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INNER LIFE

Art of the everyday

California's pottery, blazing with color and bold in form, launched a nationwide revolution in tableware in the 1930s -- one that still resonates today.

August 14, 2003|Jake Klein | Special to The Times

To call Bill Stern's Hancock Park apartment a showcase of California pottery would be to radically understate the case: It is a shrine.

Stern is a man possessed. In corners and on shelves, in stacks under and on top of tables, in boxes by the bed, in alcoves and nooks, on counter tops and mantels and finally spilling out on the balcony is every imaginable example of the solid-color commercial pottery that revolutionized American tableware in the 1930s and sparked a nationwide design trend.

Here, in this unlikely setting -- the shaded upper floor of an unassuming duplex -- is a startling collection of more than 3,000 platters, plates, pitchers, bowls, and cups and saucers that have taken over not only the rooms but his life.

Two years ago Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design, guest-curated the first major exhibition of these utilitarian ceramics, "California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism," at the San Francisco Museum of Art; Chronicle Books recently published his comprehensive history of the genre by the same name.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
California pottery -- An Aug. 14 Home section article about California pottery gave the wrong name for the museum that first presented the exhibition "California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism." It is called the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, not the San Francisco Museum of Art.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 28, 2003 Home Edition Home Part F Page 5 Features Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
San Francisco museum name -- An Aug. 14 story about California pottery gave the wrong name for the museum that first presented the exhibition "California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism." It is called the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, not the San Francisco Museum of Art.

In July (and running through January), Stern brought the show of 370 pieces from 47 collections, including his own, to the Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Griffith Park. The elegant and concisely edited displays map the evolution of California's mass-produced pottery, with pieces culled from many of the 600 potteries that flourished here between 1900 and 1955.

Upon entering Stern's home in the mottled half-light of midmorning, it is readily apparent that he has the instincts of a painter, one who has an innate sense of what he calls "the arrangement of color." Everywhere you look, even inside drawers, there are carefully composed still-lifes in cobalt blue, red-orange, yellow, green, turquoise, eggplant, fuchsia and lavender-gray. "I'll often rearrange these in different groupings, alternating colors," says Stern, opening a cabinet in his kitchen to reveal hundreds of vintage plates in what is most likely every color they ever came in. "I just love them."

He comes by his talent naturally. In nearly every room is a painting by Stern's mother, whose intense colors are a direct mirror of the pottery on display around it. "I didn't know that the pottery pieces I was buying were the same colors in my mother's paintings," Stern says. "Through collecting, I was reconnecting to my own childhood."

His collecting began in 1980, and the obsession was immediate. Until then, his kitchen cabinets were filled with mostly serviceable white dishes, but he couldn't help himself when he saw a set of vibrantly colored Vernon Kilns plates at a neighbor's estate sale. He brought them home, cleared a space on a shelf, stood back, took a look, and was hooked.

The cabinet, he says, cried "more!" And more and more. The colors were jubilant; the room came alive. Stern remembers a sign that hung over one of the antiques markets that he frequented during the height of his collecting: "If you can't be happy," it read, "at least be cheerful."

Soon enough, he began to learn everything he could about California pottery and its amazing potters, becoming an expert and now a published historian on the genre, which made an art form of the ordinary. Stern is also an enthusiastic educator on the subject.

"People take for granted what they see everyday," says Stern, motioning to the upper floor of another Spanish Colonial Revival apartment complex nearby. He points to the tiled lip of a chimney festooned with several small tiles arranged in a simple, spare pattern.

"That's where it began, in a way," he says. "It's those Spanish-Moorish colors used in geometric shapes on glazed tiles that literally paved the way." As Stern notes in his book, the first great cultural fusion in California pottery design took place with the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego. The architect Bertram Goodhue ornamented the Balboa Park buildings with glazed Spanish-Moorish tiles, and in short order designers reconfigured the patterns and replaced the pale Hispano-Moresque colors with bold Mexican colors.

The next big event, he writes, occurred in the 1930s with the solid-color revolution -- pioneered by J.A. Bauer Pottery Co., Catalina Pottery, Brayton Laguna and Pacific Pottery -- that swept the country and sparked further innovations in form and decoration. Everyone wanted these cheap and cheerful tablewares.

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