A Handbook of California Design

Jade Snow Wong

The cover of A Handbook of California Design: 1930-1965, Craftspeople, Designers, Manufacturers is a blinding shade of orange. The fore, head and tail edges of the pages are the same hue, so the book looks like a fluorescent box. Not at all the sort of package a mud girl like me is likely to pick up.

Inside, there are orange words scattered about, much in the way links are scattered on a computer page. Actually they are links of a sort, cross-referencing other entries. Well, I am not only a mud girl, but a New England mud girl. Bright orange is not our sort of thing in these parts except for pumpkins and maple leaves in the autumn. All this day glo scared me.

But I understand California is a bit different. And I enjoy reading about how others live, especially people in the arts, so with the promise of “more than 140” two-page bios of influential designers, I picked the book up. I was glad that I did.

I started by flipping the pages looking for potters. The very first entry is for Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman who made slip cast ceramics and mosaics. They are followed by Laura Anderson, F. Carlton Ball, David Cressey, Robert Deese, Kenji Fujita, Otto Heino, Vivika Heino, Bernard Kester, Albert Henry King, Louisa Etcheverry King, Doyle Lane, James Lovera, Glen Lukens, Willilam Manker, Harrison Mcintosh, Gertrude Natzler, Otto Natzler, Richard B. Patterson, Antonio Prieto, Myrton Purkiss, Peter Voulkos, Marguerite Wildenhain, Barbara Willis, Jade Snow Wong, and Beatrice Wood.  Many are household names in today’s pottery world, but there were quite a few with whom I was unfamiliar. How wonderful to be introduced to them now.

I was particularly interested in Jade Snow Wong (shown above). Asian American and one of nine children born to Chinese parents with very traditional ideas, she “studied economics and sociology at Mills College, discovering pottery only in the last semester in a class taught by F. Carlton Ball.” She became a dedicated potter. Her goal, she wrote, was to make “objects of beauty that could be used in the average home.” Wong also wrote two very well received memoirs, Fifth Chinese Daughter (1950 and still in print) and No Chinese Stranger (1975). I plan to read them both.

In addition to studio potters, there are entries for pottery factories: Architectural Pottery, Brayton Laguna Pottery, Catalina Clay Products Company, Gladding McBean and Company, Heath Ceramics, J.A. Bauer Pottery Company, Pacific Clay Products Company and Vernon Kilns. These firms designed and made brightly colored, often monochromatic, dinnerware and other ceramic pieces, which became popular throughout the country. The happy days before the outsourcing of American tableware!

There’s enough focus on clay work to make the book worthwhile for any potter. But the biographies of movie set designers, architects, furniture makers, weavers, graphic designers, book designers, metal and glass workers, jewelers, product designers are also interesting. What lives these people led! How much they all did.

So put sunglasses on if you must to get past the cover, the interior  of A Handbook of California Design is inspiring to read.

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