Bauer Pottery: Color for the Dinner Table and Beyond
These Ring pattern nested mixing bowls were one of the most popular and enduring items that the J A Bauer Pottery in Los Angeles produced.
Most people are familiar with the brightly colored ceramic dishes known as Fiesta. Homer Laughlin China of West Virginia introduced this line to an enthusiastic public in 1936. But the story of dinnerware in a range of cheery primary colors had its beginnings six years earlier, when the J A Bauer Pottery began producing its California Colored Pottery. Good cheer was just what people needed in 1930, as the effects of the stock market crash and the resulting Great Depression were beginning to be felt.
John Andrew Bauer, the son of a German immigrant potter, followed in his father’s clay-caked footsteps when he established the J A Bauer Pottery in Los Angeles in 1910. His early products included stoneware crocks, jugs and mixing bowls. Another staple then was the humble red-clay flower pot, which soon became the cornerstone of the company’s lucrative nursery business.
This assortment is predominantly Ring ware. Ring, designed by Danish potter Louis Ipsen, was Bauer’s best seller. It was augmented by others over the years including Ray Murray. The photo was cover art for the Collector Books publication “The Collector’s Encyclopedia of Bauer Pottery” by the author.
Sadly, the founder of the business was not around to witness what would become his company’s greatest achievement. He died in 1922, less than a year after a forced retirement due to ill health. Bauer’s son-in-law, Watson E Bockmon, headed the firm at the time the colorful mix-and-match dishes debuted. Bauer’s new dishes proved to be ideal accoutrements for the indoor-outdoor lifestyle that was already established in the Los Angeles area. Well-suited to the informality in Southern California, they would eventually find favor with a wider audience, especially after the arrival of Fiesta ware.
Bauer’s first foray into dinnerware production was informally called “plain” and part of its appeal was its hand-crafted look. In 1933, the original plain ware gave way to the ever-popular “Ring” design. Kitchen items, vases and garden pottery were all produced to complement the company’s glazed dishes and included many hand-thrown items by Matt Carlton and his nephew, Fred Johnson, whose previous work at the potter’s wheel was at Niloak of Arkansas.
The Bauer crew of 1933, the year the Ring design debuted.
Ring garden pottery was an immediate hit when it appeared at the many nurseries in Southern California that Bauer had long been supplying with red-clay flower pots.
The beer pitcher (and accompanying mugs) was produced to celebrate and capitalize on the repeal of Prohibition. They had a relatively short production and are not easy to find.
The art pottery of Carlton and Johnson found an enthusiastic collector following over time, and prices for Carlton’s work, in particular, soared for a time. But those values have come back down to earth in recent years.
Additional dinnerware lines followed in the wake of Bauer’s colored pottery success. Introduced in 1936, the first of these was “Monterey,” which was well-received by wholesale buyers and homemakers, alike. A sleek, up-to-date design by Ray Murray—who was new to California and fairly fresh to the business (he had worked briefly at the Frankoma Pottery of Oklahoma)—it had a similar color palette, although the clay body and glazes were modified somewhat by ceramic engineer Victor Houser. “Cal-Art Pottery,” an assortment of art ware (vases, candle holders, flower bowls, etc.), also designed by Murray, was added at this time.
Majestic oil jars, such as this were designed to decorate private porches and gardens in addition to public buildings.
Hand-thrown vases by Matt Carlton are a favorite of Bauer collectors. This one, sometimes called “hands on hips,” is glazed white.
With government restrictions on essential materials during the Second World War, Bauer introduced a series of new glazes. Most of these were reformulations by Houser. Dubbed “pastel” colors, they were also a response to the changing tastes of consumers. “La Linda” was the dinnerware that received the muted-color makeover. It had basic, no-nonsense styling with pronounced borders on flatware.
These dishes were boldly marked “BAUER LOS ANGELES” and were easily found by beginning collectors in the 1970s. Kitchen ware offered in the same glazes rounded out the line, with the standout being the streamlined “Aladdin” teapot (which came in two sizes) that Ray Murray designed. The mix-and-match concept that Bauer helped pioneer held true for this new ware as well.
The company’s leadership position in the Southern California ceramic industry began to slip during the 1950s. There was a multitude of local competitors by then, and the incursion of foreign imports had become a serious threat.
Large strawberry jars like this were essentially oil jars with several small openings for plants added by hand.
The hand-thrown art pottery of Fred Johnson was more refined than the work of his uncle, Matt Carlton. This turquoise-glazed vase retains a Bauer paper label. These labels are rarely seen and add value to any item.
To keep pace with new trends and stay competitive, Bauer introduced “Monterey Moderne,” a Mid-Century design by Tracy Irwin inspired by Russel Wright’s phenomenally successful “American Modern” dinnerware. Monterey Moderne, and its very similar “Brusche” cousin, was produced in colors that were favored in the 1950s. Both appealed to homemakers because they were stylish, yet practical for everyday use. A full line of complimentary kitchenware was also marketed.
The venerable Ring pattern continued in production almost to the closing of the plant in 1962, with some of the 1950s Modern colors and speckled glazes applied to its moderately updated shapes. Mixing bowls and glazed flower pots were ubiquitous in California by mid-century and these items continue to be popular with collectors.
The “Aladdin” teapot design by Ray Murrary was produced in the 1940s and ’50s in the colors of both decades. This is the large size and a Bauer classic.
Coffee cups and saucers from the Brusche Al Fresco dinnerware of the 1950s.
The early Ring ware has become the most-celebrated and collected Bauer specialty and, for a long time, prices steadily rose as reference books were published and various forms of publicity boosted its allure. Lately, a steep decline in values has occurred, due in part to the “new” Bauer 2000 line that hit the market in the 1990s.
Although a whole other story, some collectors of vintage Bauer began collecting it. One of its virtues is the fact that it’s made in California and not China.
Jack Chipman, an authority on California pottery and particularly Bauer pottery, has been collecting California ceramics for more than 25 years. His first book, “The Complete Collectors Guide to Bauer Pottery” (1982, co-authored with Judy Stangler). He also wrote “Collector’s Encyclopedia of California Pottery” (Collector Books, 1992 & 1999), Collector’s Encyclopedia of Bauer Pottery (Collector Books, 1997), “Barbara Willis: Classic California Modernism” (self-published, 2003) and “California Pottery Scrapbook” (Collector Books, 2005). Jack is also a fine artist, having graduated from the Chouinard/California Institute of the Arts; his work is in the collections of several museums as well as private collections. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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