Attracted To Opposites

by David Cathers
From Issue 54


This northern New Jersey Arts and Crafts collection inhabits one of the most tranquil settings I’ve ever visited. It is in a ca. 1830s stone house set amidst park-like grounds that are bordered on all sides by steep, wooded hills. A meandering brook flows past the house, widens above a dam to form a pond, then runs beneath a bridge and through a patch of marshland before disappearing into the tree line.

The collector says he likes the “treasure hunt” aspect of collecting, and there are many treasures here: sculptural iron light fixtures made in the 1920s and ‘30s by Samuel Yellin, furniture and lighting by the mid-20th-century artisan George Nakashima, and late-20th-century paintings by Willem de Kooning, Chuck Close and Jasper Johns.

The heart of this collection, though, is its George Ohr pottery and its early Gustav Stickley furniture. Ohr and Stickley are now revered as icons of American Arts and Crafts, yet while they lived they were about as different from each other as two people could be. Ohr (born 1857) was a free spirit. He worked by himself, courted creative risk and produced daring, ebullient hand-formed wares that defied his era’s standards of taste and baffled most of his contemporaries. He was a disciplined master of clay and glaze, but his one-of-a-kind creations packed a punch of spontaneity and emotion. They seem almost pure id. Never especially interested in selling his artistic ceramics, he kept his prices high.

In contrast, Stickley (born 1858) made a virtue of restraint, simplicity and plain form. His work was subdued, its emphasis less on virtuoso handicraft than on refined design. Stickley practiced teamwork: his creative staff handled design, and workers built his furniture in a modern, well-equipped factory. And because most of his products were made in multiples, they were affordable to middle-class consumers. A believer in “plain living and high thinking,” he proposed that his “honest” home furnishings exerted a positive moral influence on their possessors. If Ohr was untethered id, Stickley was sensible superego. Yet the work of these two near-opposites captivates this collector, and much of what follows is about that contradictory pair.

2The owner of this home and its contents became a collector in the early 1980s, at first buying the molded clay art ware manufactured by the Roseville Pottery Company of Zanesville, Ohio.

As much as he liked Roseville vases, it was the idea of this pottery that drew him to it. As he explains, he was partly attracted to Roseville because its mass-produced products brought Arts and Crafts beauty into everyday American life.

He next focused on the hand-worked pottery made by Grueby and Newcomb. These wares had generally simple shapes and a subdued color palette, and were most often decorated with slightly abstracted plant or flower forms. As he says, “I loved the carving and the stylized representation of nature in Grueby and Newcomb.”

But while he was collecting these tastefully beautiful ceramics he found himself beginning to look at something completely different: the challenging and often disconcerting pottery made by George E. Ohr of Biloxi, Mississippi.

The Exuberant George Ohr

How to explain George Ohr? He was outrageous, iconoclastic, uncompromising, cocksure, competitive. The art-pottery establishment of his day mostly ignored him, aghast at the weird shapes he created and put off by his attention-grabbing antics. Yet this uninhibited self-promoter reveled in his reputation as “The Mad Potter of Biloxi.” Ohr was a wild man, but the owner calls him “a sophisticated wild man, a showman” who paraded his zany personality for tourists and at country fairs in hopes of stirring up sales. Ohr hawked his wares with the zeal of a carny barker, but he was no charlatan; he was probably the greatest virtuoso in clay this country (this world?) has ever seen.

3To support his family he cranked out flowerpots and other utilitarian wares for local customers, and for the tourists and fair-goers he made clay “novelties” — some of them “R” rated — to bring in much-needed cash.

Through decades of toil he never made more than a meager living, and yet as sole proprietor of his “Pot-Ohr-Re” he refused to change his artistic output to suit anyone else. Ohr “had a significant ego,” says the collector, and his pottery making was not really about pleasing others. It “was all about George.”

Ohr was a living contradiction. The self-reliant artisan working alone was the Arts and Crafts ideal, and in that sense he was a quintessential Arts and Crafts potter. He dug his own clay, built his own kiln, threw and glazed his own pottery and, following his motto, “No Two Alike,” refused to duplicate his shapes. His methods were pure Arts and Crafts: from start to finish George made every pot by himself.

Yet to many in the movement his pottery just wasn’t right: it was so weird. The manipulated surfaces and brightly colored glazes — splotched, streaked and bubbled — were not at all like the plain forms and subdued hues of Grueby, Newcomb and other acclaimed art potters. The era’s aesthetic reformers — the founders of the Society of Arts and Crafts in Boston, for example — generally agreed that good design required “the necessity of sobriety and restraint … of due regard for the relation between the form of an object and its use, and of harmony and fitness in the decoration put upon it.” Ohr’s work was a bold gesture thrust in the face of harmony, fitness and restraint; he rejected such conservative thinking and subverted it at every turn.

Ohr Reaches His Peak

4According to the collector/scholar Robert Ellison (see author note, page 43), Ohr first ventured into abstraction in the early 1890s. Then, in 1894, his workshop was leveled by a catastrophic Biloxi fire, and through the remaining years of that decade he created one unique piece after another and dappled them with vibrant, varicolored glazes.

These works reveal Ohr’s genius and inordinate skill, and also his eccentric sense of humor. One sweetly shaped vase in this collection, for instance, has a beautiful faint pink glaze that shades to a deep, speckled blue, and yet when you turn it around you see that Ohr, for whatever private reason, applied his tinted glaze to the “back” of the vase but left off the speckles.

Also in this collection is a full-bellied dimpled pitcher with a looping handle too insubstantial to use; it seems a sly parody of the functional household wares that earned Ohr his living.

In another room there is a “cadogan” teapot. Though he didn’t invent the cadogan, it was the kind of sleight of hand that Ohr the prankster loved to perpetrate. An ancient invention named for the whimsical Lord and Lady Cadogan, who popularized it in England in the early nineteenth century, it looks like a pitcher or teapot but is sealed at the top. It only works if you know that its opening is on the bottom: to fill a cadogan you must first turn it upside down. Ohr’s final phase began around the turn of the 20th century. About that time, the influential ceramics critic Edwin Atlee Barber wrote slightingly of his work and said it was mainly interesting because of its glazes.

Ohr abruptly gave up glazing and from then on most of his wares were “bisque” — plain, unglazed clay. As this collection shows, though, he produced some of his most spectacular vases during these years. He continued to twist and pummel his thin-bodied wares, but now he sometimes swirled together contrasting red and buff clays in dynamic patterns that emphasized the vases’ fluid forms. To my inexpert eye these patterns suggest the subsurface strata of the earth; they are a potter’s homage to the raw clay that alchemist Ohr dug from a riverbank and transmuted into startling shapes.

5Ohr stopped potting sometime between 1906 and 1910, tired perhaps and no doubt disheartened after years of seeing his art ignored. He boxed up about 7,000 unsold ceramic vessels and stowed them in a warehouse, where these “worthless” works lay forgotten for many decades.

Times have changed: on March 11, 2006, by coincidence the first day I visited this collection, David Rago of Craftsman Auctions sold a mottled red and green George Ohr vase for the record-setting price of $84,000. Ohr, who poignantly predicted that his work would be prized and cherished in the future, would probably have taken that price in stride. Some unglazed pots that are believed to be among his last are big, vigorous, eruptive, a seemingly defiant final flare-up of an artist refusing to be defeated. “George,” says the collector, “finished with a flourish.”

The Understated Gustav Stickley

Though Ohr and Stickley both loved color, in other respects their work would seem clearly unalike. Stickley furniture designs are restrained and understated, and to the casual viewer their subtle refinements are easy to miss. This is especially true of the pieces he made between 1900 and early 1904, work that is now quite rare.

How rare is rare? Stickley often reminded his customers that the firm would make furniture to special order, and some — a very few — one-of-a-kind objects survive today. There are also designs illustrated in early Stickley catalogs that are almost never found. For instance, in 1901 Stickley published pictures of a robust fall-front desk with five tenon-and-key joints punched through each flank: as far as I know only three of these desks have been discovered so far.

That counts as rare. Or think of the Eastwood chair, an iconic Stickley masterwork that every collector dreams of owning. I’ve seen 11 of these chairs, though there may be others. In the world of Stickley furniture collecting, 11 examples of something as important as an Eastwood chair definitely counts as rare. For a time, this collector managed the astonishing feat of owning two Eastwood chairs. But because he believes that “Stickley is not well represented in American museums,” he gave one of them, along with an inlaid Stickley side chair, to the Wolfsonian, a design-oriented museum in Miami Beach, where these two pieces are now on public view.

A Step Beyond Rare

6“Rare” takes on a whole new meaning with the discovery of a group of Stickley furniture that has somehow miraculously stayed together. Since 1979, when a New England auctioneer sold 42 near-perfect 1903-04 Stickley pieces found in the boarded-up vacation home of a long-ago governor of Maine, only five or six groupings have come to light.

One of them forms the core of this collection. Probably made in late 1900 or early 1901, these pristine pieces emerged only six years ago from a weekend cottage on a remote lake in northeastern New York. Though a century old at the time of its discovery, this furniture was so perfectly preserved that it seemed fresh from the factory floor: it was a Stickley “time capsule.”

7The furniture must have been rarely touched by sunlight because the leather seat cushions were intact and pliant and the wood had kept most of its original color. There were almost none of the inevitable dents or abrasions that come from normal wear. Stickley was proud of his beautiful furniture, but it was built for daily living and he expected his customers to use it.As one of his catalogs said, “The furniture is made for use, and an occasional scratch or bruise mars it no more than the traces of toil mar a strong man doing the work that is given him to do.” The original owners must not have read that catalog because they treated their furniture with obsessive care, and that is one reason why it is now in such flawless shape.

There is another reason. At some point those first owners apparently decided that their furniture was beginning to look old-fashioned, and they wrapped upholstery fabric around the seat cushions and chair arms to bring it up to date. By “modernizing” it in this low-cost way they protected their furniture from sunlight (which would fade its colors), scratches and spills and kept “traces of toil” at bay.

Unwittingly doing what George Ohr had done when he stashed away his pots, they protected and kept together a group of Arts and Crafts artifacts that would eventually be discovered, unwrapped and appreciated by an awed future generation.

And — to return to the topic of color — their care saved this furniture’s atypical Stickley finish. Stickley was as passionate about the color of his furniture as he was about its design and structure, and he continually experimented with wood finishes, reformulating them again and again. The pieces in this group, for instance, are coated only with a thin wash of semi-transparent green or green-brown stain. Stickley usually fumed his furniture and then built up layers of color, but he didn’t do that here. Perhaps this was an experiment, or perhaps the buyers had a color scheme in mind and the factory’s finishing department gave them what they wanted. Whatever the explanation, the finish seems unprecedented in Stickley’s work.

The original owners seem to have had a keen eye for the subtle fine points of early Stickley furniture. Note how nicely, for instance, the curved, elongated corbels on the entry-hall “divan” echo the curved arc of the corbels on the piano bench in the living room nearby. Though some of the furniture in this group is oak and some is either ash or chestnut — experts disagree on what that wood is — these pieces together create a serene and coherent ensemble. Stickley’s Craftsman magazine regularly advocated visually unified domestic interiors, and those first owners obviously accepted this advice. So does the present owner. He first saw this once-in-a-lifetime group when he was furnishing his new home, and, in his own words, he “pounced on” the chance to buy it.

Bringing the Opposites Together

8In this collection, the opposing artistic visions of George Ohr and Gustav Stickley coexist comfortably under one roof. Think how different they were. Resolutely individualistic and non-commercial, Ohr worked with his hands, demanded impossibly high prices and refused to repeat himself, never making the same thing twice. For all his freewheeling variety, though, you’d never confuse an Ohr piece with that of any other potter: he did create a unified body of work.

In contrast, the entrepreneurial businessman Stickley wanted to make handsome, serviceable, affordable furniture, and to do that he standardized his design and production processes and rarely made anything that was one of a kind. Yet he created an uncountable number of furniture pieces that, like Ohr’s ceramics, are undeniably works of art. Ohr and Stickley were not such opposites after all. And as this collection makes clear, there is room for both of them within the generous boundaries of American Arts and Crafts.

AB Contributing Writer David Cathers is an Arts and Crafts historian and writer. He is the author, most recently, of Gustav Stickley (Phaidon, 2003; see Issue No. 41, Spring 2004, page 124). For readers interested in learning more about George Ohr’s life and works, he recommends three books: George Ohr, Art Potter: The Apostle of Individuality, by Robert A. Ellison, Jr. (Scala Publishers, 2006); After the Fire — George Ohr: An American Genius, by Eugene Hecht (Arts and Crafts Quarterly Press, 1994); and The Mad Potter of Biloxi: The Art and Life of George E. Ohr, by Garth Clark, Robert A. Ellison, Jr., and Eugene Hecht (Abbeville Press, 1989). 

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