Pewabic Pottery: Detroit’s Arts & Crafts survivor
NEW YORK – Not everyone is familiar with Pewabic Pottery (pronounced Puh-WOB-ic), but for anyone from Detroit and the southeastern Michigan area it’s a revered and venerable institution.
In 1903, Mary Chase Perry Stratton, who went to art school in Cincinnati and New York where she worked in clay sculpture and china painting, joined her neighbor, Horace James Caulkins, to make pottery. Caulkins was in the dental supply business and had had developed a kiln for making dental enamel. Perry and Caulkins fired their first vases and tiles in that kiln. They worked out of a coach house at the back of a mansion located at John R. and Alfred streets in Detroit.
In 1907, they built a Tudor Revival structure at 10125 E. Jefferson Ave. to house their studio and laboratory, which is still there, still functioning and operational as a headquarters. The structure was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991.
Pewabic Pottery is notable for the iridescent glazes on the many handmade decorative objects it produces, such as lamps, vessels and especially architectural tiles, a staple in the firm’s history. The glaze of the tiles has been described as being “like an oil slick with an incredible translucent quality and a phantasmagoric depth of color.” Over the years they’ve been used in churches, concert halls, fountains, libraries, museums, schools and public buildings, mostly in Michigan.
But the rest of the country has taken notice, too. Tiles grace such buildings as the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; Herald Square in New York City; and Herzstein Hall at Rice University in Houston. Michigan installations include Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers), Detroit Medical Center Children’s Hospital, Third Man Records in Detroit and stations for the Q-Line in Detroit.
Perry Stratton’s and Caulkins’ collaboration and business partnership produced a blend of art and technology that gave the pottery its distinctive qualities as Detroit’s contribution to the International Arts and Crafts movement, as exemplified by the American Craftsman style.
They chose the word “Pewabic” to call their company, as it’s derived from the Native American Ojibwe, or Chippewa, word “wabic” (meaning metal) or “bewabic” (which means iron or steel). Specifically, it refers to the old Pewabic copper mine near Hancock, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula where Perry Stratton was raised. Today, the Detroit facility operates as a nonprofit educational institution, and Pewabic tile continues to be in great demand throughout southeastern Michigan and the U.S.
“Pewabic pieces can be found all across the United States and are even represented within the collection of the Louvre in Paris, France,” said Lori Stefek at Stefek’s Auctions in Roseville, Michigan. “There is a growing appreciation for Pewabic Pottery within the auction industry. We have sold pieces to buyers in many states, including California, New Jersey, and Illinois.”
Stefek added, “The distinctive glaze is … a signature feature of Pewabic Pottery. Being from Detroit, you know when you walk into a space that features Pewabic tiles; the glazes capture the eye immediately. As an auctioneer I see a lot of pottery, and you know right away when a true Pewabic piece comes through for its distinctive look and craftsmanship.”
“In this age of disposable products, Pewabic pieces are still produced with the same care that Mary Chase Perry Stratton intended,” Stefek said. “The innovation and creative direction that Pewabic was founded on is still carried on today, and that attention to detail attracts a wide variety of collectors and new buyers alike who desire handcrafted goods over mass-produced generic pieces. No wonder it’s still one of the longest lasting pottery studios in the Midwest.”
“Pewabic Pottery has always been known for remarkable quality, and for that reason it received nationally acclaim,” said Rachel Szymusiak, cataloger and appraiser for Schmidt’s Antiques in Ypsilanti, Michigan. “Pewabic has supplied decorative and architectural tiles to many places, due to its remarkable quality and enduring consistency. The iridescent glaze is unmistakably Pewabic and the quintessential shapes and styles are timeless, both decoratively and practically.”
Gus Bolstrom of California Historical Design Inc. in Alameda, California, said Pewabic Pottery is known and revered throughout America, “not only because they were making incredible Arts & Crafts Pottery – they were early in the movement right from the earliest days of their inception back in 1903 – they were making incredible iridescent glazes unlike anyone else at the time.”
Bolstrom added, “Pewabic Pottery is one of the only pottery studios from the Arts & Crafts period still in business today. This allows collectors of modest means to afford something made from their kilns. Interest in many pieces of the Arts & Crafts Movement has been down for the past 10-20 years, but Pewabic Pottery seems to hold its own better than most other potteries.”
As an example, Bolstrom pointed to a 16-inch carved Pewabic Pottery vase that sold not long ago for $53,125 (including buyer’s premium) at Toomey Auctions in Oak Park, Illinois. “That may be a record for a piece of Pewabic pottery,” he said, adding, “I reached out to a few collectors of Pewabic in the San Francisco Bay area to gauge market demand. The consensus is there will continue to be strong demand because of the rarity and the exceptional fine glazes.”
Rachel Szymusiak at Schmidt’s Antiques said, “There has always been demand for earlier pieces, and in general we see the demand as steadily increasing. Again, the timelessness of the pieces, consistent quality, and exceptional craftsmanship will ensure a reliable demand.”
Lori Stefek said Pewabic’s popularity among designers and collectors has remained steady throughout the years. “A lot of variables go into the demand for the pieces, including the shapes, sizes, and rarity of the glazes,” she said. “I don’t see Pewabic losing its market demand anytime soon, and if anything it has the potential for higher demand. The younger generation, especially in Detroit, is starting to move back toward appreciating quality products made in Detroit due to the city’s renaissance. They’re attracted to the tenacity of Pewabic’s heritage during the turbulent times of Detroit’s history. The Internet has also opened up the market to interested people across the globe who wish to learn more and have the chance to acquire a Pewabic piece of their own.”