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Bright. Colorful. Affordable. Fun. Produced 1936 by the Homer Laughlin China Company and designed by ceramicist Fredrick Rhead, Fiestaware, is and continues to be emblematic of American youthful enthusiasm. The dinner set befitting a casual dining experience was sold as a fun way for the housewife to set the table with mix matched colors of dinner plates, bowls and salad plates. This attempt to convert domestic labor into pleasurable home making, added creativity as a component to democratic domesticity. Unlike the dinner sets of formal uniformity and applied decals, Fiestaware was decoratively stark yet robust in color. Creative pleasure in composing the dinner table replaced the dinner set as a symbolic social indicator of wealth into a domestic craft. Marketing for the low and middle income, Fiestaware hoped to empower the average American housewife with a palette of colorful pieces with which to construct her masterpiece………the family dinner. In the era of post-depression recovery, a well considered and presented family dinner was no mundane matter. It was the height of democratic resilience.
The great depression had threatened the very ideal of endless American frontiers and possibilities. Recovering the joy at the dinner table reclaimed a sense of abundance. Instead of recreating a dreamed of Rockwellian past, Fiestaware dinnerware aimed to deliver a new future. Fiestaware was for a community table, a party or a neighborhood, instead of family table. The flexibility of quantity and color reflected gatherings of any size. This sense of sharing beyond family depicted democratic resilience that invited guests in times of need. Emblematic of collective shared joy, Fiestaware announced the rebirth of the American dream, not as the endless frontier, but as the united local front against the world. The celebration of community through bright colors, exchangeability and simplicity reflected the sense of unity in qualified diversity.
The idea of ‘fun’ in domestic upkeep and entertaining was a novel modern American ideal. The name ‘fiestaware’ pays homage to the atmosphere of collective joviality. Despite its Spanish name or maybe because of it, ‘Fiestaware’ deserves a spot in our list of American things. The name is the first clue to its American character. Fiesta. Party ware. The name alone conveys the youthful, vibrancy of a young emerging nation and its designs. Although ‘Fiestaware’ was quintessentially American in character, the name American Modern, was soon to be taken by Russel Wright working for Steubenville Pottery of Ohio, in 1937. The American Modern Dinner set was also based on the same principle of interchangeable colors. However unlike the geometric and deco style of ‘Fiestaware’, ‘American Modern’ was organic in shape. Fiestware and American Modern showed two different visions of an American future: one structural futuristic and the other, organic. Both shared an antipathy for historical reference and applied decoration.
Fiesta ware’s form has much to do with its longevity. Geometric, basic shapes, the high gloss finish, the banding lines on the rim and most importantly the variation of colors red, orange and blue. One could either purchase a single color or a mix. The feature of the interchangeable colors relates to individuality in a party and serves the informality of inconsistency. The standardized interchangeable colors conveyed, pluralism and individuality, two prized American ideals. The third ideal present in the dinnerware is attention to the future. The geometric, concentric, circular patterns without narrative reference projected a casual non-hierarchical simple future. In direct contradiction to European traditional dinnerware, Fiesta ware hoped to invoke the space age of possibility through blank colorful pieces for each housewife to compose as she chose. A far cry from 19th century British potter Josiah Wedgewood’s Queen Ann ware, Fiestaware shed all hints of aristocratic imitation. Fiestaware’s aversion to historical decorative arts represented by simple geometric clarity, bright colors and mass-market appeal shares the perspective of the 1920s German Bauhaus school of design that emphasized materials and the industrial production process. Fiestaware emblematic of the American spirit of casual dining, youth, vibrancy festive optimism at the eve of WWII would set the stage for the maturation of mid-century American style.
The 1930s witnessed the rise of industrial design as a profession. Easing housework drudgery was high on the national agenda as a democratic aspiration. Industrial designers like Walter Dorwin Teague, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, with backgrounds in commercial illustration and theater, constructed the appearance of a clean, efficient, simple modern world. Frederick Rhead’s Fiestaware was a member of the 1930s campaign of for visual simplicity, domestic comfort and mass-produced collective consumption that fueled American nationalism.
An immigrant potter from Britain, Fredrick Rhead produced his ware in the heart of the U.S. in West Virginia. The production location in a small town and celebration of the middle class consumption both attest to its democratic spirit. The spirit of national service continued to characterize the product. Reporting the recent 75th anniversary of Fiestaware, Holly Goring writes, “One of the most well-known aspects of Fiesta’s history was the discovery that the original red-orange Fiesta glazed dishes contained detectable amounts of uranium oxide (as did many red glazes produced by US potteries of the time). The red glaze is not the only color of vintage Fiesta ceramic glazes that is radioactive; it is also detectable in other colors, including ivory. During WWII, the government took control of uranium for development of the atom bomb, and confiscated the company’s production quantities. Unsurprisingly, Homer Laughlin discontinued the color in 1943.”[i]
Although first molded in 1936, and despite a period of radioactive glazes, Fiestaware continues to appease American taste. In shops like Kohls and Macy’s we still see Fiestaware grace the displays and weekly circulars. Due to low sales, Fiestaware was discontinued in the 1970s. In 1986, responding to a high value on Fiestaware collectable, the Homer Laughlin began production again. Fiestaware celebrated its 75th year in 2012 with the color ‘marigold.’ About Homer Laughlin’s flexible mass production, marketing and technological innovation, historian Regina Blasczynk writes, “Serving mass retailers and their customers was the name of the game at Homer Laughlin. From the 1920s through the 1940s, the firm’s managers undertook an expansion and renovation program designed to strengthen their alliances with mass merchandisers and to safeguard their reputation as potters to Her Majesty-The American Housewife. With the objective of meeting the demand for more goods and varied goods, Homer Laughlin’s managers selectively introduced Fordist methods to their Ohio River valley industrial site, deliberately shielding certain craft operations against mechanization.”[ii]
The civic role of Fiestaware is not unique. Post-depression design efforts conveyed a sense of national investment towards economic, social, and political recovery. Democracy, itself was at stake in this period. The climate of defending democracy is evident also in philosopher, educator John Dewey’s idea of design. Writing in the same time period, as Fiestaware, Dewey was concerned with democracy grounded in education, and correspondingly aesthetics ground in collective appeal. According to him, a democratic structure aims to diminish hierarchies of any kind and asserts “primarily a mode of associated life, of conjoint communicated experience.”[iii] In Dewey’s thought we find no privilege but rather continuity of theory and practice, art and design, beautiful and useful, means and ends, artist and beholder, form and context, producer and consumer. So, the artist has no more power than the viewer of the artwork. In aesthetic reflection, the viewer recreates the artwork and sympathizes with the efforts of its maker.[iv] It is the subjective continuity and connection mediated by the art object that Dewey found compelling. The design translation of his philosophy appears as increased attention to consumer responses to products. The agency of the consumer, viewer or user is important to note, as we consider Dewey’s idea of collectivity and creativity. In aiming to support the creativity of the housewife, Fiestaware, invited flexible everyday use and gave democratic freedom a fun and playful look. Fiestaware was sold as a palette for the creative housewife. The increased role of the average American consumer in affecting the production and marketing of products was in contrast not only to European aristocratic systems but also the communist system of shared labor. Decades later 1959 in pointing out the dishwasher, during the famous Nixon-Kruschev debate, Nixon was pointing out the importance of domestic labor in a democracy. In 1936, Fiestaware was an exercise of flexible consumer choice that set America apart. The principles of individuality, non-hierarchical imitation, interchangeable place settings, domestic ease, joy in homemaking, all characterized the notion of American freedom cultivated against European aristocracy or communist uniformity. The story of Fiestaware is a cosmopolitan statement of joy found in American national achievement through domestic comfort.
[i] Holly Goring, “Fiestaware Fiesta,” Ceramics Monthly, no. January (2012).
[ii] Regina Lee Blaszczyk, “Reign of the Robots: The Homer Laughlin China Company and Flexible Mass Production,” Technology and Culture 36, no. 4 (1995).
[iii] Richard Bernstein, John Dewey (New York Washington Square Press, 1966).
[iv] “A work of art is recreated every time aesthetically experienced” Ibid.