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Prairie School Pottery

Curator Jon Vanco: "In my conventional view of art history, modern art came from Europe to America in 1913 . . . Yet here it was fully blown a decade earlier--and not even imported, but homegrown in Chicago."

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At the turn of the century, some Chicago architects took time off from designing buildings to try their hands at designing pots. Working with terra-cotta manufacturer William Day Gates, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, William LeBaron Jenney, and George Elmslie, among others, helped create the distinctive vases, garden planters, and lamp bases known as Teco pottery. The architects used some of these pieces in their own buildings; others were sold by dealers throughout the country. Ignored for years, they are now back in fashion, and through February 14 the Chicago Historical Society is hosting an exhibition of more than 100 pieces by these and other artists.

John Vanco, who organized the exhibition, says he was "amazed" by the "impressively powerful expression of modernist form" when he first saw a 1904 catalog of Teco pieces. "In my conventional view of art history, modern art came from Europe to America in 1913 by way of the Armory Show. Yet here it was fully blown a decade earlier--and not even imported, but home-grown in Chicago." It would never have happened without William Day Gates and his farm.

Gates didn't start out as a maker of terra-cotta, let alone pottery. The son of the largest landholding family in McHenry County, he attended Wheaton College and Chicago College of Law, then began to practice law in Chicago. But he "hated the law, absolutely hated it," says his great-granddaughter Jessie Benton Evans. On the other hand, he loved the countryside, nature, art, people--and clay. In 1880, at age 28, Gates used an inheritance to buy farmland and an old feed mill near Crystal Lake.

One day, so the family story goes, Gates was walking over his property when he happened upon a large deposit of clay. He dug up a sample, made a small object, and fired it in an improvised kiln. The result inspired him to try producing clay materials commercially--in particular using terra-cotta, a red-colored clay just beginning to be used in architecture.

Whether through shrewdness or serendipity, Gates chose a good time to get involved with clay. Chicago was booming and still rebuilding after the fire of 1871. Terra-cotta was fireproof, versatile (different glazes could change its color and surface texture), and easier to work with and less expensive than stone. Within a few years it would cover and decorate the exteriors of buildings from movie theaters and stores to skyscrapers like the Wrigley Building.

While still practicing law in Chicago, Gates refitted the feed mill on his rural property to grind clay. He built a cluster of large beehive-shaped kilns, and began firing bricks, drain tile for farmers, and some garden ornaments and architectural pieces like chimney pots. By 1886 he had quit his law practice. Even though an 1887 fire destroyed much of his factory, Gates's American Terra Cotta Company continued to prosper.

But those early years were not easy. "If my prophetic eye could have caught a glimmer of all the tedious and baffling experiments; of the trials and failures; of the days and nights of toil and worry--yes, the weeks and years--I should have quit so quickly that the customary 'dull thud' would be the only descriptive term," Gates wrote to the editor of the Clay Record in 1892.

One suspects a slight twinkle in his eye as he complained, however. "Gates thrived on experimentation and challenges," writes Sharon Darling in the historical society's exhibition catalog. "Indeed, . . . his 'tedious and baffling experiments' would soon lead him to produce the art pottery known as Teco ware, for which he is best remembered today."

When large terra-cotta items like garden urns or chimney pots are loaded into a kiln for firing, odd-shaped empty spaces are left over--bad business, since hot air makes no profit. This itself may have led Gates to think about making something small to chink those spaces. But he also enjoyed "puttering" with clay, and his young chemists (including, by the late 1890s, his two older sons) were developing new and interesting glazes. Why not do something no one else was doing--use these talents to produce "art pottery" that could be fired along with the architectural pieces at little extra cost?

In 1899, almost 20 years after he began his clay works, Gates announced that "the company has been experimenting, in a small way, with the manufacture of pottery ware. . . . [A] profitable business may be developed in pottery production, and the manufacture of this ware will give employment to their men during the dull seasons in the building trade."

A number of small art potteries had sprung up (and disappeared) in Chicago during the 1880s, beginning with the Pauline Pottery, started by Pauline Jacobus in 1882. But Gates didn't want his ware to be more of the same. Gates gave the new pottery its own name, Teco ("te" for terra, "co" for cotta), and its own division of his company--Gates Potteries. A plaque over the factory entrance proclaimed "a new high art pottery."

Teco was indeed different from the ornate, highly decorated Victorian wares. No painted bouquets or pastoral scenes here, but strong, simple forms covered with a satiny green matte glaze like weathered copper. ("Pleasing and velvety to the eye and to the touch," wrote Gates; this glaze became known as "Teco green.") Gates used classical shapes such as Grecian urns, but modified them with architectural features like buttresses and piers, which, in Darling's words, "intentionally or not, reflected his involvement in the building trades."

While Gates's American Terra Cotta Company continued to produce architectural materials, he turned his most intense attention to Teco ware.

Gates wanted Teco to be more than a way to make money, more than a means of providing steady employment for his workers, more even than art. He wanted his pieces to be functional as well as beautiful, and to be inexpensive enough that many people could afford them--for he believed that something lovely in a home would uplift those who lived there. (A Teco ad would tout "a certain moral quality in both the substance and outline of Teco. To have it always nearby is to feel a chaste refreshment of the spirit when harassed by the trials of daily life.") Gates wanted to bring that same quality to his factory, to have his workers content and proud of what they made. "Clayworking," he wrote, led not only to the making of clay wares but to the making of men as well."

These ideas--the unity of fine and "domestic" art; the unity of beauty and function; the importance of craftsmanship, natural materials, simple style; the moral quality of beauty; and the dignity of work--did not originate with Gates. They were all part of the Arts and Crafts Movement. This new wave began in England in the 1880s as a revolt against both the pedantic distinctions of the Royal Academy (which maintained, for instance, that painting was art but that pottery was not), and the dangers of the Industrial Revolution (which the rebels saw as degrading to work, nature, the workers themselves, and the goods they produced). The more radical members of the movement, like John Ruskin, looked toward a transformation of society through craftsmanship: "It is only by labor that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labor can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity. It would be well if all of us were craftsmen of some kind, and the dishonor of manual labor done away with altogether."

Such egalitarian and free-spirited ideals found a ready home in some circles in the United States, and Arts and Crafts societies sprang up around the country. They weren't made up only of artists. "When the Chicago Arts and Crafts Society was founded at Hull House in 1897," writes Darling, "it claimed 140 charter members, including crafts workers, artists, social workers, professors, political reformers, and numerous architects. . . . Although not listed as a charter member, Gates later served as the Society's president." Other similar local societies soon followed: the William Morris League, the Industrial Art League, the Illinois Art League.

Gates's Teco pottery gave Arts and Crafts ideas a particularly American twist. The British artists distrusted capitalism and looked back to medieval times as a golden age of craftsmanship; but Gates wanted to humanize factory work, not do away with it. He didn't despise technical advances like casting in molds, spraying glazes, and large-scale firings. And he wanted to use mass production--not to produce shoddy goods, but to put things of beauty within everyone's reach. He priced his vases as low as 50 cents (although larger and more elaborate pieces ran as high as $1,200--for seven-foot-tall "vases" designed by Gates himself). "It is my earnest desire," he wrote, "to put in each and every home a vase of my make . . . that I can so feel that I have, in this way, done something lasting and have contributed to the homes and happiness of my generation."

While mass production made sense for both monetary and missionary reasons, Gates Potteries was neither a sweatshop nor a strict assembly-line operation where jobs were broken down into simple repetitive tasks. Gates wanted his workers to care about their jobs, and the production of Teco ware was the work of skilled craftspeople. Each piece carried the name of its designer, as well as the Teco stamp. The designer thought up a piece--but often executed it only on paper. Someone then had to create it in clay. Someone else would make the two-piece plaster molds to reproduce the piece. Once the piece had been cast, someone had to finish the work by hand: removing mold marks and sometimes adding pieces, like long decorative leaf forms, too complex to be fashioned in molds. Chemists created new glazes and combinations of clay ingredients. Other workers applied the glazes by spray gun, stacked ware into the large kilns, and oversaw the firing--a major task, which sometimes took as long as two weeks. And a critical one--if something went wrong in the firing, the preceding work was ruined.

All this activity took place, not in some sooty industrial district, but in the McHenry County countryside. (Most of the workers came from Crystal Lake, or from the little village of Terra Cotta that grew up near the factory.) Potter and writer Susan Frackleton described the place in 1905: "The potteries are beautifully situated in a picturesque valley, amid delightful surroundings of wood, field, and lake. Mr. Gates firmly believes that . . . one must have enthusiasm for his work to give it individuality and charm, hence the beautiful lily ponds built and stocked with rare aquatic plants near the clear, little lake, and the profusion of flowers cultivated round about."

Gates later wrote, "You might have thought it a queer place to build a factory. Perhaps it was. If it were only a factory, you were right. . . . We built, not a factory, but a place in which to create beautiful ware--the product of the skilled hands of craftsmen--and the setting has a tremendous influence on work. . . . Atmosphere is a much abused word, but there is such a thing, and we have it."

Gates's attitude toward his workers (who called him "Mr. G") had a paternal flavor that seems out of date today: he sponsored a Teco marching band, encouraged a cooperative meat market, and sold employees coal at cost--he also fired a worker who tried to unionize the factory.

When Gates blended his own ideas and creative energies with the talents of Prairie School architects, Teco pottery became something truly remarkable. A gregarious fellow, Gates had met them through his business in terra-cotta building materials, and also at the Chicago Architectural Club, which rented a room at the Art Institute. Later he and they were members of a more general arts club, the Cliff Dwellers. Gates became particularly close friends with Louis Sullivan, and gave Sullivan free office space in the last difficult years of his life.

Not surprisingly, Teco ware was closely associated with architects from its very beginning. It first officially appeared as an "exhibit of art pottery" in the Chicago Architectural Club's 1900 exhibition. Teco's strongly structured forms were a good match for Prairie School homes, with their clean lines, natural materials, and emphasis on form rather than surface decoration. At first, the architects advised Gates on his designs, but by 1901 they were designing pots themselves. "Within a year," writes Darling, "this group had designed as many as 150 shapes, and by 1904 it had created nearly 300." Of the 22 known designers of Teco ware, 15 were architects, and their designs would carry Teco pottery through the next couple of decades, the rest of its production life.

Their pieces (vases, lamp stands, and urns) incorporated strong, flowing lines with structured piers that could be either severely geometric or use organic motifs like pond lilies, cattails, sumac, or more generalized leaves and tendrils. In Jardiniere No. 106 by Hugh Garden, for instance, vertical reed shapes swoop from the base to the scalloped rim of the pot, giving it grace and lightness without becoming fussy.

Lack of fussiness was something the Prairie School architects strove for in their revolt against Victorian ornament and clutter. Just as they saw decoration as part of form, they considered the insides and outsides of their buildings to be all of a piece. Frank Lloyd Wright was probably the most vehement of the architects in his desire to have what went into his houses blend with the total design: "The very chairs and tables, cabinets, and even musical instruments, wherever practical, are of the building itself, never fixtures in it," he wrote. He designed with Gates several site-specific works--including a large stand for the Lawrence-Dana house in Springfield, and a recently rediscovered skyscraper-shaped vase for Unity Temple in Oak Park, which is displayed in the historical society exhibit. In addition, at least one of Wright's vases (No. 330) was mass-produced and sold for $30 through the Teco catalog.

Although the majority of Teco designers were architects, and although Gates himself designed the largest number of forms, some of the most distinctive works were created by two European sculptors: Fritz Albert and Fernand Moreau. Both had come to Chicago to work at the 1893 World's Fair, and both were later hired by Gates. Their forms tended to be more delicate and naturalistic than those of the architects, reflecting the influence of French Art Nouveau and its elegant plantlike shapes. In one particularly lovely piece by Albert (Vase No. 192) displayed at the historical society, long iris leaves twist and swirl upward to touch the lips of the slender vase. All this gives the piece more lightness and movement than Garden's similar treatment of his jardiniere.

Gates displayed his Teco wares at the Saint Louis World's Fair of 1904, in "a stunning art-glass pavilion . . . lit by Teco lamps with shades of Japanese grass cloth or leaded glass especially designed to enhance the shapes of the pottery," writes Darling. The display was accompanied by special promotional pamphlets on Teco. In 1907, Marshall Field & Company featured a special exhibition of Teco, including 514 different designs. Meanwhile, Gates ran advertisements in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens, and sold his ware through dealerships in cities throughout the country and even in Europe.

And yet, while all this marketing and promotion was going on, the bubbling up of creative designs that had marked Teco in the first four years of the century had virtually ended. There were some minor design additions, and in 1909 a major expansion of glaze colors in golds, browns, grays, and rose to supplement the "Teco green." But after 1912, Gates made no design changes. He was 60 years old. In the past decade he had gone through a divorce and remarriage. Moreau and Albert had left to work for his competitor, Northwest Terra Cotta. He was planning to retire.

But although Gates's energies may have been turning away from clay, he continued to have a lively interest in other things. His humor and fund of good stories kept him in demand as a banquet speaker. He wrote monthly "Buttonhole Talks" for the Clay-Worker (a terra-cotta industry journal)--essays that had little to do with clay but rather were parables about the values and tribulations of modern life. And he always carried a sketchbook with him, says his great-granddaughter: "He was always sketching people--characters. He had a sort of Dickensian view of people."

Meanwhile, Teco pottery continued to be produced and sold until World War I, but only sporadically thereafter. The company magazine, Common Clay, was already lackadaisical and nostalgic in 1920: "Teco--that choice pottery still charms. . . . We make it only for our friends and its lovers. It isn't on the market in any ordinary sense of the term. We burn it every once in awhile when we get to the stage when we just must."

Gates retired from American Terra Cotta in 1913, returned in 1915 to rescue it from financial difficulties, and retired for the second and last time in 1927, shortly before the depression devastated the company. "I enjoyed it all thoroughly," Gates wrote in a November 1934 issue of the Crystal Lake Herald, "but apparently lacked judgment and didn't have adhesive fingers, the money just slipped through them. I did retain friendships that remain. Now I am old--past 82--most of the friends have finished their course, and, to me, their places are vacant. A new generation has succeeded them, a generation that does not know me and that I know not. Times have changed and I am just a has been." He died two months later.

A little Teco pottery continued to be sold through the 1930s, from a smaller, reorganized company under new owners. The vases, lamp bases, and garden urns from 20 or 30 years earlier continued to decorate American homes. But the aesthetic and moral fervor that had inspired a Teco ad to boast of "the most serious contribution that America has yet made to the eternal art of the world" was gone.

Gates's great-granddaughter Jessie Benton Evans remembers a large number of Teco vases sitting around the inn in Arizona owned by her grandparents, Gates's daughter and son-in-law. But she didn't think they were anything special. "We didn't pay much attention to them."

Within the past ten years or so Teco has again become well-known, at least in art-collecting circles. About 250 people came to the historical society one day in November to hear Sharon Darling talk about Teco. The society owns the largest institutional collection of Teco pottery anywhere. But its pieces make up only a quarter of the current exhibit of more than 100 works. They and the others were gathered by people who were struck by its design in the 1970s, before it was fashionable again--people like Darling, former historical society curator Marty O'Connor, John Vanco of the Erie (Pennsylvania) Art Museum, and independent art dealer Todd Volpe.

Undoubtedly, there are still more Teco vases stuck away in attics and cupboards. The show itself may help bring some of them into the open, says curator Robert Goler. One such piece has already appeared: a woman brought to the museum a large round vase adorned with arrowroot leaves and pond lilies--it turned out to have been designed by Chicago architect William Dodd.

In recent years prices for Teco have soared, so that a small vase originally costing three or four dollars can now bring over $200, with major pieces worth as much as $30,000. Art pottery in general has become very expensive, says Darling, and there's more interest in the Prairie School architects. "The irony is that Gates wanted to make something any person could own."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Lowry, courtesy Chicago Historical Society.

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