The “Adventure” of Lucie Rie’s Popular Ceramics

Lucie Rie once said, “to make pottery is an adventure to me, every new work is a new beginning” and in a pioneering career that was typified by her inventive and experimental approach, the doyenne of pottery elevated the status of ceramics and transformed how they were made and viewed in the U.K. and beyond, leading her to become one of the most celebrated potters of the 20th century.

Lucie Rie's workshop, as exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Wikimedia Commons).

Lucie Rie’s workshop, as exhibited in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Wikimedia Commons).

Today Lucie Rie is among the most celebrated ceramicists in the world, but in 1938 she was one of many Austrian evacuees arriving in the U.K. having fled Nazi persecution. She landed as relative unknown in her adoptive homeland, but would carve out a career as an independent female potter in a male-dominated industry, transform her reputation through the use of pioneering techniques and propel ceramics towards becoming a recognised art form.

Dame Lucie Roe & Hans Coper - Small Squeezed Bowl. Sold for £1,500 via Sotheby’s (November 2018)

Dame Lucie Roe & Hans Coper – Small Squeezed Bowl. Sold for £1,500 via Sotheby’s (November 2018).

A prolific ceramicist, Rie produced thousands of beautiful and original pieces that not only showcased her immense technical knowledge and an inventive, experimental approach, but her work also transformed how ceramics were made and viewed around the world. In the 21st century, ceramics are held in equal regard with other art forms, but in the post-war years it didn’t enjoy the same standing in the art world. And while no one individual can be credited with hoisting clay to the front of everyone’s artistic attention, Rie’s art most certainly brought ceramics to a global audience with the quality, breadth, and versatility of her work.

Browse work by Lucie Rie coming to auction

As a testament to the regard in which pottery was held at the time, Bernard Leach wrote in May 1940, “very few people in this country think of the making of pottery as an art” but that all changed with Rie’s rise to recognition. Leach was one of the most well-established ceramicists in the country at the time, but the pair were at opposing ends of the throwing wheel when it came to their approach. Leach adopted a rustic style to his Japanese-inspired ceramics in simple and utilitarian forms, while Rie’s work was typified by a refined, modernist style. Despite the difference the pair became lifelong friends and creative confidants.

It might have been all so different for Rie though as upon arrival in London she was refused a licence to make pots. Instead she produced buttons for fashion houses. Yes, buttons. What might be a setback for someone who won silver at the Paris International Exhibition a few years previously in 1937 was instead embraced as she took in a young Hans Coper who would eventually become a partner in her studio. However, in 1940 Coper was arrested as a refugee and deported to an internment camp in Canada from where he was only released after registering with the Pioneer Corps and returned to a life of exhibiting his work alongside his mentor and friend.

Blessed with a remarkable versatility, Rie possessed a seeming innate ability to adapt to differing styles while still maintaining her own signature style. Not only was Rie versatile, but she was an innovator too. Bringing the European and Modernist ideals she learned on the continent, Rie fizzed with new ideas and techniques. She innovated and experimented with different clays and glazes, and even thought like a chemist by mixing ingredients to create glazes that bubbled or melted when fired. She was also known to throw with multiple balls of contrasting clay to produce hypnotic spirals of color in her work. Her signature technique though was ‘sgraffito’ which is derived from the Italian word ‘sgraffire’ that means ‘to scratch’.

Lucie Rie - Sgraffito Bowl.

Lucie Rie – Sgraffito Bowl. Sold for €13,500 via Kunst und Design Auktionshaus Schops Turowski (November 2022).

The theory behind her pieces was also important to Rie and she was a believer in the Wiener Werkstätte principle of establishing a unifying aesthetic across architecture, interiors and objects. Established in 1903 by the graphic designer and painter Koloman Moser, The Wiener Werkstätte was an influential Vienna workshop that’s today regarded as a pioneer of modern design, with its influence evident in Bauhaus and Art Deco. Rie was a keen follower of the workshop’s principle and so sensitive to the creation of an environment that she went to extreme lengths to transport the interior of her Viennese flat to London. There was seemingly no place like home for Rie, wherever it is.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Rie steadily established herself as a ceramist of great importance, which was even recognised beyond the realms of her art when she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1991. Rie lived to the age of 93 with her memory living on through her distinctive tableware. And over the past ten years that memory has become all the more desirable as the record price for her work has rocketed from £57,900 for a tall composite vase in 2013 to $200,000 for a footed bowl just three years later.

Lucie Rie’s Footed Bowls


Attracting the greatest price for any Rie ceramics, this unique one of a kind porcelain footed bowl smashed its estimate of $60,000 to $90,000 when it appeared at Phillips in 2016 and sold for $200,000. Featuring a golden manganese glaze with sgraffito and an interior unglazed, the bowl’s design reflected her versatility, as a similar footed bowl in a differing design sold for £125,000 in September 2017, far exceeding its estimate of £8,000 to £12,000 .

Lucie Rie’s Vases

Rie’s vases command five figure sums and remain highly collectable, but have yet to show the same dramatic ascent in price as her footed bowls. This speckled vase with an elongated flared neck sold for £26,000 in December 2020, while seven years prior four vases sold for $25,000.

Lucie Rie’s Ceramic Buttons

Lucie Rie - Rare division 3 Ceramic Button.

  Lucie Rie – Rare division 3 Ceramic Button. Sold for $500 via Lion and Unicorn (April 2023)

Perhaps one of the best ways to start a Lucie Rie ceramics collection, her buttons not only offer an insight into her creativity and ingenuity, but also provide interesting little curios. Ranging from a few hundred dollars to a couple of thousand, the delicacy of Rie’s craft is evident, even on a small scale.

Dame Lucie Rie D.B.E Preview: Barley Mow Plaster Mould for Ceramic Buttons.

Dame Lucie Rie D.B.E Preview: Barley Mow Plaster Mould for Ceramic Buttons. Sold for £4,200 via Chiswick Auctions (March 2023).

Lucie Rie’s Cups and Saucers

Lucie Rie - A Large Coffee Set for twelve.

Lucie Rie – A Large Coffee Set for Twelve. Sold for £3,996 via Bonhams 3 (November 2008)

Maintaining a complete set of cups and saucers over many decades can be a challenge, particular if they’re in occasional use and this is reflected in the price of Rie’s cups and saucers. In pairs or threes, cups and saucers can achieve a few thousand dollars, but a set of 10 recently sold for £9,000; an increase on the £3,996 a set of 12 sold for in 2008.

Lucie Rie Coffee set for ten, circa 1958. Sold for £9,000 via Bonhams (November 2022)

The Rie Legacy

As the doyenne of British ceramics, Lucie Rie’s place within pottery and the art world is assured as a master potter whose innovative and modern approach to ceramics changed the landscape of British ceramics. And it was in Britain where her creativity was given space to flourish; “Here in England where I live and work for more than 12 years, I have found many friends many people who appreciate crafts… I believe that there is a wonderful spirit, a new beginning in this country and I am proud and happy to be a small part of it,” she said in 1951.

What makes her achievements all the more remarkable as the obstacles she has seemingly hurdled with the effortless grace of her ceramics, as she overcame relocating to England to avoid the growing Nazi party, established her own studio, helped her protégée return from a Canadian internment camp, pioneered the sgraffito technique, changed the course of British ceramics and even elevated what was previously seen as something more akin to a craft to the level of an art form, and she did as the sole woman in a male dominated environment. Lucie Rie is a pioneer in the truest sense whose work changed the course of ceramics forever.

Browse work by Lucie Rie coming to auction

Sources: | | Sotheby’s | |