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BEVIS HILLIER

Feats of Clay : The De Carbonnels Toured France and Came Back With a Pottery Factory

December 08, 1985|BEVIS HILLIER

Benjamin Disraeli, who was a best-selling novelist before he became Queen Victoria's favorite prime minister, said: "When I want to read a good book, I write one."

When French aristocrat Charles de Carbonnel and his Californian wife, Katrina, could not find suitable wedding presents for their friends in Beverly Hills, they bought a French pottery factory and started making some. They make large, cream-colored pieces in the 18th-Century tradition, such as tulip-holders and big serving platters decorated with coats of arms and interlaced initials. They are poised for an assault on the American market.

The De Carbonnels had toured France this summer, looking for the best place to get old, beautiful pieces copied. One factory they found was Geo. Martel in the village of Devre, Brittany, about 15 minutes inland by car from Boulogne. It had been making faience (earthenware) since the 1890s but had fallen on hard times.

"The people at Martel kept putting off our appointments," Katrina de Carbonnel recalls, "and finally they said: 'The reason we keep putting you off is that we're going bankrupt; and we're being sold at auction in one month."' Charles de Carbonnel showed up at the auction. Nobody else attended, so the couple managed to acquire the factory at a reasonable price.

"The only time in France when you can make a factory work again when it's going badly--to fire people and so on," Katrina de Carbonnel says, "is when you buy it up after it has gone bankrupt. Martel never stopped production. We reduced the work force from 80 to 60 people, and we were able to improve everything that needed to be improved--kilns, potters' wheels, shelves and morale. And now we're working so well, and we sold so much at a recent fair in Paris, that already we are paying overtime wages, and soon we shall have to begin rehiring."

Katrina de Carbonnel's previous career was as a picture restorer. She was the first American to be allowed to work as a restorer at the Louvre. She was born in Palos Verdes, the land of which her grandfather, Frank V. Vanderlip, bought and her father, Kelvin Coxe Vanderlip, developed. Her father died when she was 4, but she remembers something of his high life style.

"He was a Ranchero, one of an exclusive California group that gets together and goes on long rides without women. In those days they would go with their cooks and butlers, riding and singing. The group included Hernando Courtright (of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel), the architect Cliff May and my godfather, John Green, who now lives in Santa Barbara. Cliff May also flew a little airplane, and he had a small piano. He'd put it in the plane and they'd play it in the plane. We used to go up to Lake Arrowhead, and my father would commute to work in Los Angeles by water-skis; my mother would drive a speedboat and he would water-ski across Lake Arrowhead; then they'd be picked up and driven to the office."

The Vanderlips were promoting the Palos Verdes peninsula, so they held giant costume parties, aglitter with film stars. "If my mother told my father, 'I'm building the Eiffel Tower on the tennis court,' he'd say, 'How nice. Will the can-can girls be there?' " Katrina de Carbonnel recalled. Charles Laughton lived just below the Vanderlip villa. "He terrified me," Katrina says. "Mother told us that he didn't like children, so that when we ran down to the stables, we would run big circles around his house."

When Katrina's father died in 1956, her mother took her and her brother to Switzerland. The children went to "a fantastic little boarding school, called Chalet Marie-Jose, that doesn't exist any more. It was started in 1912 for the Belgian royal family's children. 'The Sound of Music' was corny compared to this school. The girls were on the top floor, and the boys were on the next floor. We skied two hours a day and hiked." Katrina then spent three further years in a Paris school. When she returned to California, to attend Palos Verdes High School, she found herself rather out of place.

"The school was only 3 years old at the time, but it already had 2,000 students. I was very European and even had a slight accent in English; I wore knee socks and a kilt. In the high school, you either had to know all about football and be rah-rah or be far out into drugs, and I was neither, so I was miserable there." Her mother refused to let her go back to Europe, "so we compromised, and I went to a school on the East Coast, Miss Porter's School, in Farmington, Conn., the school that Jacqueline Kennedy went to."

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