Tag Archives: Kurt Tschoerner

Art Therapy For an Entire Country

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.

ES Keramik Shape 883

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.

Ruscha Jug, Milano Decoration

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.

Ruscha Shape 313, original form

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.

Ruscha plate, engobe series, “Reiher” decoration

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.

Ruscha Wall Plate, Engobe Series, Paris Decoration

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.

Carstens, Manila Vase, Later, fewer curves, Less hand work

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.

Ruscha 313 Redesigned Form

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.

Scheurich Wein/Vienna Shape with handle

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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Keys to the Company: Ruscha

cropped-catswho.largecanvas.jpgA 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

The original 313 form had lines that were perhaps a little too close to Murano glass in ways that molded pottery couldn't handle.
The original 313 form had lines that were perhaps a little too close to Murano glass in ways that molded pottery couldn’t handle.

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

ruscha.333.mug

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”.

bianca.ruscha.2.5.177. 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.

Kurt Tschoerner Ruscha Designs

The original 313 form had lines that were perhaps a little too close to Murano glass in ways that molded pottery couldn't handle.
The original 313 form had lines that were perhaps a little too close to Murano glass in ways that molded pottery couldn’t handle.

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

Ruscha bowl shape 417.
Ruscha bowl shape 417.

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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Ruscha 313, Iconic and Redesigned

I still consider the introduction of the Ruscha shape 313 in 1954 to be the beginning of the golden age of West German pottery.  The Kurt Tschörner from was elegant, whimsical, daring and a delight to the eye with its spout thrust forward and every line following that forward line.  It captured everything that the post-war pottery seemed intent on doing, lifting spirits and looking forward.  I’ve been pushing the 313 as an icon for over a decade, and the idea has caught on.  There is, however, a problem because there are two versions of the 313.

Somewhere in the 1960s, the form was modified.  Imagine someone

The original 313 form with its low, forward shape and a sharp angle where the handle meets the throat.
The original 313 form with its low, forward shape and a sharp angle where the handle meets the throat.

grabbing the top of the vase and pulling upward.  The resulting “pitcher” is not only a bit taller but a bit less “forward”, less elegant, less whimsical.  So why change what seemed to be one of the perfect art pottery forms?  I suspect that the answer is an old one, commerce.

The redesigned Ruscha 313, less forward thrust and room to fit a finger under the top of the handle.
The redesigned Ruscha 313, less forward thrust and room to fit a finger under the top of the handle.

All of the things that made the original

313 special would almost certainly have made it difficult to produce.  Several of the angles were such that they probably didn’t come out of the mold well on a regular basis.  That would mean some were lost then, while others would require additional hand sanding to be worth glazing.  Also, the handle was probably prone to breaking somewhere between the kiln and the store shelf.

Quite possibly, the 313 was a victim of success, and it may have been the need to produce greater quantity that required the redesign.  The later version is certainly a fine form, and some of the glazes are among the best of the era, but it’s really only the original that’s the true icon in terms of form.  (No word on who did the redesign.)

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