I was lucky to have parents who cared about good design. Early toys included the smooth wooden blocks and trucks from Creative Playthings. In fact, inspiration for the Creative Plaything pieces were the Froeble blocks, that caught the attention of a young Frank Lloyd Wright.
Manhattan Beach in the mid-60’s wasn’t a mecca of modern design, but Southern California was becoming one. The Arts and Architecture magazine sponsored Case Study houses had people thinking about how they were going to live in different ways, and new materials, building techniques and the cultural zeitgeist had people thinking about life in a more modern way. As an architectural history student at UCLA, I came to appreciate how cultural and political thinking was manifested in architecture, from the craftsman movement through post-modernism. The modern movement reflected the time, and new rules for design replaced the old playbook.
What Manhattan Beach did have was a legacy of pottery. Metlox Pottery on the corner of Manhattan beach Blvd and Valley Drive, cranked out plates, cups and saucers, in the colorful California tradition best ascribed to Bauer. But, farther East, on the corner of Aviation Blvd and Rosecrans, stood the home of Architectural Pottery (AP.) While mostly a factory, the Architectural Pottery factory included a store, and the highly sought after factory seconds that could literally be had for under a dollar. I have vivid memories of exploring there, after my elementary school at Grandview School—based on a Richard Neutra design, so we did have some architectural inspiration in Manhattan Beach.
Founded in 1950 by Max and Rita Lawrence, the company’s unique take on large and small scale planters and accessories, received immediate attention from design cognoscenti, and was included in the 1951 Good Design Exhibition and included most of the young company’s pieces form their initial catalog. AP designers were many of the same thought leaders making the most influential art, and designing the cutting edge products and homes that were defining mid-century modernism. Good design attracts good design and the most influential architects of the period, Rudolph Schindler, John Lautner, Richard Neutra, Raphael Soriano, Gregory Ain, Pierre Koenig, and Richard Dorman included AP design in many of their projects. AP designers like ceramicist LaGardo Tackett, and furniture designers like Paul McCobb and Malcolm Leland became synonymous with the AP brand. Replacing terra cotta flower pots with the smooth design, matte glazes and the cool colors of AP helped blur the lines between indoor and outdoor living. Shapes like the Peanut, defined the brand.
, Doughnut, the hourglass and candleholders I had all but forgotten about AP, but when I began to become a serious and passionate collector of mid century modern furniture, I rediscovered these iconic design pieces I had loved as a kid. My parents still had a few pieces that I was able to take over, and while searching for mid century furniture around the country, I found amazing examples of AP places as far from Manhattan Beach as St. Louis and Honolulu; from serious collectors to flea markets. There was still plenty of AP around Manhattan Beach, and I knocked on doors and looked over back fences and amassed a very cool collection. Pottery collectors are an interesting lot, and border on compulsive. Moving to a new house four years ago, I chose to really edit much of my collection and keep only the favorites. These include an ultra obscure stylized Polar Bear design, candleholder, an orange hour glass, Peanut and various diamond planters. My good friend Louie Kallas is particularly fond of the more organic David Cressey pieces, defined by their volcanic glazes.
While original pieces are tougher to find, they’re still around, and as prices of most collectibles have dropped, there are some good values still on eBay and at the domestic auction houses. San Diego based Vessel Pottery has done an amazing job of painstakingly recreating many of the AP designs, and authentically reproduced the glazes and finishes that are unique to AP. Started by a fellow collector, and reproduced with the attention to detail that only a collector can provide, Vessel pieces happily live side by side with my originals.