Of Mud and Magic — The Inexhaustible Creativity of 20th Century Ceramics

Part 3 of a 3-part series exploring some of the most 
sought-after makers of this once humble art form

by Benjamin Genocchio 

Entertaining in style is about harmonious aesthetic surroundings to which ceramics can contribute in numerous ways, from table centerpieces and serveware to lamps, pitchers, vases, bowls and more. But as ceramics have broken away from function and decoration and evolved into art, we have come to see ceramic objects in a totally different light, not only the work of contemporary makers but those of an earlier era.

The first two parts of this ceramics article have focused on forward-looking makers and the burgeoning market for contemporary studio ceramics. In this article, we will look back to those pioneers who blazed the trail for today’s ceramic artists, with an emphasis on makers from the middle to late 20th century, and especially those historical ceramic artists who saw themselves as artists more than potters.

Lists are subjective and for purposes of space I have been forced to make numerous painful exclusions here: Lucie Rie, George Ohr, Tapio Wirrikala, Pablo Picasso, Paul Gauguin, and Hans Coper are all important innovators, but very well known. Meanwhile, I have not included those who deserve more acclaim like George Pelletier, Jean Rivier, Jacques and Dani Ruelland, Suzanne Ramie, Marcello Fantoni, or Pol Chambost.

That is the thing about ceramics, there is so much out there, such an inexhaustible resource of creativity from the distant past right up until today. Ashwini Bhat, Anina Major, and Jolie Ngo are just some of the new young artists taking the medium forward, as well as all of the artists profiled in the previous two articles on studio ceramics. 

Claude Conover  American, 1907–1994 

An assortment of vessels by Claude Conover, clockwise from upper left:  “Chuc” large stoneware vessel, circa 1960s offered by circa20c, “Mamom” vessel, with the artist’s signature style hand-applied techniques of stripping and sgraffito, from TFTM; and "Tupaca” pillow-form vessel includes the original liner for flowers, circa 1960, from Pavilion Antiques and 20thc.

The raw, alluring rusticity of Conover’s vessels, with their patina of faded, cracked or worn leather and dusty texture is something that really has to be seen and experienced in person to appreciate. Firstly there are the shapes: large and bulbous forms like misshapen, pumped-up balloons, seemingly unstable and therefore totally non-utilitarian. Beyond the forms, it is all about the texture and surface treatment, in most instances geometric patterns made of tightly incised lines in raw unglazed clay before firing. The matte, unglazed finish feels refreshing and modern in a way but at the same time timeless as it evokes simple, early primitive human ceramics, functional objects in which water was carried or food stored. It is this tension between past and present, functional and decoration that makes Conover’s ceramics so dramatic. Claude Conover pottery is available at circa20cPavilion Antiques and 20thc, and TFTM

Toshiko Takaezu American, 1922–2011

Ceramic closed-form pot by Toshiko Takaezu. The void space and the air trapped inside of the pot was considered by the artist as important as the physical material that defines the space. It was created with the artist's signature abstract and poetic approach: free hand and organic. The imperfection of the glaze accidents and a kiln fragment stuck onto the piece during the firing process, shown in the second image, were intentionally left as they were, highlighting the artist's wabi-sabi spirit and aesthetics. Available from Tishu.

The doyenne of American ceramics, Takaezu worked quietly and religiously for many decades in her studios in rural New Jersey and Hawaii and only later in life achieved the recognition she fully deserved. For Takaezu and those who love her ceramics, it is all about the glazes and surface effects, her objects cured in outdoor wood-fired kilns to get that wonderful smokey texture to the surface glazes which tend to flow and run in patterns and designs determined by chance. Surfaces are rough and often include a variety of small impurities from the firing process but it is all part of the magic of her vessels and adds to the character and individuality of each of the pieces that range in size from small bowls, pots, plates and moon pots with rattles to huge outdoor closed-form objects. Though humble in form, the painterliness of the decoration is pure art. Toshiko Takaezu ceramics can be found at Tishu

Guido Gambone Italian, 1909–1969

Top left: From Karl Kemp Antiques, a loop-handled jug with vividly glazed Cubist-style decoration wrapping the entire circumference. Top right: At High Style Deco, an elegantly elongated conical pitcher flared at the base, with pale chartreuse glaze and Gambone’s unmistakable linework in rich coffee tones. Bottom: Large hand-built square ceramic tray with dense, textured glaze in a modernist checkerboard pattern in tones of purple, green and cream, from Open Air Modern. 

Guido Gambone is widely regarded as the preeminent Italian ceramicist of the 20th century, both an innovator and a bridge between historical ceramic traditions, materials and all of the associated techniques and the stylistic and material ruptures of modernism. He stuck with fairly traditional forms, for the most part, vessels, bowls, plates, but worked in a variety of intuitive decorative modes that hover between abstraction and a simple somewhat eccentric figuration reminiscent of primitive cave painting designs but also rooted in mid-20th century aesthetic schemes such as Cubism and the painting style of Pablo Picasso. He experimented with extra thick textured glazes, what he referred to as a ‘lava glaze’ made with the addition of glass and sand that gives his very best ceramics a mottled appearance like they are carved from volcanic rock. Each piece he made is entirely unique, which is why he is a highly collectible ceramic artist.  Guido Gambone ceramics can be found at Craig Van Den Brulle, High Style Deco, Karl Kemp Antiques and Open Air Modern.

Jean Besnard French, 1889–1958   

From BAC, top left: A striated vase of gray earthenware, partially glazed in aqua stripe encircling the body, with vertical stripes on the neck which lend a subtle Egyptian touch. Top right: Gourd form earthenware table lamp in cerulean blue and sea green glazes. Bottom left and right: Spiral design glazed earthenware flared vessel/bowl; slip-painted spiral design inside and out in white over dark brown. All pieces are signed and date from the 1930s–1940s.

Jean Besnard remains one of the mythical figures of early 20th century French ceramics and is much sought after by collectors; Karl Largerfeld was an avid fan and famously collected Besnard’s work when he could. The forms are simple and traditional, but they are in most cases decorated with geometric or abstract patterns or random, unusual glaze finishes with minute speckles, flows and marks. Simplicity is the defining feature of all of his work as well as an unpretentious, even understated elegance and therefore they are easily integrated into almost any interior decorative scheme. The lamps are the most prized of his creations with several of his vases having been converted into lamps over the years. There is nonetheless something alluring and unique about his pieces, especially the glazes and finishes that are rarely repetitive. He had an uncanny ability to produce an astonishingly broad range of works of ceramic art. Jean Besnard ceramics are available through BAC

Axel Salto Danish, 1889–1961

Left: At Denmark 50, a vase in Salto’s “budding” style, with distinctive greenish/yellow to brown solfatara glaze. Center: “Living Stone” stoneware lamp in Sung glaze with relief, available at Collage 20th Century Classics. Right: “Budding Fruits” vase in oxblood glaze, in the form of fruits and leaves, 1950s, from Fred Silberman.

Axel Salto was a 20th-century Danish ceramic artist who today, like Besnard, is admired and widely collected. He was a painter, too, but it is his stoneware, produced largely between the years 1925 and 1950 that his contribution to ceramics as a medium for artists shines through with his highly individual, organic sculptural forms that took initial inspiration from nature but morphed into purely abstract objects made in clay with repetitive patterns and pointy, jagged surfaces as decoration — frequently made on a diminutive scale they tend to resemble pinecones or shark eggs or any other kind of pod. His experimentation with thick rich glazes is also legendary and created unusual surface textures and colors. Chinese ceramic traditions were a source of his inspiration and ideas, but his work is unique and he was early on recognized for his innovation and awarded numerous prizes. His ceramics are true works of sculpture. Axel Salto ceramics are available at Collage 20th Century ClassicsDenmark 50 and Fred Silberman

David Cressey American, 1916–2013

Left to right: David Cressey for Architectural Pottery stoneware planter in unglazed stoneware, circa 1960, from Danish Modern L.A.; Late California Modern glazed stoneware table lamp, 1960s speckled coloration in brown, taupe and deep olive, circa 1960, from COSMO; 1970s “Phoenix 1” deeply textured unglazed stoneware planter for Architectural Pottery, offered by 20cdesign.

Partially glazed or unglazed 1960s stoneware by David Cressey is increasingly sought after by collectors, partly because of the quality of craftsmanship and partly, it seems, for a new appreciation for the clean, minimal and architectural quality to the sunburst patterns he favored made of deep incisions and repetitive stippled marks. Earthtones, sandy and natural colors predominate in his work alone or with Robert Maxwell, such as tans, beiges, browns, oranges, along with an organic feeling to the design overall — it is little wonder his planters are so highly prized for they seem like an extension of the plants they hold, while at the same time blending seamlessly into various decorative schemes. Cressey was a painter and sculptor, like many ceramic artists, and again it is in his multidisciplinary approach to ceramics as an art form that his genius is most apparent: He frequently painted directly onto the stone surfaces or employed smooth rich glazes. His ceramics are paintings as well as sculptures and functional objects. David Cressey pottery is offered by CosmoDanish Modern LA, and 20cdesign

Wilhelm Kåge Swedish, 1889–1960

Left: A selection of Kåge’s renowned Art Deco “Argenta” series, with signature matte blue-green glaze and some with silver decoration, offered by BAC. Center: Studio Schalling has a powerhouse piece — a rare footed “Farsta” series vase, with incised geometric decoration and extraordinary dramatic glazing.  Right: Kage’s “Surrea” series features offset forms, with a  highly calcinated glaze he developed and named “Carrara.” Many, but not all are decorated with dainty gold stripes, as the pieces in this group are. From B4.

Swedish ceramics are not widely appreciated in the United States but for those with knowledge and history of the genre, Wilhelm Kåge is one of the major figures, if not the most important figure in 20th-century ceramics. He studied painting, like so many other ceramic artists and wound up as creative director at the Gustavsberg Porcelain Company (that originated in 1826 in the town of Gustavsberg and closed in 1990) in 1917, a position he held until 1949. He has at least two distinct and popular series of ceramic work, most notably his green-blue glazed Argenta series. These tend to be classical and functional lamps, vessels, and vases decorated with finely incised images of animals, fish, plants, people and flowers inlaid with silver. Then there are his Farsta ceramics, all made of earth-toned brown or red clay (the clay he used had a high iron content hence the particular color). These are more sculptural in form, made between 1930 and 1960 and highly prized by collectors for their minimal abstract designs — the best pieces are finely incised with geometric patterns. He experimented with creative glazes for the Farsta series but it is the forms and decoration that remain alluring. Wilhelm Kåge ceramics can be found at B4BACBalder DesignCollage 20th Century ClassicsGary RubensteinMilord AntiquesModern Redux and Studio Schalling

Aldo Londi Italian, 1911–2003

Left:  “Ball” table lamp in brilliant reflective cobalt blue glaze, distributed by Raymor, offered by COSMO, Center: from Modern Redux, a Razorback boar figure in the bronze and verdigris “Etruscan” glaze for Bitossi, Right: Large abstract table lamp in Londi’s own brilliant blue and deep green ”Rimini Blu” glaze, with incised and stippled decorations for Bitossi Italy, from Mid-Century Modern Home.

Aldo Londi is yet another important 20th-century ceramicist with a background in painting and sculpture. In 1946 he was appointed artistic director of the now-famous Bitossi Ceramics Studio in Italy and held the position for five decades. During this time period, he created thousands of designs for vases, jugs, lamps, plates, candlestick holders and assorted objects with an emphasis on handmade forms, painted designs, and lush, richly colored glazes—perhaps his most famous serious is the “Rimini Blu’ line, which he produced from 1955–1965 and includes over 150 designs and was greatly popular in the United States where it was distributed and sold through Raymor, an important importer of international, especially Italian decorative ceramics. Londi was a successful commercial ceramicist and for that reason, his work can be overlooked today by collectors — this is a mistake, for in spite of the volume of work he produced for the Bitossi brand the design creativity and quality of workmanship is outstanding. The best part of his ceramics is that they are still available and relatively affordable. Ceramics by Aldo Londi can be found at CosmoModern Redux and Victoria Rojas

Roger Capron French, 1922–2006

Left: Circa 1960s “Pagode” oak frame coffee table with upturned “pagoda style” ends. White glazed tiles alternate with earth tone ceramic tiles featuring impressed leaves decoration. Offered by Galerie Edouard de la Marque. Right: Metal frame coffee table, tabletop in ceramic lava tiles with various glaze effects in pleasing modulations of taupe, amber and gold tones, and bursts of airy white. From Guéridon.

Much like Aldo Londi, Roger Capron built an international reputation creating humble but beautifully designed and manufactured ceramic goods for everyday use through his own manufacturing company, Atelier Capron, and which were sold in department stores including Saks 5th Avenue. His ceramics run the gamut of functional tableware but he is perhaps most admired today for his beautifully decorative tiled coffee tables and side tables which represented a creative extension of ceramics into furniture and which were much copied. It is difficult to characterize Capron’s style in ceramics as it evolved over time and each decade of his career seems to have a different stylistic focus. Most recognizable are vessels with bright glazes, decorated in open geometric patterns or depicting simple, figurative forms that take inspiration from rural French decorative arts as well as European modernism. Prices for his ceramic furniture and unique tableware pieces have been steadily increasing in the past few decades. Find Roger Capron ceramics at Bloomberry, Appel, Galerie Edouard de la Marque, Guéridon and Orange Los Angeles

Warren Mackenzie American, 1924–2018

Left: At Tishu, a tall cylinder-shaped stoneware vase with an ambiguous shape, something between a circle and a square, with a pair of diminutive loops on the shoulder and brilliant orange Shino-like glaze. Right: A monumental, 19-inch diameter Mingei-style stoneware platter with decorative brown hash marks, from circa20c.

Many of the ceramic artists covered here saw themselves as making sculpture, art even, as opposed to pottery, but there are hundreds of talented and important potters like Warren Mackenzie who deserve greater appreciation and attention. Mackenzie, again like many of his contemporaries, began as a painter studying art at the Art Institute of Chicago but switched to making pottery and then did an apprenticeship with Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery at his workshop in St. Ives. He believed in the importance of functional ceramics, as opposed to sculpture, and even considered the notion that his pieces of pottery were artwork as “foolish.” His primary interest was in form, color, texture and gesture, as well as functionality, working on a traditional treadle wheel to ‘throw’ his loose energetic forms that he also regarded as “not necessarily amenable to intellectual analysis.” He was a potter, a maker first and foremost, conjuring the extraordinary from the ordinary and the everyday. Warren MacKenzie pottery is available from circa20c and Tishu