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94 and still fired up

One Ojai man helped turn local crafts into a midcentury design movement. Decades later, the potter remains at the wheel. The formula for his secret glaze? Don't even ask.

June 26, 2008|David A. Keeps | Times Staff Writer

The first in a yearlong series profiling California's living legends of midcentury design.


At 94, Otto Heino has no time for false modesty.

"I am," he says, "the oldest, richest potter in the world."

With an output of 10,000 pieces a year, Heino might also add "most prolific" to his list of superlatives. For more than six decades, the Ojai artist has been the workhorse of post-World War II ceramics, one of the artisans who transformed California crafts into a national design movement in the 1950s to '70s. Now that home furnishings are falling in step with a burgeoning green movement, Heino's work is resonating with a new generation drawn to his earthy, organic expression of midcentury modernism.

"He has understood and manipulated clay as well as -- or better than -- the handful of ceramists whose work transcends crafts," says Los Angeles Modern Auctions owner Peter Loughrey, who has seen prices for Heino pieces double in the last few years. "And his experiments with glazing and firing techniques -- well, it practically takes a scientist to do what he has done."

Indeed, Heino and his late wife, Vivika, spent about 15 years developing the formula for a once-lost ancient Asian glaze that produces a velvety, low-sheen yellow on high-temperature stoneware and porcelain. Despite million-dollar-plus offers from companies in China, Japan and Korea, the recipe remains his secret. Instead, he sells his own pottery with the signature finish for as much as $25,000 per piece.

Among collectors, Heino also is known for jade-like celadon, rich blues and turquoises, pale purples and blood reds.

"The surface and color and the iron spots on a lot of the pots make them look natural, unmanipulated, like a rock you'd find somewhere," Doug Van Sickle, a Sherman Oaks potter who studied with Heino, says of the finishes -- some glassy, some satiny, others rough and speckled. "To get that look, you have to make your own clay."

Despite his age and slight physique, Heino still fires his own pottery at 2,575 degrees inside the nine kilns of his cinder-block home studio. He packs and ships overseas orders himself and sells $150-and-up pieces to visitors in a showroom that the architect Lloyd Wright designed for the property's original owner, the esteemed potter Beatrice Wood.

And, of course, he still throws at his wheel. During a recent visit to his studio, Heino effortlessly turned 50 pounds of clay into five impressive bowls and vases in well under an hour.

ALONG with Vivika, who taught generations of potters before her passing in 1995, Heino embodied the spirit of the 1950s studio crafts movement. In Southern California, modern ceramists such as the Heinos and Otto and Gertrud Natzler ushered in a new era -- "a merger of designer and craftsman, and a unification of form and function," says Christy Johnson, director of the American Museum of Ceramic Art in Pomona.

In workshops often set up in pastoral communities such as Ojai, these artisans sharpened their skills while earning a living. Demand for their work was driven by the postwar boom for tract-style homes, Johnson says. "The style was modern -- lots of glass, open floor plans -- and that architecture called for a different type of decorative art."

Otto and Vivika produced fittingly modern objects that were appreciated for their natural materials. In the back-to-the-earth counterculture of the 1960s, Johnson notes, such studio pottery fit the social and political priorities of the time.

Among artists, the couple were known for being generous with their expertise.

"They were the teachers who taught the teachers who taught us all," says Van Sickle, 54, who studied with the Heinos in the 1980s. "To this day, I mix my own clay and glazes, just like they did."

This organic style -- something Heino calls "rugged but delicate" -- is informed by centuries of craftsmanship. Bulbous vases with narrow necks and other simple, elegant shapes recall traditional Japanese pottery. His nature-inspired decorations reflect the English Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th century as well as the indoor-outdoor lifestyle of Southern California.

But most important, Heino's work ethic and aesthetic are in line with the Bauhaus philosophy of functional design.

It is a modernist sensibility that continues to influence contemporary California artists of note, including Van Sickle, Adam Silverman of Atwater Pottery in Los Angeles, Kevin Nguyen of Xiem Clay Center in Pasadena and James Haggerty, a Santa Barbara ceramist who at 13 was Vivika Heino's youngest student.

"For those of us who work in creating vessels, as opposed to sculptural ceramics, Otto's work is a perfect unity of throwing technique and refined forms," Haggerty says, "a great example of what clay and glaze can do together."

OTTO HEINO was born Aho Heino, a second generation Finnish-American in East Hampton, Conn., who with 11 siblings weathered the Great Depression raising dairy cows and delivering milk.

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