The story of Pewabic Pottery is a chronicle of resilience

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It is intertwined with the history of Detroit

CHALLENGED BY A friend to replicate a piece of shimmering Babylonian earthenware, Mary Chase Perry had an idea. The ceramicist decided to fire her pieces three times, adding a spray of kerosene for the final blast: the oil burst into flames, combusting with the metal oxides in the glaze to create a swirl of metallic colours. In 1903, the same year Henry Ford established his motor company in Detroit, Perry co-founded a small pottery studio in the city. By 1909 she had perfected the iridescent glaze and the process of “fuming” that became the studio’s trademark.

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The fortunes of Pewabic Pottery—named after an old copper mine near her birthplace—have since reflected those of Detroit itself. Perry’s workshop, which fashioned handmade, delicate wares, could not have been more different from Ford’s vast factory and its assembly-line production. But as Steve McBride, Pewabic’s current boss, notes, the midwestern city “has always been a place of parallel tracks”. The workshop was an integral part of America’s Arts and Crafts movement, a backlash against mechanisation that began in the late 19th century. Yet those tracks sometimes intersected. Albert Kahn, who designed the earliest Ford factories, decorated the interiors with Pewabic ceramics.

Ford helped

to bring people, and wealth, to the city in the early 20th century. Architects designed stunning Beaux-Arts and Art Deco buildings, including one for the Detroit Institute of Arts that opened in 1927, and the majestic Guardian Building (pictured), built in 1929; both were adorned with Pewabic’s glittering tiles. During the Depression, which hit Michigan and its manufacturing badly, the pottery pivoted to make smaller pieces such as buttons, brooches and ashtrays. Jobs and people left cities after the second world war; in 1965, four years after Perry’s death, Pewabic was handed over to Michigan State University’s ceramics programme. Later a non-profit organisation took it over.

The workshop’s fortunes recovered as Detroit crawled out of its protracted slump; the city’s low prices attracted creative youngsters from across the country. In 1987 Michele Oka Doner, a Florida-born artist, won a competition to design a new installation at Herald Square subway station in New York, and chose gold Pewabic tiles for her 11,000-piece mosaic, “Radiant Site”. In 1991 the studio was designated a National Historic Landmark. More recently, when construction began at Detroit’s flagship stadium, Little Caesars Arena, in 2014, the pottery was commissioned to create an imposing, 5,000-piece exterior mosaic. And these days riders on the city’s new tram network, the QLine, can see its tilings at every stop.

Today Pewabic is part of a renewed Arts and Crafts movement, argues Mr McBride, as some consumers again opt for artisanal products rather than mass-produced schlock. Sales of pottery and tiles have increased by a fifth since 2019; Mr McBride reckons the pandemic inspired people stuck at home to spend more on furnishings. But, true to its roots, Pewabic remains a small outfit with only a few dozen employees, who still use its original clay mixer from 1912. Its story over the past century, much like Detroit’s, is one of ingenuity, adaptation and, above all, resilience. ■

This article appeared in the Culture section of the print edition under the headline “Glaze of glory”

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