February 2009 Issue
In the summer of 1880, an Ohio heiress’ fancy led to the creation of the American art pottery movement.
That year, Marie Longworth Nichols, granddaughter of Cincinnati real estate millionaire Nicholas Longworth, founded the Rookwood Pottery. Named for her family’s estate, Rookwood became the queen of art pottery and elaborate architectural tile installations in the early 20th century.
Today, the pottery is entering a renaissance, with one of its early pieces selling for a record-shattering price while new owners stoke the kilns to put Rookwood back into American homes and hearts.
The resurgence began in 2004, when a Black Iris vase sold for an astonishing $375,000. Yet Riley Humler, who auctioned off the piece at the Cincinnati Art Galleries, isn’t totally surprised. “There’s a very consistent market for Rookwood all over the U.S.,” he says. “Rookwood’s quality sells it. Of all the Ohio potteries, Rookwood had the better pieces. The company made a constant effort to hire the best artists and sculptors.”
Unfortunately, your grandmother’s vase might not sell for quite as much. Rookwood has produced scores of different wares over the years, ranging from modest earthenware for middle-class homes to the U.S. Treasury’s fireplace mantel. The Black Iris, decorated by Japanese artist Kataro Shirayamadani, is historic as well as beautiful: It helped win Rookwood the Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900. Shirayamadani’s work provided the subtle Eastern influence that inspired Nichols to start the pottery.
Most people know Rookwood for its vases. Exquisite flowers and foliage, quirky dragons and fish, and other natural motifs reflect Nichols’ fascination with Japanese ceramics that she saw at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. Vases also first brought Rookwood national acclaim at the 1888 Philadelphia Pottery and Porcelain Exhibition. International honors followed at an Australian exhibition in 1889 and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. After Rookwood’s triumph at the 1900 Paris exposition, connoisseurs began to covet Rookwood and artists began to emulate it.
“There’s an eye candy quality to much of Rookwood,” notes Kenneth R. Trapp, a Rookwood authority and retired curator of the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. “It’s really quite beautiful. There’s also a certain sentimentality to it. Rookwood vases and decorative items were prestigious household items.”
Now Christopher S. Rose, president of the new Rookwood Pottery Co., hopes to put the name back into many American homes in an even more permanent way. The company has just introduced a new decorative tile line aimed at people remodeling or building homes. Rookwood tile fireplaces that anchored many gracious homes by the early 1900s have now morphed into elaborate tile kitchen and bath installations. Fireplaces are still an option, as well as other custom applications that homeowners and architects might plan. Indeed, for the 39-year-old fine arts graduate, the limit is a Rookwood-tiled sky.
“We’re not resting on our laurels,” Rose says. “We’re pushing ahead with new plans and new designs, while honoring our past.” He points out that the new tile line mirrors that philosophy. The Heritage line features historic Rookwood tiles using original designs and glazing formulas. A second line offers new designs that are based on historic features, while another line uses more contemporary motifs.
The new Rookwood is also involved in the refurbishing of 26,000 square feet of tile in the Monroe Building, a 16-story Chicago landmark built in 1912. “We’re producing new tile to match the original in some areas, and refurbishing other tile work,” Rose explains.
The company has just moved into a new 100,000-square-foot facility in Cincinnati’s historic Over-the-Rhine district. Production is currently under way there and a showroom is open to the trade. A gift shop is scheduled to open later this year, and the company plans to create a gallery of rotating exhibits of antique Rookwood pieces and memorabilia. Rose has tentative plans to produce some art pottery next year. Although the company owns more than 3,000 of the original molds and shapes, he doesn’t want to simply duplicate old designs.
“We don’t want to hurt the value of the original art pottery. We won’t be competing against Rookwood’s original market,” Rose says. The company has already produced some limited-edition ceramics, which have sold out rapidly.
Some of the pottery’s more recent commissioned pieces include two beer steins for the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company and a plaque featuring downtown Cincinnati’s hallmark Tyler Davidson Fountain. Rose is most proud of two vases with vintage pine cone designs commissioned by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory in 2007 for a mayors’ conference in Israel. The vases, inscribed with the motto “In Friendship and Prosperity,” were presented to the Israeli president and prime minister. Rose framed the thank-you letter he received from the recipients and cherishes it as a symbol of Rookwood’s calling card to the world.
“People have a great attachment to Rookwood pottery,” Rose says. He and a group of investors bought the business in 2006, after an almost 35-year production hiatus. “When we first took over, we were spending lots of time on the phone each day, hearing from people who wanted to talk about the Rookwood fireplace in their parents’ house or the vase their grandparents had received for a wedding present.”
Although in this country art pottery production never really recovered from the Great Depression, Rookwood itself has never gone out of business. “One of the most impressive aspects of the pottery is that it’s constantly been in business since 1880,” says Anita Ellis, the deputy director of curatorial affairs at the Cincinnati Art Museum, who has researched and written extensively about Rookwood. “It’s been dormant for certain periods, but always there.”
In the late 1950s, Rookwood’s owners moved operations from Cincinnati to Mississippi to cut production costs. As the U.S. was flooded with inexpensive, mass-produced ceramics from abroad for the next two decades, observers thought Rookwood might go out of business or be sold to an overseas firm. In 1982, Art Townley, a retired Michigan dentist and ardent Rookwood collector, bought the business along with thousands of original Rookwood molds and hundreds of glaze formulas.
“He simply couldn’t bear the thought of Rookwood leaving this country,” Ellis explains. Townley produced a few pieces during his ownership, primarily to keep Rookwood’s trademark alive. His reissue of bookends depicting Cincinnati’s Union Terminal brought Townley and Rose together. Rose’s brother Patrick has always been a fan of the Art Deco train station built during the Depression. Patrick contacted Townley about the bookends and then visited him. He found the older man storing the molds in his garage, unsure of how to divest himself of the business. The Rose brothers decided to bring Rookwood back to Cincinnati.
The pottery has always been loved in its hometown, but it has also made its mark in the world. Rookwood has an international following and is exhibited at major museums and galleries on three continents. Not all Rookwood is cosseted behind gallery doors, however. In addition to vases and decorative wares, Rookwood was influential in varied and vivid architectural tile installations in office buildings, hotels, schools, theaters and churches throughout the country. Several New York City sites, including the subway system, contain Rookwood architectural tile.
In Louisville in 1907, two German immigrants chose Rookwood to adorn the Rathskeller restaurant in what is today the Seelbach Hilton Hotel. Rookwood tile is used extensively throughout the 4,200-square-foot Rathskellar. Multi-hued murals depict various cities from the owners’ homeland. Rookwood pelicans — a good luck symbol — encircle the room’s many columns.
Chris Rose hopes his Rookwood will be as lucky and long lasting.
For more information on Rookwood Pottery, visit www.rookwoodcompany.com