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Bauer Pottery Company

Resurrecting Depression-era designs in California

by Julie Wolfson in Design on 23 March 2012

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Southern California's Bauer Pottery Company first made a name for itself in 1932, when the company released California Color pottery after the Great Depression. Before its sunny introduction, ceramics came in white, cream or brown—Bauer was the first to liven up kitchenware with brighter options, at a time when the people most needed the boost in their homes. Today, Bauer is run by president Janek Boniecki, who revived the defunct pottery company and has since built a staff of 25 full-time employees, including his wife, Ruth Ammon, a television production designer responsible for the company's LA showroom.

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Boniecki, who oversees all aspects of the brand's quest to recreate the vintage designs of the 1930s, describes the Bauer Pottery Company as "a family business...a happy place." We caught up with him to discuss the company's heritage and how it informs present and future.

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How did you originally get into making pottery?

I started a candle business called the American Bee Company. Everything was poured into ceramic containers. I was always inspired by Bauer colors. Since the early '80s, when I lived in San Diego, I have been collecting Bauer. When American Bee took off, I was a one-man show, and to this day I've made every candle.

I was contracting with small pottery companies making these candle pots for me, and we put out a little vase. I was trying to come up with a name for a pottery company. I went looking for how to register trademarks. One of the first ones I tried to get more information about was Bauer Pottery, to see how they registered their trademark. Well, it didn't exist. I found out that when Bauer went out of business in 1962, their trademark eventually expired and became public domain. We registered as Bauer Pottery Company of Los Angeles. We published in 1998, got the approval and got the name. At first I still made everything myself.

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How do you decide which Bauer designs to produce?

A lot of people think I own the original Bauer molds, but they were all destroyed. So we are constantly buying original pieces—I got two in this week that I won on eBay. Some people donate original Bauer pieces that came from that period. Last week a man called and said he had two beautiful old platters. We are working on one period: the early to late 30s. We'll take a piece and make a model from that.

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How do you make the model?

We make the model about eight to ten percent larger than the original. We make the model out of plaster then it will shrink down the right size. I have a very good model maker that can essentially copy the design. The Russell Wright line was the most difficult to do. It was really hard to get it to be as good or better than the original. It was a challenge with the different shapes.

From the model we then make the master mold and cast one or two off of the master mold to make sure we don't want to change the thickness of the handle or the rings or improve upon it. If you are happy with the master mold, you make the permanent thing called the block and case. With the block and case you make the working dies or production molds. So the block and case is it. That's the thing that is worth a thousand dollars plus. You treat it gingerly. It's something you can use forever. We have two walk-in safes in the factory that have been there since the '20s. We keep the blocking cases in there so they don't get knocked around. Then we have them forever.

We started with the one little vase and I think we have about 150 styles in our catalogue now. So far all of the pottery has been manufactured in California. We ship pieces to more that twenty countries in Asia, Europe, and also all the way to Australia and New Zealand.

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You have a collaboration with Sunset Magazine.

When I launched the company, a friend who works for Sunset Magazine caught wind of what I was doing. She asked me to send up some pieces. They published a small article in the December 1998 issue. We did not even have a website at that point. We got over 6,000 calls, just like that. We now have an ongoing collaboration with Sunset Magazine. It's a license we have with them, Home By Sunset by Bauer. We also hold licenses with Russel Wright, and the latest one we are working with is Sister Mary Corita and the Corita Art Center. LACMA is carrying her pieces in the gift shop at their Pacific Standard Time show, California Design, 1930-1965.

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How did the Corita collaboration come about?

When Barack Obama was running for president, everyone was amazed by this man. His stump speech was pretty overwhelming at times. There were certain things he was saying. My wife has given me a serigraph of Corita as a birthday gift. It was a Yes Thank You—a beautiful piece. Then I bought the book and I looking thought the book of all her work and I thought, "this sounds like Barack Obama." Hope. Yes We Can. We Believe. I thought, we have this factory and we do decaling and decorating, maybe we can make some mugs with her work. At the time the foundation was not interested in putting anything out commercially, but we kept in touch. Then when the Pacific Standard Time show at LACMA came along and they were going to be exhibited in it, they approached me and said, "We'd like to do something." Corita's work is exhibited in more that fifty museums around the country. We started with the mugs and vases in time for the show. We have access to the whole collection and submit each piece we'd like to make approved. LACMA has become our biggest customer. They are selling hundreds of pieces a week right now.

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Bauer Pottery is available on their website, in store throughout the world and at their monthly Los Angeles showroom sales.

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