Midcentury Pottery: Form, Function and Fun
Pottery was a key part of the Midcentury Modern movement, as the nature of the craft inherently serves the movement’s call for objects to meet requirements in form and function (to be both useful and beautiful). Ceramics during this period would be produced in studios, each of which would have several artisans responsible for production, led by an artistic director. A number of solo studio potters also had a pivotal role in the movement. Pottery production spanned Europe and the US and there are several well known studios that have become synonymous with the period, including Gustavsberg, Bitossi Ceramiche and Arabia.
While the broader Midcentury Modern movement tended to focus on the simple, the classic and the functional, the ceramicists practicing during this period were more experimental, and produced Midcentury pottery in a wider range of styles. While across Europe, the styles ranged from beautiful and functional, to more whimsical, but the shapes, geometric patterns and colour palettes are all distinctive and typical of the period. Taking influence from the earlier Bauhaus school, craft played a central part on the movement.
Important Midcentury Modern Pottery factories and artistic directors
Many studios had been established in ceramic production since the 1800s, but post-war shifts in production methods as well as new stylistic direction led to a particularly successful period for many of the manufacturers of the era. New designers and techniques were trialled, contributing to a shift towards more abstract styles and geometric patterns.
The Gustavsberg factory is one of the best known from Sweden. First established in 1826, it has produced some exceptional pieces over the years and became such a part of the country’s cultural heritage of that Gustavsberg opened a porcelain museum in 1956.
Some of the most notable pieces that have come from the Gustavsberg studio were produced under Stig Lindberg. He worked as the art director for Gustavsberg in the early ’50s and then again in the mid-’70s. As with so many multidisciplinary designers of the era, Lindberg designed more than pottery alone, but it’s his work in ceramics that has become his legacy. Lindberg’s work was characterised by an unusual balance of whimsy and discipline in both the forms of his pieces and the patterns applied to them. Some of the most notable pieces produced by Lindberg that stand out as his key contribution to the Micentury Modern style were from his Domino series in 1955.
Countless notable designers passed through the Gustavsberg factory doors over the years. Wilhelm Kåge, for example, saw the potential of Lindberg and brought him up through the ranks at the factory. Berndt Friberg, who was considerered a master thrower and is recognised for his glazes, worked alongside Lindberg and Kåge.
While Sweden played a central role in ceramic production during this period, there were many other factories and studio potters that were stars of the movement. Italy took a more active role in Midcentury ceramic production than other areas of the movement.
Aldo Londi is possibly one of the most famous names from Italy, with his blue animal pieces for Bitossi Ceramiche. Londi’s, and arguably Bitossi Ceramiche’s, most famous collection was the Rimini Blu that was available between 1955 and 1965 and was caracterized by the blue glaze and repeated abstract geometric shapes. Despite the prolific nature of Londi’s work, the Rimini Blu range had over 155 designs in it alone, it’s still extremely popular to this day and one of his most iconic pieces, the cylinder cat in the Rimini Blue range can fetch up to £2500.
The Arabia glassware and ceramics company was another leading studio of the Midcentury pottery movement. Kaj Franck was the Finnish artistic director of the company in the 1950s and brought the company (which had been in operation since 1873) up to date with a new range that fit perfectly with the Midcentury Modern movement.
Franck took an approach that was similar to that of the Midcentury Modern furniture designers. He drew on the idea that mass-produced objects can – and should – be both practical and beautiful. During his time at Arabia, Franck also produced work for Iittala and Nuutajarvi.
Some Key Midcentury Modern potters
In addition to the larger factories, a number of studio potters across Europe were central to the Midcentury Modern pottery movement.
Lucie Rie was an Austrian-born studio potter practicing in the UK. Rie had had a studio in Vienna and exhibited at the Paris International Exhibition, before fleeing to London in 1938. Her work is exemplified by a clean form and muted tones, with many of her vessels characterised by a pronounced, flared lip.
Rie is also known for her hand in training the master potter, Hans Coper. Coper, a German-born British studio potter, worked as an assistant under Lucie Rie rather than receiving formal training. Much of his work is abstract, yet functional. Coper employed a muted color palette, as he leant towards the simpler style of Midcentury Modern pottery movement. In many ways, his practice was more closely aligned with the architecture and furniture styles of the movement than the often colorful, whimsical approach often taken by pottery producers of the movement.
Getrud and Otto Natzler
With new techniques and a better understanding of the science behind glazing, it became a central part of the process when it came to producing the distinctive designs of the Midcentury Modern movement in pottery.
Getrud and Otto Natzler were the perfect couple of ceramicists: Getrud the potter, and Otto the glazer. Otto himself gave the best description of Getrud’s pieces as “ethereal, flowing, graceful”. Her forms were simple, yet striking, and combined with the over 2000 glazes developed by Otto, each piece was distinctive.
Rose and Erni Cabat
Rose and Erni Cabat began their ceramic journey in New York before moving to Tucson, Arizona, where the couple became some of the area’s most popular artists. As beloved as the Natzlers for their innovative employment of glazes, Rose and Erni Cabat were best known for the vast series of narrow-stemmed vases inspired by organic shapes, which Rose called her “Feelies”. Read more about the Cabats in our article: Rose and Erni Cabat: The Eameses of American Midcentury Ceramics?
Across Europe, thousands of unique ceramic pieces were created during the Midcentury Modern movement, and despite the prolific nature of the artists at the time and the facilities of the factories that allowed them to mass-produce many of these items, each remains unique. These mid-century modern ceramics encompass the ethos of the movement, functional, aesthetic and for everyone. They go a step further though into the colourful, fun and whimsical but without losing that distinctive look of the period.