On May 4 I had the opportunity to attend an open house at Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood. accompanied by Sue Barlett. I drove to a shopping center in Hamilton, met Sue there and she, being familiar with Cincinnati streets, drove the rest of the way.
Today's Rookwood Pottery is located in an office park. "There are three floors but the majority of the work is done on the first floor," said Sue. "The employees are all very knowledgeable and range in age from the mid-20's to mid-60's. There are 45 in all, many receiving their education at the University of Cincinnati and the Contemporary Arts Center."
The company dates to 1880. After the Great Depression, hard times allowed for only scattered production. But today the company lives again and the showing we attended points to a bright future.
Founded by Maria Storer, the pottery proved to be both decorative and useful. Wikipedia offers a wonderful overview of the company's history. Most notable to me is how the company had its American heritage saved in 1992. A Michigan dentist and pottery collector, Dr. Arthur Townley, "used his life savings to purchase all of the remaining Rookwood assets," according to Wikipedia.
Townley produced small quantities of Rookwood pieces and maintained the precious trademark. He declined foreign investors, insisting that Rookwood remain Cincinnati-based. In 2004 Townley worked with Cincinnati investors and in 2006 signed a contract returning the company to Cincinnati.
The current location dates to July 10, 2006.
As our 3 p.m. tour began, stacks of completed work lay on plywood racks, white and blank, awaiting the hand-applied Rookwood colors. Rookwood, the guide explained, uses mostly Tennessee and Kentucky clay, though many Midwestern states are represented, Ohio among them.
"Many of the molds are old original ones," Sue said.
This is the first work area we visited. Artists add a layer of color, painting delicately with brush
Another view of the same room, supplies line racks. Colors are mixed here. "It can be very hard to see the difference," Sue said.
This is the room where the molds are made. A single mold, it was explained, may be used to make a thousand larger object, maybe a few thousand smaller pieces like coasters or trivets. It's time to change the mold when object outlines become less crisp, "when leaves become fuzzier along the edges" our guide said.
"The level of moisture in the clay is based on the finished piece and the process it goes through," Sue said. "Some are mold poured, pressed or molded in several pieces and joined."
Here we're shown the steps of mold making. The man with the beard is Rookwood's mold maker.
Part of the process involves a rubbery substance. Clay can be removed from them with a blast from an air hose.
Here's a press that uses compressed air, exerting tons of pressure on the clay. After pressing, the resulting product is released with a puff of air, a flat board held below the product to catch it when it releases. The machines can produce from 5000 psi (pounds per square inch) to 30,000 psi.
This is a close-up of the release step. The artist holds the white board beneath the product. With a slight hiss, it drops down but a fraction of an inch and is caught on the level surface. A two-sided alumni plaque is being produced here for Miami University (the back is text-only). "Watching him press is very interesting," said Sue, "because the clay used is very stiff so the detail comes out clean."
Here he trims excess clay from the edges. He'll throw it onto a pile of scraps. ready to be recycled.
Completed vases, I assume, awaiting glazing and firing in the kiln. "The long, curved pieces are edging for various tiles, used on walls and other special projects," Sue said.
Here an artist is working on a special one-of-a-kind mural. It's made up of individual tiles and will, when completed, hang above a fireplace mantel in a Cincinnati home.
Here's another shot of that specially-commissioned mural. The artist is hand-tinting every square inch of the artwork. She relies on drawings of the finished product, careful to perfectly match colors to those chosen beforehand. This is the first completed set. "The customer requested some color adjustments so a new set will be made in order to assure tone and color consistency," Sue said. Replacing only one or two tiles won't work because of a possible mismatch.
A display shows various molds for figurines and vases.
These two kilns were throwing off great amounts of heat. Fans distribute air in the room. I cannot imagine working here during a Cincinnati August. There's an even bigger kiln off to the side.
An artist sprays a glaze on a tile, turning the piece a quarter turn before each of four coats. He moves his hand smoothly back and forth, adding a layer that must meet specific weight requirements.
The Rookwood Pottery Shop
Baskets of ornaments are stacked in a corner of the gift shop.
Displays in the shop are well-lit and attractive.
Sue admires a tiny rabbit called a Grove Bunny Ornament.
Rookwood's gift tiles come in a rainbow of colors and styles. "They will custom color a piece for you," Sue said.
Those framed items on the bottom would certainly look nice at Pinehaven.
Of all the pieces I viewed this was my favorite. Would there be a more perfect item for Pinehaven? It's called Iroquois and is one of Rookwood's historic tiles from their 1912 catalog. There are two pieces, meant to be placed on the left and right of an installation. The wooden frame is sold separately.
I can dream.
This is a mural made up on ten individual tiles. It's similar in construction to the custom piece I photographed above, only smaller. "To the right is a beautiful piece depicting Union Terminal," Sue said.
These are framed tiles from the Cincinnati Collection. For instance, the middle right tile is Cincinnati's Music Hall. The Cincinnati Skyline is the top left tile.
"A few racks of damaged firmware," Sue said. "Yes, it even happens here."
Added December 24, 2013: What a surprise to find that my brother read this blog and ordered Mom and I a tile from Rookwood for Christmas. It's beautiful and my top choice of everything I saw when I visited in May.
"a historic tile from our 1912 catalog that Rookwood has brought back"
Rookwood Pottery Inc. is located at 1920 Race Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-7722