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A Perfect Setting : That Vernonware--it's turning up everywhere, from movies to estate sales. And for many fans, collecting it runs in the family.

June 20, 1998|DAWN BONKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So I finally joined modern society and at last was sitting in a movie theater watching "that movie," ready to float away to a watery world of adolescent romance, icebergs and tragedy. Then I saw the dishes. It was a fleeting sight, gone faster than you could say, "It's an iceberg, stupid!"

My husband got the requisite elbow poke. Yes, he had seem them. Yes, it is amazing where they show up. Now watch the movie. I did, but with the satisfaction of a bird-watcher who has just glimpsed something special. After all, we had just had another Vernonware sighting. In my family, that's an event.

Let me explain. In the 1940s and early 1950s, my father and uncle worked for Vernon Kilns, a pottery company in the industrial town of Vernon that made a huge variety of California-style pottery from 1931 to 1958. Along with fine-art pottery, figurines and specialty items, it cranked out mountains of dinnerware.

Those dishes were called Vernonware and filled the postwar cupboards of many a suburban home, particularly in the West, where they were heavily marketed. Naturally, Vernonware was the mainstay in our house, especially one of the most popular patterns, a hand-painted brown and yellow plaid design called Organdie.

And what were the dishes Rose's granddaughter used early in "Titanic" as she fixed up a little tea for her now-aged grandmother, who (oh, irony!) was working at a potter's wheel? If you answered Organdie, go straight to the front of the lifeboat line.

Today Vernonware is found in antique stores, at estate sales and, if you're lucky, at the occasional garage sale of someone who got stuck with Grandma's things and doesn't know diddly about dishes. It's not as widely recognized as Bauer and Fiesta pottery from the same era, and you won't see reproductions of it in those retro-diners serving up nouveau meatloaf.

It's usually less expensive than other old pottery too. You can get Vernonware dinner plates for $5 and the more common casserole dishes and platters for $35 to $45.

No matter. Vernonware collectors are loyal, forever smitten by its artistry, sunny Western colors, French-country influence, hand-painted designs and romantic old California look.

"I think it's a lot more unique [than other period pottery]. I just see Vernon as something a little more interesting, a little more varied," says collector Judi Thompson of Anaheim. "It was really, really ahead of its time."

Thompson credits the company's artists for that. The company employed many popular artists of the time, most notably Don Blanding, known for his romantic Hawaiian art and writing, and Rockwell Kent, an artist of the social realist school known for everything from his public-works murals to an illustrated edition of "Moby Dick."

These artists and others created unique fine pottery, from Art Deco vases to animated figurines commemorating a strange new movie called "Fantasia." The Holy Grail of Vernonware is anything from the Salamina series, a striking dinnerware design created by Kent that was adapted from his best-selling book by the same name.

Salamina was Kent's housekeeper in Greenland, where he went to paint for a time. Apparently she was pretty darn inspiring. They are lovely pieces, the ones you'll usually see behind the glass at antique stores.

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Still, artists' touches trickled down to the workaday dinner dishes of the middle class too, Thompson says.

You'll see it in the glazes, which ranged from the shiny, wet-looking high gloss on Organdie and others to the satin-matte finishes used on several other designs.

The colors, shapes and patterns of the dinnerware bore the artists' touches too. They ranged from warm Southwestern floral and geometric designs in earth tones to cool azure blues and plain orchid pastels.

A 1938 advertisement in Sunset magazine calls a Vernon Gift Package "45 pieces of California color." Several patterns celebrated romantic notions of old California with quaint scenes of cowboy, pueblo and mission life.

Like the scenes it often depicted, Vernonware's era couldn't last. Competition from inexpensive postwar imports forced the company to close in 1958.

A wistful memory of that era hooked Thompson into collecting Vernonware 15 years ago. She was browsing through an antique store when she came across an Organdie casserole.

The sight threw her back to her early childhood in Monterey Park, to a cozy meatloaf-and-mashed-potatoes kitchen outfitted with a set of Organdie dishes presented to her mother by her father. Thompson even had a 1949 photo of herself and her father baking a batch of gingerbread men with a Vernonware mixing bowl in the background.

"My father died early in my life, and I just stood there in that antique store and cried. And I bought the thing. And it's gone crazy from there," Thompson says.

Indeed. Thompson has 18 Organdie place settings, including everything from coasters to demitasse cups, along with an assortment of serving pieces, egg cups, custard dishes and spoon holders.

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