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In the California Mold

October 08, 1994|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The year was 1941, and Brayton Laguna was the biggest manufacturer of gift and art pottery in the world, employing more than 150 people who worked night and day at a five-acre site between the Pacific Coast Highway and Glenneyre. And this was just the largest, not the only, pottery company in South Orange County during the heyday of California pottery making from the mid 1930s to about 1950. During that time, thousands of people were employed to make California ceramics, many of them in Orange County. Although the factories have long since closed, the works produced there have become a favorite of collectors, who appreciate anew both the workmanship and the stories the pieces tell.

"Prime pottery was created during the '30s and '40s," said Devin T. Frick, curator of an exhibit at the Anaheim Museum that features the works of Brayton Laguna and other ceramic artists. "California pottery can be considered one of the best-kept secrets in American ceramics."

Brayton Laguna Pottery was the first Southern California ceramic company to be established and was long a leader in the field. The business closed in 1967, and today the buildings house the Laguna Art Center.

"Brayton did a dinnerware line, but they're better known for their figures," Frick said. "In those days people bought ceramic groupings of animals or children that told a story. The figures went in the children's rooms or in the living room in a display cabinet."

Brayton Laguna was started by Durlin E. Brayton, a California native who attended the Chicago Art Institute.

In 1926 he bought a parcel of land along what is now South Coast Highway, built a home and set up a painting and sculpting shop. After borrowing $300 from his father to buy a kiln, he started producing brightly colored bowls, plates and vases and put them on the fence in front of his house to attract buyers. Many believe that his line of simple earthenware dishes in sets of mixed colors produced in the late 1920s was probably the first of its kind in the United States.

"Durlin Brayton was a pioneer and innovator in ceramics and specialized in glazes, achieving a full range of vibrant hues and finishes," Frick said. "They even produced a leadless glaze which maintained paint and slip colors well."

Because of this reputation, Brayton Laguna was the first pottery company licensed by Walt Disney Studios to produce ceramic likenesses of their characters. Among the Disney pieces the company produced from 1938 to 1940 were the figures Ferdinand the Bull, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

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During World War II, California pottery companies expanded greatly because of the lack of imports from Japan, Germany and Italy.

Frick said, "Since there was no European and Asian trade, the demand for dinnerware and gift-ware increased, so for the local manufacturers the war was their boom time."

By the end of the war, retail outlets selling Brayton Laguna pottery were in every major American city and many foreign countries. During this time, Laguna Beach was a major ceramics center, with around 65 separate pottery companies--among them Kay Kinney, Freeman & Leidy, Martha Newman and Yerbysmith Ceramics.

"When I was doing research for this exhibition, I found newspaper clippings written by people living in Laguna complaining about the constant noise from all the pottery kilns going night and day," Frick said.

Many of the local potters were women who worked in their own companies and those of others.

One of the most successful Orange County pottery designers was Kay Finch of Corona del Mar.

Finch started her ceramics business as a hobby. It continued to grow, though, and in 1941 she and her husband, Braden Finch, moved to Corona del Mar and built a studio and retail showroom at 3901 E. Pacific Coast Highway (next door to what is now the Five Crowns Restaurant).

Kay Finch was the artist and her husband was the businessman. Together they created a successful company that had more than 65 employees, from mold makers to painters. Each ceramic piece was designed by Finch, but the production was done by others--all by hand.

Finch is noted for her colorful figures of people and animals--especially dogs. In fact, she was a dog lover who raised and bred Yorkshire terriers and later Afghan hounds and was internationally known as a dog show judge. Finch died June 21, 1993, at age 89.

Her ceramics are of a more delicate design than Brayton's and are composed of Kentucky and Tennessee clay mixed with California talc.

In fact, according to Jack Chipman, author of Collector's Encyclopedia of California Pottery (Collector Books, $24.95), it was the availability of talc (a mineral mined in abundance in the California desert that was a primary ingredient in much of the pottery) along with availability of natural gas and fuel oil that helped make Orange County a center for pottery production.

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With the end of World War II, inexpensive imports began to arrive, first from Japan and then from Italy.

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