Icons, Aesthetics, and Commerce

The phrase commercial art pottery isn’t quite an oxymoron, but the relationship between commerce and art is at best complex and often at odds.  Still, some companies have tried to produce and sell pottery that has aesthetic value beyond the most basic utilitarian purpose.  In most cases, companies have found it difficult or impossible to create art pottery that has long term economic success.

Ruscha shape 313 and Scheurich shape 271 would be two notable exceptions, but they took rather different roads to becoming icons of W. German pottery.

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Shape 313 was designed by Kurt Tschörner, introduced in 1954 and produced (with variations) until Ruscha closed.  Shape 271 was designed by Heinz Siery, introduced in 1959 and produced at least into the 90s.

Although 313 was one of the early, defining shapes in the W. German era, it’s not really accurate to call it a “new” form.  Indeed, all forms are variations on what’s known, what’s been done, but Tschörner took what had been done and introduced further exaggerations and turned a utilitarian shape into sculpture.  Line, form, and proportion were matched to create a form that was at once bold and whimsical, sleek in line but determined and strong with that forward-thrusting “mouth”.

And the form was clearly a success with the early decors of Milano, Domino, and others.  There were, however, just as clearly some conflicts between design and production, which meant conflict between art and commerce.  This is revealed by changes in the form.  There are at least three shape versions of 313, possibly more.  The differences between the first and last versions are clear, with the last version being more upright, less exaggerated, and generally sturdier, thicker in design.

However, there are more subtle design changes that can only be seen with close, side by side comparisons, and it’s not yet clear if there were several gradual changes or if several small changes were made at once before the more radical changes proved necessary.  One of the early changes can be seen in the handle, particularly where the top meets the body.  The earliest production featured a rather thin, elegant handle, but this strategic point was soon thickened.

This suggests that the original design was too fragile and perhaps too included too many problematic angles.  Every pottery item faces several difficult hurdles, starting with simply coming out of the mold cleanly, then enduring time drying, firing, being handled multiple times by cleaners, decorators, and packers.  It appears likely that the very first version had issues at several or all of these points.

(It’s worth noting that some early versions were made with dark red/brown clay.  These tend to be even smaller with finer lines than the usual white/buff clay items.  The same has been true with other Ruscha shape comparisons, so it appears to be a quality of the clay itself.  Why they didn’t use it more often is unknown.)

In a sense, Ruscha 313 was designed for the aesthetics and adapted for economics, caught in the gap between desire and reality, theory and practice,  a victim of its success.  By comparison, Scheurich 271 was designed with an eye to the commercial and other practical aspects from the beginning.

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The form has many of the elements already established as part of the 1950s style, slanted top, angular handle, and waisted body, in this case a convex waist.  However, none of the elements are particularly exaggerated, and the ratios are all whole numbers, pleasing but safe, no challenge to the eye or mind.  The result is distinctive without being different.

That makes it a definitive product for Scheurich.  While some companies seemed to focus on forms, Scheurich focused on glazes.  The “best” Scheurich forms are the ones that act as displays for the glaze.  The form is good and pleasing but doesn’t take the eye away from the glaze.  The average Scheurich form is just that, average.  Many are bland or even poorly proportioned, but shapes are more than anything else….numerous.

Scheurich often did minor variations on a form over the years to produce a mind-boggling number of shapes, sometimes with the same number.  That makes 271 particularly unusual in the Schuerich line because it kept the same shape and the same number for decades.

Ruscha 313 began with a focus on the aesthetic element that proved difficult to maintain, and this was perhaps a sign that Tschörner wasn’t as well-versed in pottery as he was in glass.  Otherwise, he might have taken the problems into account the way Siery did with Scheurich 271.  However, that would have meant never have the original or slightly modified forms of 313, which would be a great loss.  And it may well have been the success of the form that forced Ruscha to increase production, so that the success of the original aesthetics made the commercial aspect more important……causing the diminishing of the aesthetics in the eventual, longest lasting version of 313.

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So Ruscha 313 and Scheurich 271 took different approaches, although both were attempts to create some balance between aesthetics and commercial production.  Both were successful enough to allow the companies to experiment, and for commercial potteries, there is no success without commercial success.  And the commercial successes allow companies to try out lines that may flop, may become icons, or may find themselves in that middle ground.  As with philosophy, so it is with art pottery, and there is much to say for finding a balance on the middle road.

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