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Make Yourself Right at Home: “Mid-Century Style and Studio Pottery” « MAD Blog
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Make Yourself Right at Home: “Mid-Century Style and Studio Pottery”

Today’s post is written by a guest blogger, Sarah Archer, who is the Director of Greenwich House Pottery. She writes about their current exhibition, “Mid-Century Style and Studio Pottery,” up now through February 10. The exhibition is a must-see for mid-century modernism addicts (I personally would like to move right into the period room she installed), who can also get a fix at tonight’s program at MAD, organized by Sarah.

A few years ago, preparing to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Greenwich House Pottery, our staff puzzled over the many different ways we could pay homage to our history and reach a new audience at the same time. Many ceramic legends, especially those from the chic-again mid-century period have sculpted, thrown, taught and exhibited here over the years: Peter Voulkos, Bruno La Verdiere, Val Cushing, Margaret Israel, Rudy Autio – names that quicken the pulse of ceramics aficionados all over the world. The trouble is, mention any of these names to an art or design devotee outside of the ceramics world, and the sound of crickets is deafening. The key figures in studio ceramics of the mid-century period don’t have the kind of name recognition that their design counterparts to – tellingly, even handmade objects are sometimes referred to as “Eames era” on eBay.

Yet people do respond to the forms that these artists created – from Jonathan Adler to Design Within Reach to “Mad Men”, the decorative forms of the ‘50s are part of our shared visual vocabulary and there is clearly an audience for it. So we decided to try to introduce some of these artists to a new generation by scrapping the usual gallery set-up and putting these pots “back” into their natural habitat. Instead of pedestals, the pots would make themselves at home in a mid-century parlor complete with furniture, textiles and ephemera to set the mood.

One of the goals of this exhibit is to identify the ways in which modern furniture and studio crafts, though seemingly so different aesthetically and philosophically, actually complement one another. If craft is, broadly speaking, about a return to basics, and modern design in the 1950s was inspired by a departure from the past, it might seem odd that they could work so well together. But even if they were facing in different directions, they appear to meet at the point where centuries of established and recognized decorative traditions were happily tossed aside. It is no accident that the American studio craft movement took shape during the “atomic age” – it made manifest a longing for simplicity, a veneration of centuries-old hand-skill in an age when machines were both adored and feared, and it offered a fierce rebuke of the consumerist, post-war lifestyle that was rapidly dominating the American consciousness through magazines, television, movies and the marketplace.

In most of the obvious ways, the 1950s were all about progress – the eager deployment of the new materials and technologies that were the spoils of World War II, and a rejection of fussy ornament in favor of strong forms and restrained detailing. Ironically, because they were both visually disconnected from the most recent recognizable trends in decorative arts, the studio crafts that harkened back to an imagined era before time were the perfect compliment to the furniture that pointed the way forward. Potters stopped using realistic representation to decorate their work and instead gave their pots simple, powerful forms to make their presence felt. Quick, expressive and bold, what you saw is what you got. European potters settling in the United States like Viveka & Otto Heino, and Gertrude & Otto Natzler made delicate vessels with luminous glazes and the subtlest of throwing rings left behind, making their pots seem perched like coiled springs, full of potential.

We talk about mid-century optimism a great deal today as we fret about the overwhelming problems we now face. Yet what we perceive as optimism in mid-century culture might simply have been a confident assurance that what came before didn’t work, and it was time for new ideas across the board – from what we believe and how we live, to the objects we surround ourselves with.

Let’s start over, these objects seem to say. The future is a blank slate.

Sarah Archer, Director, Greenwich House Pottery

  • My parents, Weston and Brenda Andersen were a part of the mid-century designer movement, recieiving awards and recognition before they moved to Maine to start their own designer production enterprise. Andersen Design was a part of the mid-century designer movement that took a different path. Their mission was to create a hand-made product affordable to the middle class.

    My father, Weston Neil Andersen studied in Eva Zeisel’s landmark class at Pratt Institute and was also a close friend of Eva’s. Although Eva was from well-connected urban European environment and my father was from Iowa, they shared a similar design sensibility. Russell Wright asked dad twice to be an apprentice but Weston had a family and did not think he could afford to work for apprentice wages. When Dad and my mother , Brenda Andersen, decided to move to Maine to start their own hands-on production studio, Eva Zeisel exclaimed “but that is such a hard thing to do!” True! It was very hard- and while most of father’s contemporaries designed for large well known dinnerware companies who produced the work in “factories”, Weston and Brenda did it all- They designed their own work, created their own glazes, made their own molds, and hired a staff to produce their own work in their own small production studio and developed retail and wholesale markets. I am in awe of what they achieved, Andersen Design does not get the sort of recognition that my parents colleagues who designed for large companies in urban environments, received and continue to receive to this day- but we were recognized by Christine Churchill, writing in the Collector’s Eye for the “organic” quality, which distinguishes us from the rest- a quality that is a result of the hand-made production process.

    Perhaps the reason Andersen Design does not receive recognition is because there is no larger designer- hand craft production movement with which we can be associated. I am sure there are others out there but they have not been formulated into an identifiable group. Through out our history we have been up against categorical parameters, which our activity overlaps but doesn’t quite fit. This is true in all areas- crafts, arts, and “industry”.

  • BRAVO! Nicely done decor. What a pleasure to view and read about.

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