A Triumph of Craft, Industry, and Design

Fritz Albert at Teco Pottery

Born in Alsace-Lorraine and trained as a sculptor in Berlin, Fritz Albert came to Chicago to work on behalf of the German government at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. He then studied briefly in Rome before returning to Chicago to work for William Day Gates’ Teco Pottery (American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company). Albert swiftly became one of the top designers at the firm, helping them win a gold medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. He modeled architectural terra cotta, garden urns, and statuary for the company, but above all he crafted beautiful sculptural forms that highlighted his love of nature.

Model 310 is one of his most impressive designs and was achievable, in part, because of the innovative production methods used at the pottery. Teco’s clay was formulated for low-fire work, which meant that their pots were much less susceptible to shrinking, cracking, or warping in the kiln. The present model began as a solid slip-cast mold, followed by the cutting away by hand of the slender, sinuous leaves swirling around the base. It was then sprayed with their proprietary soft matte glaze and both fired and cooled slowly. The result is a masterful combination of industrial process and organic sculptural decoration that represents “the imprisoned inspiration of the artist who dreamed it”, as Gates’ publicist so eloquently extolled their wares.

Albert departed Teco not long after designing this model. Owing to the brevity of its production and the delicate nature of the tendrils, few examples have survived the past century. The present lot, miraculously free of any damage, is rarer still, and stands as a graceful yet imposing reminder of Teco’s remarkable legacy in the American Arts & Crafts movement.

Teco Pottery

Teco Pottery was the brain-child of Illinois lawyer William Day Gates (1852-1935, pictured). Gates purchased farmland northwest of Chicago and in the early 1880s discovered a red clay there that he would later develop into terracotta, starting in a small operation he named the Spring Valley Tile Works. The burgeoning company began manufacturing bricks and outdoor architectural features, and by 1885 he renamed it Terra Cotta Tile Works. The town was then also renamed Terra Cotta, Illinois. Two years later, the company was established as the American Terracotta Tile and Ceramic Company. In the wake of the Great Chicago fire of 1871, the demand for fireproof building materials was high. Gates’s company was among the first to begin fabricating architectural pieces to supply the rebuilding effort.

Through the end of the 19th century, Gates began to experiment with mixing different clays, making art pottery simply as a labor of love. In 1902, the Teco Pottery line was established, and by 1904 pieces were being manufactured and distributed on a national scale via Gates Potteries, a division of the Terracotta Company. The name “Teco” was derived from the first two syllables in “Terra” and “Cotta”.

Gates developed a signature matte glaze line, as matte glazes were popular at the turn of the century and fit neatly into the Arts and Crafts aesthetic. The glaze was a smooth, microcrystalline matte green, known as Teco Green, with only a few variations. Occasionally, a gunmetal color shift occurred called “charcoaling” as a result of excess copper colorant which floated to the surface of the glaze during firing, lending the carving more definition. By 1911, additional colors were created, including gray, yellow, brown, red, and blue, but these were not as common, nor were they as popular, as Teco Green.

As of 1911, Gates had designed over 500 styles of vessels. A majority of the forms are simple with little embellishment beyond buttresses or handles. A subset of examples have incredible, intricate details, incorporating swirling or reticulated leaf patterns and cut-outs. Many such forms were contributions from his associates, some of whom were accomplished artists and architects studying the Prairie School style of Frank Lloyd Wright, such as William J. Dodd. Other designers included Fritz W. Albert, who immigrated to the United States from Germany to work on the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair buildings. He went on the work for Gates and became one of the company’s most prolific designers.

Gates retired in 1913 to write for Clay-worker magazine, yet the production of art pottery continued through the decade. In 1918, Indianapolis Terra Cotta Company was acquired, and by 1919 the business had purchased an Indianapolis plant and a branch in Minnesota. The latest pottery dates to around 1923, after which point the company’s focus shifted to architectural commissions. In 1930 the company was sold and renamed the American Terra Cotta Corporation, producing solely architectural elements, urns, and garden pieces. Because Teco Pottery was produced for a relatively short period of time, only about 20 years, their wares are highly sought after and some are quite rare. Pieces can be identified by the distinctive Teco stamp, usually found impressed on the underside.

Auction Results Teco Pottery