Items we’ve previously sold shown here to help people get to know W. German pottery. To see Bay items currently for sale, click here. (Page will open in a new tab.)
An Introduction to East and West German Pottery Volcanic Glazes
Long before most people had noticed West German pottery, a few German sellers on eBay used the phrase “fat lava” to describe the unusually thick, often flowing glazes on some items. Based on that usage, the term appears to have been a slight mistranslation, shifting “thick” to “fat”, with thick meaning depth, or how much the glaze rises above the surface of the clay, not a matter of viscosity.
A few years later, Graham Cooley held an exhibition using fat lava as part of the title, and Mark Hill published the expanded exhibition catalog Fat Lava, which brought the phrase to wider attention, and the phrase was fun enough to catch on, perhaps too well. Soon, people were equating fat lava with all mid century modern German pottery, but the reality is that only a small sub-group fits the term, and many of the finest works are not fat lava at all.
I’m attempting to bring a degree of regularity to the usage by defining some of the terms so we can discuss both the larger category and sub categories with more precision. It’s rather tricky because there are a number of terms that can mean different things, and the variety in the glazes is enormous, so please be patient as I sort through the variables.
Quite often, a fat lava glaze runs down over another glaze. In broader terms, this is a drip glaze, and it’s been used for a long time. In American art pottery, drip glazes are probably best known on Fulper Pottery or some Roseville lines, such as Carnelian. Excellent drip glazes were also done by Belgian and French potteries in the early 20th century. On these earlier versions, there is little or no difference in the thicknesses of the top and bottom glazes, so one type of fat lava glaze is a drip glaze, but it’s only fat lava if one of the glazes involved is “thick” enough.
Color is in no way involved in whether or not a glaze should be called fat lava. There are many fiery orange and red glazes on mid century German pottery, often suggesting the color of hot lava. Some of these glazes have a flowing or drip quality as well, but it remains thickness that’s a defining characteristic. If it’s not “fat”, it’s not fat lava.
On the other hand, there are many “fat” glazes in colors that look nothing like lava, hot or cold. If we start using color as a distinguishing characteristic, then we have to start coming up with so many different names that communication becomes even more difficult than usual. So we’re better off calling a thick, flowing white glaze fat lava even when it doesn’t quite make sense in some respects. Like so many things, language is based on compromise.
The proper use of certain ingredients can cause controlled (somewhat) gaseous explosions in the glaze, producing holes of different types. These are called volcanic glazes. One of the best known creators of volcanic glazes is Otto Natzler, who came to the US from Austria with his wife Gertrud in 1938. By coming to the US, Natzler was able to continue his glaze experiments at a time when all art was increasing repressed in Germany. As a result of that repression and the war, it was about 1965 before German companies began producing volcanic glazes.
Many of the mid century German volcanic glazes are also quite thick, but it’s also possible to make fairly thin volcanic glazes (which describes most of the Natzler glazes). So a volcanic glaze will always be visually suggestive of lava (or the moon), but not all volcanic glazes are fat. The texture of a volcanic glaze can also vary with large or small craters and sharp or smooth edges. Gramann(Töpferei Römhild) made some of the best, flowing fat lava glazes, but they also made many volcanic glazes that are relatively thin with small, tightly controlled craters.
One of the most common uses of volcanic glazes is actually in applied designs, usually with a fairly fine, pumice-like glaze. However, even though these designs are thicker than the primary glaze, the difference is often not very extreme, so whether or not these qualify as fat is variable. Still, since there’s no point in trying to establish a precise measurement for at what point a glaze becomes “fat”, most of them can probably be called fat lava. Indeed many or most of the items in the first Fat Lava exhibition and catalog were simply fat lava “detailed” with only a small part of the surface covered in the namesake glaze. I expect that we’ll eventually establish a sub-category for such items. Volcanic glazes often have little or no “flow” to them, but given the texture a thick volcanic glaze should certainly qualify as fat lava. In fact, the fat lava volcanic glazes probably significantly outnumber the fat lava drip glazes, and the volcanic is probably the more accurate term, while fat lava happens to be more fun.
Some companies named glazes “Vulkano” (Volcano) or “Lava”, so we need to be careful with our usage and distinguish between official glaze names and the other uses of the words.
Take note that not all fat lava volcanic glazes are German. Also, there are companies that use lava pieces in the glaze or decoration. While in a technical sense these are volcanic and lava, we need to use terms carefully. These probably shouldn’t be called fat lava, and the use of volcanic should be made clear in the context of any discussion.
Obviously, my only “authority” for saying what should or shouldn’t be called fat lava comes only from observation and experience, and there will always be disagreements about language. Still, I hope this will get people to think about both what they see and what they say and appreciate the value of precision in both. The world opens up in fascinating new ways each time we learn to see a little more clearly and in a little more depth. As many have said before me, the world doesn’t really exist until an artist makes us see it, but we have to learn to do some of the work when the art calls to us.
Like many people, I first got hooked on West German pottery more like a magpie than a real collector, eyes caught by the bright colors. Eventually, I got to know the forms and a wider variety of glazes, becoming amazed by the range and depth, the variety surpassing any other art pottery field. Still, what came to impress me most of all was the history, the art as social commentary, flourishing under conditions that might well have crushed the creative spirit or, at the very least, turned it onto a dark, depressing path. Instead, the result was a 30 year period of unmatched creativity in the art pottery industry, often with a strong sense of whimsy and an insistence on a positive outlook, art as therapy on a massive scale.
The land and the people had already been ravaged by WWI, leaving scars and holes both physical and emotional, as well as literal and metaphorical. The world changed, and artists, already re-visualizing the world before the war, insisted that art must change. Things could not, should not be viewed or thought of in the same, insufficient way. By 1917, Marcel Duchamp had “told” his visual pun with a urinal, and non-representational movements, Dadaism, Surrealism, Cubism, and others grew stronger, sometimes darker, more challenging, and more aggressive.
But the postwar power vacuum and economic problems helped Hitler and the Nazi party rise. They were certainly darker and more aggressive, and they didn’t like challenging art. Repression began early, and in many respects, Germany itself was the first country conquered by the Nazis. By the time WWII ended, the art world in Germany, like much of the culture and people, had endured over two decades of increasing repression, topped off by the destruction brought on by the Nazi aggression.
By 1947, Picasso was working with ceramics in France, while in Italy mid century modern designs were appearing in both pottery and glass, but German designers, almost as if the country’s central location acted as a magnet, pulled inspiration from all around, generating a breadth and depth almost beyond imagining. Much of the early post-war pottery looked a lot like the pre-war pottery, which is no surprise, and some of these lines continued through much of the 1950s. However, once freed, the creative spirit that had been repressed and punished, but not broken, rose and blossomed.
Rosenthal was working with asymmetry and slight exaggeration in their porcelain as early as 1950, but I mark 1954 as the dawning of the golden era of W. German pottery because Ruscha introduced two eventual icons, the 313 shape by Kurt Tschörner and the Milano decor by Cilli Wörsdörfer. They captured much of what would be the dominant design elements for the 1950s and into the early 60s.
The 313 began with a jug-form that was exaggerated into an elegant, whimsical shape with a profile suggesting forward motion and determination, particularly in that lip and neck, like a jaw jutting forth. Many of the other forms from that era would be based on jugs or pitchers/ewers, a form also common in earlier pottery, but now the shapes became playful, with exaggerated handles, twisted bodies, ballooning bellies, and a general movement from physical utility toward aesthetic motility and utility. The concept of form follows function was transformed into form is function as designers created turned everyday items into sculpture, making aesthetics part of the household more than ever before.
Many of the decors, including Milano/Domino and into the Bodo Mans era at Bay with Paris, Rheims and others, echoed the Art Deco era but also were part of the larger art movement away from traditional representational art toward geometric abstracts. And the representational motifs (Reiher/heron) tended to show either Oriental influences or were simplified, playful images (Fische/fish, the Keto version of Paris) Some included influence from Cubism and other movements that had roots before the war (Torero from Ruscha). The stems may have been chopped by Nazi repression, but the roots survived to grow again.
The Ruscha version of “Paris” was something of an exception. Even though it was also from Hanns Welling, the same designer who created a similar but light and playful “Paris” for Keto, the Ruscha version had an underlying darker commentary. The three primary elements of the motif are the streetlight, the cat, and the young woman. Some versions became more suggestive with the addition of a young man, and there’s a less common version that labels one of the buildings in the background as “Hotel” just in case anyone wasn’t sure of the suggestions in less overt versions.
In the early 1960’s designs began moving from the organic, whimsical forms toward more angular looks and sharper edges, as seen in “Tunis” and related designs for Bay by Bodo Mans as early as 1960. Variations and exaggerations that might prove troublesome when being removed from the mold were minimized or eliminated, making it possible to produce more items faster and cheaper. At the same time, the amount of hand work in the decoration diminished. Designs such as “Rheims” and “Paris” by Bay and “Milano/Domino” by Ruscha required skilled hands, and you can see a sloppiness, especially in some of the Bay lines, that may have indicated less-skilled (less expensive) decorators were being used, or pressure was increasing to get more items done.
And the popular “engobe” designs such as “Maske” and “Paris” from Ruscha, and those from Keto and Kiechle required a skilled hand to incise the basic design pattern through the black glaze plus someone to apply the enamel well, with the personalized touches that meant no two items were likely to be the same. All of this took time and skill, especially a complex design such as “Filigrana” by Adele Bölz, which may have been the last gasp of the incised work. Of course, a good design/form can still create great aesthetic appeal.
Clearly, there was a push to increase production numbers and decrease the number of specially skilled workers. The push for profit was pushing out the time consuming aesthetics. Not surprisingly, this is about the time that the classic Ruscha 313 began undergoing design changes, changes that would allow Ruscha to continue the popular form but reduce the cost. The original design by Kurt Tschörner was an aesthetic joy but a practical problem. Exaggerated lines and a thin body meant increased loss through items coming out of the mold wrong or just being more fragile all through production and shipping.
In some respects, the original 313 may have been almost an accident, an aesthetic pleasure but a production problem that a designer more versed in ceramics might never have designed. (According to Horst Makus in 50er Jahre Keramik, Tschörner’s training at that point was more in glass which shows in the lines that echo Murano glass.) And Ruscha’s administrators must not have imagined the eventually demand for increased production, or they would never have approved the design.
The first re-design was fairly It’s actually not clear if the 313 form was redesigned once or twice, with a possible early adjustment so minor that it’s still not clear if it’s real or simply variations in production. At any rate, a more radical change was eventually made. This change kept only the suggestion of the original form and became just a slightly modified jug-form. The area under the handle is very open, the “back” now curved rather than straight, the spout no longer thrust so far forward, the opening much bigger, the body more “upright” and the entire piece thicker. Fortunately, Ruscha produced some particularly fascinating glazes after the switch to Version Three, which is what kept the 313 a big seller then and now.
By comparison, Scheurich’s shape 271 designed by Heinz Siery was a commercial delight. It used many of the styles of the period, asymmetry, angled mouth, angular handle, but none were particularly distinctive or exaggerated. It was a shape that could be enjoyed by many, easily recognized, and also easily produced. The shape is still popular with collectors, but the aesthetics lack the power of some of the more daring forms.
Another victim of the push for production was the handle itself. The 1950s and early 60s saw numerous interesting handles and some designs that were absolutely amazing, and amazing that they survived, which likely led to their demise. Handles that looked great but were hard to produce and likely to break came under the heading of aesthetics that became unprofitable. Certainly, handles continued to be a significant feature, but the drama was largely gone, replaced mostly by simple ring handles, vestigial nubs, and similar variants. Some worked, some, such as on the larger versions of the Scheurich “Vienna” form, were more of an intrusion than an artistic statement.
Certainly, these were changes crucial to keeping the art pottery industry alive and growing, and the results included marvelous forms and some unbelievable glazes as well as a staggering quantity. Meanwhile, production also included an enormous amount of kitsch to sell to the growing crowds of tourists. It also marked a shift from the survival era, when the aesthetics were as much about coping with conditions after the war as they were about economics. The next stage was about economics first and design second, but the need to fill a hungry market still created, even insisted upon, new shapes and new glazes that kept designers reaching further, pushing boundaries, and coming up with results the Nazis would have never allowed. Success may well be the best revenge, and the artists in Germany had their revenge in a glorious way that the rest of us can also enjoy for generations.
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A Few Things to Know About Ruscha (1948-96)
1. Vases with no handles are numbered in the 800 sequence; jugs in the 300 sequence; and two-handled vases most likely to be in the 60 sequence.
2. Early work tends to have hand “painted” marks that often include the company name. Later work will often have an embossed “Ruscha”. In between, it was
common to have only numbers or number and country.
3. Ruscha mostly used white/buff clay but did use red clay from time to time, apparently most often in the late 50s to early 60s. The same shape in red clay tends to be slightly smaller with finer detailing than a version with white clay.
4. Many top form designers and glaze artists worked at Ruscha at
one time or another, including Kurt Tschoerner, Otto Gerharz, Hanns Welling, and Adele Bölz
5. Otto Keramik owns some of the molds, including the steer/bull and has issued items in various glazes. In most cases, new versions are fairly easy to pick out if you are familiar with older glazes. However, they seem to have reproduced a few early glazes well, not
surprising since Otto Gerharz Sr. developed many of them at Ruscha. (Contemporary volcanic glazes tend to be “flatter” than originals and may have less distinct coloring.)
6. My understanding is that Scheurich now owns the Ruscha name. Since Scheurich has taken advantage of interest in vintage items by re-issuing some of their own successes, they may try to use the Ruscha name in the same way. Always buy pottery based on quality, not “name”.
7. The iconic Ruscha 313 form was revised at some point, although when remains unclear. Shape changes made the 313 easier to produce in larger numbers, which is likely a main reason why the revised version is more common. Some of the later glazes, however, are still spectacular.
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Photos used show an original form 313, a later version of shape 333 (Ruscha did re-use some numbers.), and a Quadriga plaque….Bianca not included.
1. They were better at glazes than shapes. While Scheurich designers produced a few excellent forms, many of the shapes ranged from poor to only fair. Some, such as the classic 517, were very good in terms of proportions but not inventive.
2. The number of glazes produced from the mid 1950s through the mid 1980s is almost beyond imagining or counting. With such numbers, there were many mediocre results, but Scheurich also produced some of the most impressive glazes of the era. “Market” value is almost entirely based on glaze with the exception of a few shapes with better design. A shape such as 271 designed by Heinz Siery is very commonly available, and common or lesser decorations should usually be in the $15 range. The best and rarest so far known can justify a price in the $150 range.
3. Scheurich re-used form numbers more than other companies. Searching or identifying Scheurich based on the shape number and size is problematic at best because many numbers were used 2-4 times. Shapes are sometimes similar, sometimes barely related.
4. Scheurich number placement varies, sometimes around the edge, sometimes centered. Form numbers are 3 digits, and the following number is the approximate size in centimeters. Until the late 1970s or 80s, Scheurich never included the company name. A little later they started using an embossed “three-circle” mark. Most items with this mark are lesser quality and unlikely to become collectible. If you see an item with only “Germany” and the three-circle mark, it’s almost certainly post-reunification.
5. Scheurich used white/buff clay. I am not aware of a single piece of Scheurich in any other clay, but the glaze does sometimes stain the clay slightly.
6. Some of the embossed designs and a few other forms have their own name. These include Vienna/Wien, Ceramos, Jura, and Coral/Koralle. Be aware that some items have “collector” names that were given before the company names were known. A prime example is Amsterdam, which was dubbed Onion since the design looks like a cut onion. However, the name Amsterdam reveals that the design is actually based on the image of a tulip bulb.
7. Scheurich floor vases with animals are among the most popular with collectors, but the quality varies, especially when the primary glaze overruns the decoration. Value should take both the glaze and the quality of the individual piece into consideration. This is always true but applies particularly strongly with these items.
8. Scheurich was by far the largest producer, so most items are common. The company is still in business and has released the 271 shape (now marked with a clear plastic label) and has re-issued Amsterdam, but the design does not continue to the rim as it did on the originals.
Pictures show a fairly common Scheurich floor vase shape with an uncommon glaze, one of Scheurich’s “all over” volcanic glazes, and example of “fat lava”, and a fairly typical Scheurich base, keeping in mind that the bases were almost as numerous as the glazes….or so it seems when trying to sort them out.
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Bay items from the 1950s and early 60s were very popular before W. German pottery itself became popular. Some of the Bodo Mans designs fit into the decorative styles collectors wanted in the late 1980s and into the mid 1990s. The Bodo Mans items were actually more valuable then in that collector group than they are now as W.
German collectibles, which is also partly why the Bodo Mans name still resonates with collectors.
Things to Know About Bay Keramik
1. The 1950s and early 60s items remain the most popular, along with some of the embossed designs. Quality of decoration with the “painted” glazes varies widely, so select carefully and don’t overpay for a sloppy example.
2. Bay kept up when designs began changing in the early 60s, but their overall design quality began falling after that. A large percentage of Bay items are in the lower “tourist” and “kitsch” categories.
3. Despite the abundance of lesser designs and glazes, Bay still produced some excellent items into the 1980s. Reports that they ceased art pottery production in 1972 are inaccurate. They do seem
to have changed emphasis, but there are some late examples that stand as some of the best work Bay produced.
4. Bay only used white/buff clay. I am not aware of a single example in a red/brown clay. Lettering/numbering style varied widely, so not all Bay items have the lower case “y”, but it remains true that if you see the lower case “y” on an item with white clay, Bay is the first company to check…..keeping in mind that Fohr and a few other companies used that combination at times.
5. Don’t assume that every Bodo Mans design will be valuable, and don’t believe every attribution to Mans. He only worked at Bay for a fairly short time.
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(Photos are of a Bay vase circa 1960. Use of the full West-Germany was used part of the time in the 50s and very early 60s.)
This is part of a series giving a few of the key things to know about individual companies.
1. Ceramano started in 1959 and was created by Jacob Schwadderlap (also owner of Jasba) to focus more specifically on higher quality art pottery. (While many commercial potteries have produced art pottery lines, most of them also produced other lines that were less expensive to produce and sell in larger quantities. In many cases, art pottery lines were only possible because the more decorative and utilitarian items made enough profit to experiment with “art”.
2. The original designer was Hanns Welling. Gerda Heuckeroth also did design work.
3. Ceramano used brown to red-brown clay with the exception of some blanks purchased from Ruscha in the very early years (possibly just wallplates).
4. Marks on Ceramano are almost always hand done, usually incised through the glaze and may include company, decor/glaze name, country, and shape number. In some cases, only the shape number is used. Some items include artist initials, but nothing is yet known about actual names. (The same is true with most companies.)
5. Just what a decor/glaze name refers to can vary to the point that items with the same name may look quite different. In other cases, the name actually refers to color rather than anything else. “Polaris” is the white version of a given form series, while the same design in red is “Fire” and in yellow is “Sunset”. (Polaris is pictured.)
6. Ceramano also produced some hand made items. An example with the “Achat” or Agate glaze is pictured. Lines on the bottom show where the pot was removed by sliding a wire back and forth, which is the case with all the “studio” items from Ceramano. (This technique shows up on studio work from other artists and times and is not exclusive to Ceramano.)
7. Some of the best known items include Pergamon and Rubin. Overall, Pergamon and a few others are fairly common, but form and quality of decoration can vary widely, which should be taken into account when considering “market value”. Better decorated, harder to find shapes or sizes can still be of significant “worth”. Rubin is harder to find and typically sells high, but there are also a variety of rare, impressive glazes of greater aesthetic value that may sell at a relative bargain….if you find them.
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Some of the earliest designs that Kurt Tschoerner did for Ruscha show his experience with glass and strong influences from Murano glass. This is clearly seen in the original and iconic 313 shape and bowl shape 417, both circa 1954.
The curves on these items are elegant and well-proportioned, but they are better suited to handmade glass than to molded pottery. That may well be why shape 313 was eventually redesigned with lines more like a ceramic pitcher and less like Murano glass.
Full documentation of which shapes Tschoerner designed for Ruscha and possibly for Otto Keramik is still lacking, so it’s difficult to judge when and how Tschoerner
adapted to pottery design, but the glass-like curves disappear from West German pottery fairly quickly. Luckily, pottery has the potential for great shapes of its own and some things can be done with molds that can’t be done by hand, so even though certain elements were lost, their place was taken by other excellent aesthetics…when at their best.
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I’ve written many times and in many places about the problems with the term “fat lava”, especially when people act as if “fat lava” and “West German pottery” were synonymous, but the real problem begins with the term “West German pottery itself”. It might be marginally better if we said W. German “art” pottery, just as we say American art pottery rather than simply American pottery, but that would also open new problems.
Of course, when W. German pottery began getting attention from collectors, almost nothing was known, or known to only a few who weren’t sharing. The only well known marking was the country designation, and so that became the name of the collecting category. At the time, no one worried about how many companies or styles might be included, much less the variety of shapes, glazes……and quality.
By the time we realized that there were perhaps 100 companies involved and thousands or tens of thousands of shape and glaze combinations ranging from utter schlock to items fine and rare enough to stand beside the best ever art pottery made, the term W. German pottery was well rooted. Even now, most collectors don’t know the company names, and even collectors of W. German pottery often have no knowledge of, sometimes no respect for, the range of quality or rarity.
In some cases, this means that many people equate “W. German pottery” with kitsch or tourist level pottery, and a high percentage does fall into that category, still quite collectible but never destined to have much value. In other cases, medium range, fairly easy to find items get the right publicity, and prices skyrocket well beyond a “fair market value” that takes into account the value of comparable items in better known, established categories. Most of the Roth “petal” vases fall into this category, in my opinion.
And what this all adds up to is a collecting field that remains ragged, better documented than before but largely not better known. In the past, this would be corrected by a series of books, although covering the field well would mean at least a dozen or so books, general and company-specific. Unfortunately, the publishing industry has been hit hard by the internet, and getting a book published requires either showing that a book on the subject has already done well or being willing and able to pay the publisher $5000 or more up front and even then perhaps having to sell the books yourself.
There are a few sites that have informative materials, some more trustworthy than others, but even in the so-called Information Age, that doesn’t have the same influence that a full-sized book did and can have. The books so far printed (and all or most were self-funded), have a variety of limitations in scope and quality, and they have not been of a type to inspire confidence in publishers. So we plug along with less-than satisfactory terms while hoping and working for better times. (Sample pics coming later to show some of the quality and style range.)
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I’m increasingly frustrated by how poor some of the early research into West and East German pottery turns out to be, but I’m also frustrated that changes in information are often not widely shared, just in whatever group they first get revealed in. I would love to be doing my own research, but the necessary materials remain in Germany, leaving me to rely on those people in Germany who research the subjects.
The latest foul up involves Unterstab studio pottery from East Germany. The last time I had work from that “family”, word was that one mark was from husband and wife team, Ralf and Gudrun
Unterstab, while the simple KTU mark was Kerstin, their child. Not much more information seemed to be available.
So I get the lovely crystalline glaze vase pictured here and decide to ask for a few more details and confirm some information. It turns out that KTU stands for Kunsttöpferei Unterstab (translation Unterstab Art Pottery), and not only is it not by Kerstin, but there is and never was such a person. Just how bad does research have to be to create a person who never existed just to match letters in a name? I apologize to anyone I ever passed that information along to. While I know where I got the wrong information, I don’t know if that was the “source”, so I’ll leave that be for now…but a lot of wrong and very wrong information has come from that same route.
So Unterstab pottery is Ralf and Gudrun (which I think is still accurate). Luckily, this vase, which I believe is circa 1970, is just as lovely since good or bad research affects only the attribution, not the aesthetics.
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