Albion Mews, a converted carriage house on a cul-de-sac near London's Hyde Park, was home and creative center for Lucie Rie, a seminal modernist of 20th Century studio ceramics, for almost sixty years. It was her retreat from the maelstrom of World War II Europe. In that quiet backwater between cosmopolitan London and the peaceful centuries-old church yard on which her studio faced, this shy, cultured woman--along with Hans Coper--delineated modern ceramics in Britain.
Born in March 1902, Rie grew up in a prominent Viennese family at an auspicious time for the modern movement. The art community was dominated by Vienna Secession Werkstatte concepts, which eschewed excessive ornamentation, and challenged by a new view of functional architecture in which crafts served to complement the structure. The "new" architects, including Ernst Freud, Adolf Loos. Ernst Plishke and Josef Hoffmann, were to strongly influence Rie's life and art.
Rie's father was an ear, nose and throat doctor and a colleague of Sigmund Freud. She was exposed to the arts by her Uncle Sandor, who was known for his small museum of Roman and Etruscan artifacts. (A small Etruscan figurine remained on Rie's mantel until her death in 1995.)
Her first ceramics instructor, in 1922, was Michael Powolny at the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule (Arts and Crafts School). He recognized the innate and intuitive sense Rie brought to her studies in clay Instead of the ornate "putti" which were a staple of Powolny's production. Rie began to produce clean, cylindrical vessels as functional, rather than purely decora tive, objects. "Her aims, still untheoretical, intuitively developed a range of forms which still har monized with primary Modernist theory. Architects responded but her fellow potters and deco rative craftsman found her work technically unsophisticated." wrote John Houston, curator of Rie's 80th birthday retrospective in 1981.
Josef Hoffmann, a co-founder of the Wiener Werkstatte, was impressed with Rie's efforts. He incorporated her pots into exhibitions of his work. Rapidly, other modernist architects- notably Ernst Plischke--accepted her work as consonant with their design principles. As early as 1925, Rie garnered gold medals at the international exhibition in Paris. Her pots were awarded prizes in Brussels in 1935, at the Milan Triennale in 1936, and in Paris in 1937. For the last. Hoffmann created a glass corridor in the Austrian pavilion to exhibit seventy of Rie's works.
Her pots were radical for their time--devoid of ornamentation, their stark, clean lines uninterrupted by complex decoration. Her cylinder-based forms with their understated glazes, some simply matte black, captured the attention and admiration of Europeans. The early pots often exhibited throwing ridges, which she studiously avoided in her later, more mature work.
With the Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938. Rie emigrated to London, where a Jewish refugee community was well-established. It included Ernst Freud, an architect friend from Vienna, and Fritz Lampl, a gallery owner who had shown Rie's work in Austria at the Bimini Gallery. She found housing at Albion Mews and set about re-creating her artistic life. Ernst Plischke, who had designed and furnished her apartment in Vienna, arranged to ship those furnishings to London. There, Ernst Freud refitted the cabinetry to her Albion Mews flat
Rie soon found that England was deeply wedded to Bernard Leach's Oriental aesthetic in studio ceramics. For someone with a reputation on the Continent as well-established as hers, her pots were not well received. She sought out Leach, to learn from his technique, but almost immediately was repelled by the heavy-walled, mingei style, founded in the folk craft of anonymous "peasant" artists. Leach felt that Rie's pots were too thin and lacked substance Later, he changed his mind. In a 1967 exhibition catalogue, he noted that Rie's pots "need no comment of mine except thanks for their integrity..." and reflected on the merit of her work. "(S)he has the rare faculty of digesting her influences by passing them through the mesh of her own character. The sensitive, feminine quality of her work adds virtue and significance to her achievement at this period of evolution in our ancient craft. Hers is that innate wisdom which, in maturity, makes natural use of the gifts with which she was born." Still, the initial rebuff by Leach chilled Rie's spirit and caused her to question her work.
World War II mandated a respite in Rie's artistic development. During the war, she worked long hours at multiple jobs, inspecting optical lenses and making glass buttons for Fritz Lampl, who had opened a small factory to supply the clothing industry (brass buttons had been diverted to war production). This experience assisted her later in establishing her own shop to produce ceramic cane and umbrella handles, and buttons for fashion couturiers. At the end of the war, she hired several assistants, including Hans Coper, a German emigre. Coper was to emerge, years later, as another of the seminal modernists in ceramics. He encouraged Rie to renew her potting efforts, consistent with the skills and style she had developed in Vienna.
Initially, to generate a basic income, Rie focused on tableware production. For many years, her studio produced cups and saucers, tea sets, salad bowls and coffee pots with a side pulled handle. These were stoneware, glazed with black/brown manganese dioxide exteriors and off-white interiors. Coper often helped in throwing and glazing, and occasionally a piece bears both their impressed signatures. The clean, uncluttered appearance of this functional ware was very much in keeping with the contemporary look which blossomed in the 1950s, combining the consistency of production ware with the ephemeral values of individual artistic expression.
Rie's sole attempt to produce prototypes for factory production was a commission for eighteen Jasperware cups and saucers for Wedgewood in 1964, the results of which they rejected. Rie declined the twenty-five guineas Wedgewood had contracted to pay and asked for the return of the prototypes, which she retained until her death. These were donated to the Sainsbury Centre of Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, which has an extensive collection of Rie and Coper pots.
In almost fifty years of activity from 1946, Rie's one-off work was marked by elegance and simplicity of form. Those forms were constantly undergoing refinement analysis and experimentation. Though the range of her forms was not great, the subtle variations were manifold. She searched for archetypal forms through multiple variations within a limited traditional vessel palette. What emerges, particularly when a number of examples of her work are displayed together, as in Vienna in 1995 or at London's Barbican Art Gallery in 1997, is the extraordinary difference in impact which slight variations in dimension and balance have on the success of an individual piece.
The grouping together of similar Rie forms also reveals the relational integrity within the family of that form. An array of wide-lipped, trumpet-necked bottles suggests a defining universal characteristic inherent in the form vocabulary, much like perfect proportion in architecture. Rie may have explored that premise more thoroughly and successfully than any other potter. There is a constancy in her work which approaches quintessential, primal form.
Rie worked equally in porcelain and stoneware, but achieved her greatest triumphs in porcelain. The repeated throwing of related forms refined her skills. Bottles and bowls feel almost weightless when held, a product of incredibly thin thrown walls. "To hold one of these powerful vessels in one's hands is to make contact with the whole universe." wrote Thomas Hoving in Connoisseur magazine. In part, this resulted from Rie's technique of "dry" throwing. Using a continental kick wheel, which had no splash tray to collect excess water or clay turnings, Rie worked the clay with a minimum of water to maintain plasticity and malleability. Water was added only with her fingers, and then only to maintain a workable, pliable surface. This dry technique afforded greater strength to the form, with a reduction in slumping or unintentional distortions.
Rie's three principal forms were cylindrical, conical, and trumpet-necked bottles, the last characterized by widely flaring, undulating lips. Variations on the cylindrical included a "potato" form in which the rim closed in to create a shoulder. These were generally either paddled square in cross-section or compressed into an oval. This form was used most often with cratered glazes relying on silicon carbide to generate gaseous eruptions in firing, a technique Rie developed in Vienna. (Otto Natzler, a Viennese contemporary developed a similar glaze effect.)
Part of the success of Rie's glazes is her unusual technique of green firing. Usually ceramics are first bisquit fired, followed by a separate glaze firing at higher vitrifying temperatures. Bisquit firing occurs at low temperatures, short of vitrification, which leaves the clay porous yet adds considerable strength as compared to raw, unfired clay. Rie fired her work only once, applying glaze to pieces which had been thoroughly air-dried. She "discovered" the technique in Vienna, while trying to meet a delivery schedule for which she was running late. She fol lowed this practice throughout her career, believing it permitted the glaze and body to bond better. In those glazes which depended on interaction with inlays for full effect, it was essential.
Rie's potato forms were often composed of two clays with differing oxides, which produced a bicolor swirl when fired. Most challenging in the bicolor forms were those thrown in multiple pieces. The oxide coloration was undetectable until fired, and the success of the swirling effect depended on experience in blindly joining the separately thrown components. Frequently, these were executed in pink and blue mildly volcanic glazes which created a deeply pitted effect rather than actual cratering.
Rie's palette of decoration was as limited as that of her forms. The dominant feature of any decoration was lineation to emphasize or reinforce a form. She used both inlay and sgraffito, the latter an adaptation she observed in Neolithic and Paleolithic artifacts in England's Avebury Museum. The prehistoric pots were inscribed using bird bones to create a minimalist accent. Rie adapted the technique, using radiating, crosshatched, interlaced and latitudinal lines. These were applied freehand, using a needle to scratch through applied glazes or scribing into the clay body to receive stains or oxides. This created a delicate colored line or, depending on overglazing, might bleed into the glaze with a subtle tinge of color. Often, exterior inlay patterns were replicated in the interior of a piece, particularly bowls. This increased the chances of a firing crack induced by the proximity of the interior and exterior incising.
In the 1950s, Rie's sgraffito patterns became incredibly precise and intricate, emphasizing the contrast of white porcelain underbody with dark manganese overglaze In the 1960s, she developed her "knitted" style of sgraffito and inlay, which used radiating, diagonally crosshatched lines. The inlaid lines were filled with slip, which created a dark pattern where the precise lines bled together like a woven basket. The extent of her meticulous decoration was extraordinary. Even the interior of the foot was not overlooked, with lines radiating from her impressed "LR" signature or concentric circles circumscribing it.
Among Rie's most successful inlay bowls are a series of pink bowls highlighted by running bronze rims, another decorative element in Rie's work, and a narrow turquoise band in the well. These bowls ranged from intense bold pink, a collector's favorite, to delicate, understated pink tinge.
Rie's color palette was born of her early ceramics studies and honed during the button-making endeavor, when she was expected to create buttons matching a changing spectrum of fabrics. The most common glazes, apart from tableware, were an oatmeal grey with iron brown flecks; a metallic bronze dominant in the 1 980s, inevitably counterbalanced by sgraffito; and a range of matte white glazes often accentuated with blue, lavender, red and green inlay. The white glazes generally exploited whiteness rather than translucence, but some of the most incomparable successes exploited translucence One such was a pale, foggy, flow green emanating from copper oxide inlay which created varying density curtains softly embracing the form of a pot. These pots, though infrequent, radiated an understated gentleness and elegance.
Strong colors were not excluded, and they distinguished Rie's work. Brilliant turquoise blue, rich uranium yellow, iron-flecked emerald green, bright red accents and lemon yellow American stain contrasted with the subdued olives, muted grays and browns of the Leach school. But color was never an end in itself. Even in the strongest works, the color is attenuated by a bronze running rim or a band of sgraffitoed bronze, joining the rim and body visually but bleeding them one into the other. The random runs of bronze were often the defining characteristic of a particularly successful piece.
A limited series of "spinach" pots in the 1980s combined a particularly thick, rough grayish glaze and mild cratering with the characteristically elegant lightweight porcelain form. The rim was accented with indigo blue which ran into the gray, producing a rich plum purple halo. The juxtaposition of massive glaze and delicate body is technically challenging and, judging from the limited numbers of this combination Rie produced, not one she considered her most successful. It is some measure of her accomplishments that she attempted this challenge The most successful of these efforts was retained in her studio collection until late in her career, and can be seen in the background of a portrait taken in her studio.
Rie was widely recognized in Britain, Asia and on the Continent. In 1987, she was one of four potters honored with the issuance of a commemorative British postage stamp. A 1989 exhibition in Tokyo, underwritten by the fashion designer Issey Miyake, was a visual and artistic tour de force. Almost 100 pots were displayed to dramatic effect on pedestals in a shallow reflecting water table. Miyake prevailed upon Rie to resurrect some of her button molds, long dormant on shelves in her workshop, so that he could incorporate them into his designs in modern materials.
In 1990, Rie was made a British Dame. In 1995, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged the first major American retrospective of her work and that of Hans Coper. With that exhibition came the first realization in America of the magnitude of Rie's talent.
As noted on the occasion of her 80th birthday retrospective. "The persistence of her intuitions about the architectural basis of Modernism carried her work almost unscathed through the overflowing charm of Viennese eclecticism, and eventually survived the powerful influence of Bernard Leach."
"[B]orn into a society which had extolled the virtues of Modernism rather than, as in Britain, rejecting them in favor of a tepid historicism ..." Rie "unequivocally challenged the prevailing Oriental aesthetic that infused British studio pottery, with every essential standard erected by (Bernard) Leach being met in full measure."
Lucie Rie was a diminutive, private person, but one whose strength of character matched the strength and delicacy of her hands. She survived dislocation and disappointment to emerge a dominant figure in ceramics history, her life a continual search for the perfect pot.
PAUL F. DAUER is a regular contributor to art journals and, with his wife, a collector of ceramics for over 30 years. An attorney in Sacramento, he is a former member of the Board of Directors for the Crocker Art Museum and a current member of the board for Friends of Contemporary Ceramics, an international organization committed to the furtherance of studio ceramics.