for the hundreds of pots Gertrud left behind. Otto died in 2007, with the capstone honor for the couple, the American Craft Council’s Gold Medal, awarded in 2001.

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3: Hans Coper (1920 – 1981) and Lucie Rie (1902-1995)

Sculptural works by Hans Coper (left) and Lucie Rie (right)

Sculptural works by Hans Coper (left) and Lucie Rie (right)

One of the most successful ceramicist couples in Great Britain’s history, the story of Lucie Rie and Hans Coper is also tied to World War II and the escape from Nazi-dominated territory. Rie had earned her study at the famed Wiener Werkstatt in Vienna, one the leading centers for avant-garde design theory in the early 20th century. Meanwhile, Coper was studying engineering, however, both talents’ training was cut short by the annexation of Austria by the Nazis in 1938. Both Jewish and already feeling rising persecution, Rie and Coper fled to Britain where they met not long after.

The two set up a ceramics workshop where they continued to explore the Werkstatt emphasis on form. They experimented with molds and glazes that fooled the eye and pushed the bounds of function with complicated forms. They also invoked references to the modern metropolis, unafraid to incorporate unexpected reference points  into their work. Coper’s pieces, for example, often invoked a sense of timelessness in taking forms reminiscent of past votives yet rendered in hues recalling the mute tones of industrial concrete. Meanwhile, Lucie’s vessels often referenced luscious colors taken from nature that celebrated the overall simplicity of form. In doing so, Rie and Coper’s works responded directly to the moment while also prefiguring the gritty postwar minimalism that would dominate many European centers in the coming years.  In addition to producing amazing ceramics, Rie and Coper taught at the Royal College of Arts to foster a new generation of ceramic innovators.

It is worth noting that while their romantic relationship was short-lived, their friendship remained lifelong. In addition to producing amazing ceramics, Rie and Coper taught at the Royal College of Arts to foster a new generation of ceramic innovators.

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4: Karen Karnes (1925-2016) and David Weinrib (1924-2016)

Karen Karnes - Art stoneware vessel.

Karen Karnes – Art stoneware vessel. Sold for $2,800 USD via Cowan’s Auctions (July 2020).

Both driving forces in modern ceramics in the second half of the 20th century, Karen Karnes and David Weinrib were major contributors to the world of ceramics in the second half of the 20th century both for their production and for their commitment to teaching. Karnes was born in New York in 1925 and trained in ceramics in her early years, however, it was her first visit to North Carolina’s Black Mountain College in the later 1940s that helped to transform her style. Soon after she met the sculptor David Weinrib, and after their marriage they returned to Black Mountain College to teach one of the first ceramics seminars there in the early 1950s.

As the duo continued to develop their works, Karnes homed in on a study of organic forms rendered in stoneware that ranged from the functional to the abstract. Some of the most exciting of these were produced during her more than 20-year tenure at Upstate New York’s Gate Hill Cooperative where she had the opportunity to collaborate with other leading artists like John Cage. She continued to experiment with her vessels until around 1960, when she stepped away from throwing new forms. Meanwhile, Weinrib would become more experimental as his career progressed. Resin sculpture, as well as other media, began to filter into his production. They also continued to teach even after their time at Black Mountain College came to a close. Karnes, for example, taught at Haystack’s Penland School of Crafts; Weinrib, meanwhile, taught at the Pratt Institute for nearly three decades. While it seems that the duo parted ways in their final years, the accolades for their work continued to mount. Karnes earned The American Craft Council’s gold medal in 1998, and Weinrib’s pieces have made their way into prestigious collections such as the Whitney Museum in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.   

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Partners in Life; Partners in Art

Individually, these ceramicists we’ve profiled enjoyed incredible careers. When considered in the context of their coupledom, however, the full reach of their influence can be realized. The shared inspiration and motivation that these partners shared for their practice helped to contribute to both some of the most innovative ceramic works of their era and also to the education of the future generations of ceramicist superstars. Thus, the story of these artists and the fascinating lives they shared only adds to the brilliance of the ceramics they produced.