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(A version originally appeared in Northeast Journal, May, 2005. Although I have updated some of the material, the field of W. German pottery is growing rapidly, and information goes out of date rather quickly.  Don't consider the information here as absolute.)


West German Pottery: A Divine and Delightful Madness
by Forrest D. Poston

     We've all had our golden moments, those times when some extra incentive allowed us to focus better and achieve more. Athletes call it being in the zone. Less often, such moments come to companies, and once in a great while an entire industry finds itself in the zone. Such was the case with the art pottery industry in the Untied States after a few individuals saw the radical gap between U.S. and European art pottery in the latter part of the 19th century. Like our later push to the moon, the competitive drive created an age of achievement unlike American pottery had seen before. However, no Camelot lasts for long, and by 1955, the commercial art pottery movement in the United States, though active, had returned to a more typical, sustainable, level.

     Roseville and Weller were gone, and Rookwood would change hands several times and finally close. We still had Haeger, Stangl, Red Wing, and others, but the commercial aspect had come to outweigh the art. Where there had been great companies, we now had the occasional great item or interesting line. However, the human spirit is restless and rarely satisfied. Although that trait sometimes leads us astray, it was about to serve us well once more. Art and adversity often share a close bond, and shortly after the physical and emotional scarring of World War II another great age began elsewhere. Under appreciated in Europe, and almost entirely unnoticed in the U.S., the West German art pottery industry developed what I've just begun to see as a divine madness.

    The seeds were planted while the U.S. art pottery was still going strong and the German Bauhaus School was establishing an influence that would last for decades. The Bauhaus School was short-lived, especially the ceramics school (lasting only 1920-25), but the influence ran deep and wide, delighting even American collectors with its influence on Roseville Pottery and Russell Wright, among others. The impression on the Nazi party was significantly less positive as the party repressed anything called modern, repressed and suppressed but never quite killed.

     I long ago realized that physics is about more than fulcrums and levers, that the energy they turn into equations in the classroom often takes a more human form outside of school. Push against the artistic spirit, and sooner or later you can expect an equal, opposite reaction. By 1950, amid tense, unsettled, and still dangerous times, German studio potters and designers such as Richard Uhlemeyer, Richard Bampi, and William Wagenfeld were experimenting with modern forms and glazes. Changes reached the commercial market first through the porcelain companies Rosenthal and Lindner as they played with asymmetry and organic exaggerations, adding or adapting ideas more often than subtracting. Reaching back for Nouveau curves and Deco geometric patterns, and pulling new ideas from every country around them, the German potters and designers created with a zest that seemed determined to make up for the years lost to the Nazis and the war.

     In 1954, Ruscha introduced form 313 designed by Kurt Tschörner (a form so successful that it stayed in production until the company closed) plus the Milano and Domino decorations by Cilli Wörsdörfer, and the West German pottery era was truly underway. What followed was an explosion of form, decoration, and color on a scale unlike anything else in the 20th century. Suddenly, everything new was fair game, and yet nothing traditional was ever left behind. Classic forms received bold glaze combinations and incised geometric decoration, while exaggerated new forms appeared in solid colors or even gentle earthtones.

     Styles usually attributed to companies from Italy, Scandinavia, France or England were also showing up in Germany as if the German companies were absorbing everything, giving it a new twist, and adding it to the ever-growing repertoire. It's not yet clear where some of the styles began, who imitated whom, or what was simply filling the air and creating simultaneous influences, but the W. German work was never merely derivative, simply less known, somehow caught in the shadow of other work. While it's impossible to say one style or element distinguishes a piece as West German pottery, there remains something about the work that sets it apart.

     Meanwhile, none of this seems to have gotten noticed by the U.S. companies or buyers at the time, or collectors since. While some of the most innovative work was going on, all we got here were the small, quickly made vases brought back by the tourists, and tourists have never been known for exceptionally high art standards. For reasons I haven't learned, almost none of the better commercial German art pottery was exported to the United States, and for many people the tourist wares became synonymous with West German pottery, fun and funky but not really enduring. For the first decade of my collecting life, I was among those people, but in the past few years I've been lucky enough to handle hundreds of pieces of W. German art pottery, both studio and commercial work. Of course, I've seen even more in pictures, a few thousand pieces that I can only hope to own someday.

      More work was exported to England, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but even in those cases, it seems that exports were mostly of lower to medium quality work.  The best items are still found in Germany.  Scheurich, Carstens, and Dümler & Breiden seem to be the most often found companies among the exports.  This is causing some problems on the market since many of the current dealers and collectors really haven't learned the differences between common and uncommon items.

     Not all of it is to my taste, but I'm also learning that I have to adapt my tastes because I still find new forms and decorations every time I go looking. Ruscha's 313 pitcher alone is known in at least 50 (possibly 100) different glazes, many of which never turn out quite the same on any two pieces. At times, I still get overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and variety of shapes and glazes, not sure whether to dive in or run away. The new and unknown parts of life always hold a mixture of desire and fear, the conflict between security and adventure. In some ways, it's like when I first got hooked on auctions, when every auction was a new world, and the most ordinary matte white McCoy vase was a joy, but I sometimes couldn't force myself to bid on unknown pieces, perhaps never learning whether fear kept me from a mistake or a treasure.

      I like to think I'm a bit better at judging quality these days, better at really seeing what I'm looking at, and it takes more to see West German pottery, either an individual piece or as an art era. This may be the most difficult of all pottery to judge on the internet because many of the shapes are unfamiliar, and there is so much in the glaze and textures that simply won't show in a two-dimensional medium. The more I handle, the better I get at guessing, especially when buying from someone whose eye I've learned to trust, but there are still times when I peel back that last layer of tape and bubblewrap only to wonder what made me buy such a piece. I've talked with others who find that experience all too common, and some have stopped buying W. German through the internet, which leaves them rather few options.

Influences and Styles

     Since Tschörner and other designers were at least as familiar with glass as pottery, it's no surprise that the Bauhaus influence mixed with the sculptural glass forms coming from the Murano companies. It's almost possible to imagine covering a Flavio Poli glass design with an opaque glaze to get the same effect. Pitchers and vases soon had pulled lips, exaggerated handles, and pot-bellies, all somehow both graceful and whimsical. Although classic shapes also remained in production, the pottery took on a more sculptural look, often forsaking any utility.

     Collectors in Germany, and to some degree in the U.S., have sought the early designs for at least the past decade, and none have been more popular than those created by Bodo Mans while he worked for Bay Keramik. Mans had previously worked at Madoura in Vallauris, where he was exposed to designs by Picasso. This was only one source of French influence, and a modified or simplified Cubism came through on many vases and wall plates into the mid 1960's. Some of the more popular Mans designs include "Rheims" (introduced in 1960 and based on the stained glass windows in Rheims Cathedral) and "Ravenna" (introduced in 1961). Both feature abstract geometric designs, and "Ravenna" actually resembles Mount Washington "Lava" glass produced in the 19th century.

     Among the most overlooked of the early glaze designs are those incorporating gold into the glaze process, a fairly difficult achievement. Some collectors are starting to recognize the difference between these and the cheaper versions with the gold cold-painted on later. Makers include Bay with several variations, the "Patina" glaze from Fohr, and "Jaspatina" from Jasba. Many of these mix gold with a multi-color lustre glaze, but others form golden abstract lines against a lightly patterned background. American collectors looking for a bridge to the European field will find some items suggestive of Weller or other American companies, suggestive but, again, not derivative.

     The Pop Art era of the 1960's and 70's saw an increase in bold colors and combinations, increased exaggeration of forms, and even more texture variations, especially lava or volcanic glazes. Some are similar to work from Poole in England, especially their Delphic line, which has seen a strong rise in popularity (and price) in the last few years. At the same time, the German companies continued making classic forms unchanged since the Chinese made them, and many pieces were still done in very simple glazes, often solid colors or colors with just hints of an underglaze.

     Excellent work was produced by dozens of companies during this time, and I've only seen a small sample, but some of the major companies whose work I've seen in person include, Bay Keramik, Bückeburg (closed, 1971), Carstens (closed, 1984), Ceramano (including some wonderful artist signed works, uncommon in W. German commercial work; closed 1984), Dümler & Breiden (closed 1992), ES Keramik (closed, 1974), Hutschenreuther (some of the best pop art designs, rather in contrast to their best known figurines and dinnerware), Jasba, Karlsruhe, Keto (closed, 1971), Kiechle (especially hand painted enamel decoration similar to Stellmacher, closed 1972), Ruscha (closed, 1996, name now used on certain lines from Scheurich), Scheurich, Steuler (closed, 1996), and Ü Keramik (closed, 1990).

Attributions and Reference Material

         Attributing W. German pottery to specific companies remains problematic or challenging, depending on your attitude. Fortunately, some pieces do have company marks or labels, but since much of the production was not destined for the U.S. our import laws did not apply. That means you will also find pieces from this era that still say just Germany, some with nothing but numbers, and some with bottoms unblemished with any markings at all. Most often, the country and numbers are around the outer edge of the bottom, but some pieces have the marks centered. Unfortunately, that has not helped with attributions since several companies have used the centered method.

        The clay color can be quite helpful in some circumstances.  The majority of companies used a white or buff clay, but some used red.  Carstens Tönnieshof used red except for some items made  in Austria.  Ceramano appears to have always used red.  Many of the studios used red clay, including Hoy, Grootenburg, and Uhlemeyer.  Unless an item has already been documented by shape or glaze (preferably both), an attribution usually requires a combination of factors, not just numbers or clay.

       Some of the first attribution work was done by Horst Makus, who now has multiple books out on West German pottery, all published by Arnoldsche. 50er Jahre Keramik shows a variety of wall plates and vases ranging from about 1954-61. Unlike many collectibles books, this one also has extensive information about companies and key individuals, several pages of marks, and a list of form numbers that can be attributed to a particular company and year. Of course, many companies used the same numbers, so without a picture that list is only modestly useful. The downside for many of us is that the book is only available in German. This first book is now out of print and difficult to find. Expect to pay $60 or more if you find a copy.

        The more recent book is Keramik der 50er Jahre: Formen, Farben, und Dekore. The middle book is 50er Jahre Wandmasken, which focuses on the face or head shaped wall decorations of the era. I have not yet seen either book in person, but both are German language only. As the titles indicate, the focus remains on the earlier work of the era. The items from about 1965 onward have gotten essentially no attention from researchers, but some collectors are finding that half of the period most fascinating.  Although Amazon.com sometimes lists an English version of one of the Makus books, no such version has become available

There is also a book by M.P. Thomas, also written in German, which includes more of the work from the late 1960s and '70s than Makus does.  The book is titled Deutch Keramik und Porzellan der 60er und 70er Jahre.  I haven't seen a copy of this book, so I don't know how helpful it really is other than pictures.

    The only printed material in English as of this writing is Fat Lava, an expanded exhibition catalog by Mark Hill.  The first edition has sold out, but a slightly expanded second edition is due out in mid-May, 2009.  Also, Kevin Graham has collected a great deal of information and plans a series of books, the first of which may be out by the summer of 2009.

     Of course, as interest grows, more and more company paperwork will come out of hiding and go on the market. In the meantime, our site includes additional essays plus some of the most common marks.  There is also information about some of the best known companies and designers and an identification gallery.  Links to those parts of the site are below.

Philosophical Thoughts

     I've written several essays about W. German pottery, and each time I see the pottery differently. At first, it was a matter of learning to appreciate the aesthetics, often different from what I was used to and also covering a much broader range than what we usually try to encompass. I had to outgrow the idea that all W. German pottery was measured by its funkiness. Then, I had to give up the more linear approaches that assumed certain styles, colors, and techniques were set aside as others were adopted or discovered. More recently, my observations of current events and collecting have been interweaving in new ways.

     In many ways we've lived in a new world since terrorism has become part of our daily vocabulary and psychology, but the world is never entirely new. After WWII, the world had changed in numerous ways, and we lived between the Cold War and the fear that it could shift at any moment to nuclear war. Mingled with new economic advantages we had school drills in case of nuclear attack. We had McCarthyism and its lasting influence embedding fear into our subconscious. Into that world came West German pottery and some unusual tendencies.

     The two most striking qualities of West German art pottery are the way it was able to reach out into new areas without ever sacrificing tradition and the way it was always willing to explore form and color combinations without fear of breaking tradition. In a Western culture that has long tended to live with an either/or mindset, West German pottery spreads its reach wide enough to encompass old and new rather than sacrificing one to the other. They created forms with the soothing effects of well-proportioned lines, and covered them with glazes that were all about zest and exuberance. As with all such ages, theirs came to an end, and by 1975 or so, that something extra was slipping away, but the pottery from that age can remind us about living in a larger world, not a smaller one.





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For More Identification Material:

Head onward to the Photo Identification Gallery
Or check out some of the additional essays and related pages listed below.

Categories

West German Pottery  (standard view)

New Options for WGP
View by Colors:
Blues,   Blues/Greens, Greens/Reds,   Reds/Earthtones, Earthtones/Black, White, Pastels,   Black White, Pastels

Size 14" and up:
WGP Floor Vases

WGP Under $100
 
Art Pottery, Porcelain, etc.

   Glass

   Metalware, misc.

  Paintings, prints, etc.
Essays and
Special Pages

About Us
Meet the Gin            

and the For          


Meet our "staff "     

Contact information
    

West German Pottery
Introduction to Lava, Volcanic Glazes

Collecting WG Pottery

West German Pottery Marks

West German Pottery Companies

Photo Gallery (previously sold items to help with identification)

W. German Pottery News and Updates

A Sneak Peek at Kevin Graham's
Upcoming Book
Ruscha Catalog

Philosophy and Nonsense:
Writing, Education,
Odd Thoughts and
other essays (my
"other" site)
Other Essays

To Buy or Not to Buy: Going Where
Price Guides End

The Art of Attending Auctions

Get the Picture Straight: The
Basics of Selling Glass and
Pottery on the Net

Tiffanyfakes.com (Site Review)

Just for Fun

The Cor-purr-ate Story
(Glyph's
Rise to Power)

A Tribute to Fractured Fairy Tales:
Dealing with the Wolf at the Door

Farewell to a Staff Member
The Cat With a Bucket List



Links to other sites

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