If you haven't heard me tell the story, my name is a hybrid. My mom, a German, is named Antje (UNT-yah). My dad, a Turk, was named Aydin (EYE-din). When I was born, they combined the first syllables of their names to get mine (Ant + Ay = Antay). It was the 1960s. Don't judge them.
So if ever there was a collectible that should resonate for me, it is Tamac Pottery. Made between 1946 and 1972 in Perry, Oklahoma, Tamac was the brainchild of two couples: Leonard and Marjorie Tate and Allen and Betty MacCauley. Marjorie was a sculptor who had studied art at Brown University. Leonard (Lee) was a business major. They met in New York after WWII, and then Marjorie befriended Betty (who had studied ceramics). Her husband, Allen, was a mechanic. Somehow, the four of them got together and decided to move back to Oklahoma and start a pottery business. They bought a quonset hut and started designing modernist, ergonomic pottery wares that they called Tamac. Ta + Mac = Tamac.
For me, Tamac was an acquired taste. Pictures of it made me raise an eyebrow, and the glaze names -- Frosty Fudge?! -- didn't do much for me. But now that I am in the Southwest, where Tamac is more prevalent, I have had the chance to see it in person, and it has won me over. The shapes are innovative and eccentric, quirky and appealing. The glazes are unlike any other glazes of the period. They have an organic beauty if you have the patience for it. In other words, Tamac is the Zooey Deschanel of midcentury dinnerware.
A few months ago, I was fortunate to find a service for four in Frosty Fudge that looked virtually unused and included several serving pieces. It was at an antique shop in Dallas that did not have many modern items. They seemed eager to unload the set and offered me a 20% discount before I even asked. That pretty much got me hooked on Tamac. I started to learn more about it.
One of Tamac's early successes was a BBQ cup that integrated the handle into the form of the cup. While you pretty much need to be right handed to use it, the sculptural elegance of the form earned a US Patent. But the innovations didn't stop there. Look at this pitcher, for example:
The Tates and the MacCauleys also played with functionality of their forms. Look at this triangular decanter: The stopper serves double duty as a shot glass. The bubbly frothy glaze trim is the "frosty" in Frosty Fudge, a distinctive treatment you will find only on Tamac. I have yet to see two other glazes -- Butterscotch and Raspberry -- in person. I look forward to the day!
A note to the new Tamac collector (listen to the voice of experience!): While the Frosty glazes (Fudge and Pine) usually appear high fired and crisp, and the matte glazes (Avocado and Honey) appear more porous, they are all subject to crazing, which often darkens. While some collectors find this adds "character," others find it detracting. Be sure to inquire about the condition of items you see online if crazing is an issue for you.
I used to tell time by the passing of antique shows.
In Minnesota, spring was synonymous with the Fairgrounds show. The heat of August was measured in days until the Gold Rush. No fireworks in July had more dazzle than the Red Wing Collectors Society Convention. Over 15 years as a collector, my life's passing became marked by holiday weekend fleamarkets, annual art shows, and sunny Saturdays where a drive to Stillwater filled an empty spot in my calendar and my soul.
Two years out of Minnesota, and I have started - like the Mayans and the Egyptians before me - to mark time in new ways. The spring and fall glass show in Grapevine, and now the Houston MODern Market have become fixtures on my calendar. (I find some comfort that one dealer from many Minnesota shows appears twice a year in Grapevine, with the same reliable collection of Heisey glass, Red Wing dishes, Fiestaware, and other glass and ceramics he brought to St. Paul and Rochester.)
Paul and I just returned from our second MODern Market. This time, we arrived for the preview party on Friday night for a chance to mingle, buy early, and bid on silent auction items. We were pleased to benefit Houston Mod (a worthy nonprofit preservation group) while enjoying wine, nibbles, and a chance to reconnect with uber-collectors like Don Emmite. (His Saturday morning lecture on household appliance design from the 1930s to he 1960s was a highlight of the weekend.) I felt a little bad that Houston Mod's silent auction did not generate more bids, but not so bad that I didn't stand ferociously by a lot of excellent Marc Bellaire "Balinese" ceramics to scare off additional bidders.
Attending a show like MODern Market is a delightful way to connect with others who can throw around terms like "biomorphic" and "streamline moderne," and drop the names of designers, architects, and artists with joyful abandon. When Don Emmite talked about his built-in GE wall refrigerator in "cadet blue," everyone nodded approvingly. Not that any of us had any idea what shade cadet blue was, but the very name evoked an era when even quotidian objects deserved fabulous colors with sensational names. We all want to live in that world.
Even so, I will confess to a little melancholy. Much as I enjoy my new haunts and my Texas finds, I miss my beloved Red Wing Pottery. More precisely, I miss the abundance of Red Wing in the Upper Midwest. Go into any thrift or antique shop from the Dakotas to Wisconsin, and you can find at least one or two planters, perhaps some plates, almost certainly an assortment of Bob White. The better shops will have art pottery, figurines, and pouring pieces. Here in Texas, my heart flutters a little when I see even something so common as a Katrina cookie jar or a Capistrano platter. It's just not as common here.
As a result, I have taken a shine to a few new collectibles. (If you can't be with the one you love...) I am giving you, gentle reader, a preview of these new obsessions interests in the photos below, but in the coming weeks I will aim to write features about them. (This, by the way, is less for your suspense than for my motivation - it's been hard finding the energy to write given some changes in my work life of late.) I hope you will tune in again when I return.
Four and a half years ago, I blogged about my enthusiasm for Interplay Fine China by Iroquois. Dinnerware scholar Michael Pratt had recently found period documentation definitively attributing the line to Russel Wright. Collectors were resistant to this information, but I rejoiced. I enjoyed the pieces of Interplay in my collection, and it pleased me to know that they shared a lineage with American Modern, Casual China, and Wright's other tabletop designs.
Now, 54 months later, a post on the Facebook page for The Designs of Russel and Mary Wright has opened up the "controversy" again.
What seems peculiar to me is the hostility with which some collectors regard the very idea that Wright could have had anything to do with Interplay, denying accounts in The New York Times and trade publications of the day. When a curator in a museum finds documentation that a previously unattributed painting is by a famous painter, resistance usually gives way to curiosity and excitement. How thrilling to have a new work to add to our understanding of the artist's career, the evolution of his or her style.
I won't try to persuade anyone here that Interplay is a Wright design. (But it is.) Instead, I want to go a little deeper into why I admire the line. I consider it to be a line that makes concessions to consumer taste while pushing dinnerware design forward.
1) The line, in its conception, blends solid colors -- charcoal and golden melon -- with patterns -- Arabesque, Fleur-de-lis, and Woodvine. (My table setting above lacks any patterned dinner plates, substituting Casual China plates in oyster gray.) Whether you are a fan of the patterns (I love Arabesque, I loathe Woodvine), I hope you might concede that they coordinate with the solids beautifully. On a fine white china ground, the patterns incorporate charcoal and melon with an unexpected pop of brilliant red.
2) Speaking of that fine china, it really is quite wonderful: thinner and more translucent than Casual China, but equally durable and resistant to chips and breaks. It feels like fancy china, which must have appealed to homemakers in 1953.
3) The shape of the cup seems to address critiques of the iconic, but impractical, American Modern cup. In Eva Zeisel: Designer for Industry, Zeisel shows how a person must tip her head back unnaturally in order to drain an American Modern cup. The Interplay cups, both the teacup and the demitasse, gracefully flare out at the rim, allowing for easy drinking. (To be critical, I will say that I do not find the handles especially comfortable to hold, and the cups do not stack for storage.)
4) The sherbet bowl is a quirky and playful form, with a function not found in other Wright lines. It makes me think of a trumpet made of marshmallow. The shape of the bowl practically demands that you pile whip cream atop your frozen dessert and plop a cherry on it.
5) When I last wrote about Interplay, I heralded the beverage server. I still think of it as the showpiece of the line. It's gorgeous. (It won the Good Design award in 1953.) I photographed it below with a Highlight cup because I feel a kinship between the aesthetics of the two objects: the muted glaze, the fluid curves. But I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything.
The first time I met Russel Wright's Sterling China ashtray, I was in Stillwater, Minnesota, in an antique shop on Main Street that no longer exists. It was a terrific shop -- three floors of everything from Carol Eppel's gorgeous arts & crafts furniture to "country" antiques, vintage kitsch to modern dishware.
Up on the third floor was a wire shelf that held a variety of plates, cups, and saucers. I passed that rack on previous visits, but rarely looked closely. That day, though, a peculiar yellow shape caught my eye. It stopped me in my tracks. What, I thought, is that? It drew me toward it like I was an iron filing and it was a supermagnet. I picked it up and held it to the light. Its form demanded to be touched and understood. Looking like a 3-D version of a Georgia O'Keefe lily pad, the piece was tactile and sensual, and the smooth yellow glaze was lovely in the light that streamed in from the window to my left. I didn't understand what it was. What was it for? Why did the rim undulate like that? What was that alarmingly suggestive groove all about?
Marked "Sterling China Russel Wright" underneath, I was surprised to see Wright's name. This was early in my collecting, before I had Ann Kerr's book. I really only knew of American Modern and Casual China at that time. It was marked $55. I put it back. $55 was a lot for a weird little dish that I didn't understand. But oh, how that shape had insinuated itself into my brain.
Years later, I read Kerr's book, and the instant I saw a picture of the piece, I regretted ever putting that dish back down. I should have bought it. $55 was a bargain, now that I understood the design! It was a restaurant ware ashtray. The undulating rim was where you would rest your cigarette. The groove was for a matchbook!
And even more functional than that, it was part of Wright's clever design solution to the problem of how restaurant ware often needed to be stacked. The groove actually helps multiple ashtrays stack neatly:
The design was brilliant. I immediately launched a quest to get one in every color. And the colors! Straw - a vibrant, sunshiny yellow; cedar - a mottled rusty brown; ivy - a deep, blue-tinged green; and suede, a subtle, sexy grey. It almost makes you sad that smoking has gone out of style.
I have heard of other collectors who have repurposed the ashtray. They lay chopsticks across the rim and use the dish for soy sauce when serving sushi. I prefer a use more closely aligned with its original function: as an underplate for a pillar candle. You can still keep matches tucked in the groove.
Those of you who follow my thrift store escapades on Facebook might not believe me, but I really am trying to scale down my collection. I've sold a lot on Etsy and eBay, and a week ago I participated in a garage sale with The Modfather. Boxes of stuff have, like Elvis, left the building, but an embarrassing mass of crap exquisite mid-century designs still clutters our little corner of Glen Meadow Estates.
My new guidelines for making a purchase are: 1) is this an essential item that will enrich my life and contribute to a well-curated collection? and 2) can I easily sell this on Etsy for at least double what I'm paying for it? You'd be surprised how much still slips through those filters, but it's considerably less than before.
Impressive in scale, the Queen (which goes with a companion King vase) reminds me of Camelot, with its distinctly mid-century depiction of medieval royalty. While I would have preferred a solid glaze-- any color -- to the Fleck Nile Blue of this example, the Queen is rare enough that any glaze is desirable. (Plus, the interior is Colonial Buff, a hue I find especially pleasing with Fleck Nile Blue.) Whenever I have come across a Queen in the past, one or more of the points of her crown has been damaged. This one is flawless. Now she joins my Belle Kogan Cowgirl figurine in the Red Wing singles club, awaiting her mate.
This weekend was the semiannual glass show at the Grapevine Convention Center. With a trip to New Orleans coming up (weather willing), Paul urged frugality. I came up with a list of three lines I would allow myself to buy: Heisey Stanhope, Morgantown El Mexicano, and Fostoria Modern Primitive (Inca, Congo, or Karnak). (Yes, I cheated on that last one, but all three shapes were advertised collectively, so I can make a case should Paul bring me to court.) I came across one piece of Stanhope - a round covered candy dish with a red Plascon knob. It was in immaculate condition, but it wasn't the piece of my dreams. The shape was a little dull. I passed on it. With no Modern Primitives in sight, El Mex was my last resort, and the lovely lady at The Glass Chalet had a spectacular Ockner Pitcher in Ice for me. The opaque glass is stunning - a nice complement to my growing collection in both Ice and Seaweed.
Now, one way to clear out your cupboards without paying Etsy fees is to start breaking glass for no apparent reason, which I did not once but twice this weekend. First, I clumsily tipped a Nambe alloy vase into a recent estate sale purchase, a stoppered glass decanter I called my "Jeannie bottle." The darn thing shattered as if Beverly Sills had hit a high E in the kitchen. I still have no idea what the piece was or what it was worth, but I was sorry to see it go.
Then tonight, just after photographing it, I managed to knock a rare Russel Wright "Twist" old fashioned glass off my desk. It happened in slow motion, first tipping over and dousing our Schnauzer Charlie in bourbon. Then, as Charlie ran away, shaking Knob Creek all over the rug, the glass tumbled off the desk and shattered on the floor. If there were a Guinness Book of World Records category for "Most Consecutive Cuss Words Shouted at an Alarming Volume," I would have nailed it. You'd see my picture right there next to Chang and Eng and the peculiar gentleman with the extraordinarily long curly fingernails. Say goodbye to this little gem. The saddest part is, I hadn't yet sipped from the glass. I even lost the bourbon in this fatality.
If necessity is the mother of invention, a shortage of vermouth is the eccentric aunt of many a cocktail. Not too long ago, without a drop of sweet vermouth in the house, I wondered what to do with the bourbon and the maraschino cherries. I came up with a simple, refreshing summer cooler: The Bitter Canadian. Here's how you make one:
In the photograph, the drink is modeled in an Old Morgantown El Mexicano 5", 10 oz water glass in the opaque white "Ice" color.
Try making one and let me know what you think! And I promise Scott Lindberg: no crinkle glass next time.
Today, Paul and I adopted Charlie, an adorable 4-year-old from Miniature Schnazuer Rescue of North Texas. So far, Charlie and Murphy have been best of pals, and he is cuddly and affectionate. Charlie's a touch on the chubby side big-boned, but a week or two palling around with The Beast will whip him into shape.
I've felt like celebrating all day, so I thought I would take this occasion to start a series I've been thinking about for a while: festive adult beverages served in mid-century modern glassware.
Today, it reached 101 in Dallas, so I could hardly even muster the will to shake a martini. I simply cracked open a bottle Warsteiner beer and decanted it into one of the Old Morgantown "Crinkle" hollow-stem pilsners I picked from City Square Thrift Shop the other day. What could be more easily refreshing? The entire contents of one bottle didn't quite fill the enormous glass, which was made to accommodate a pint.
I'm sipping my West German brew as I type, and Charlie, asleep on the hall rug, makes little grunting noises. Believe it or not, this makes me happier than finding a pair of Schmoos in a thrift shop. Bliss!
Something told me to stop at the thrift on the way home. So glad I listened to that little voice! I snagged the following: