Tradition Meets Innovation
David Rago on Teco Pottery
Teco’s work is sometimes dismissed as falling short of high-end Arts and Crafts pottery because the ware is mostly, if not entirely, molded. Additionally, their interpretation of the organic matte green glaze made famous by the Grueby Pottery has a relatively even surface with little variation in color or texture. And yet, all the major museum collections in the United States include at least one serious piece of their work with the understanding that no representation of the Arts and Crafts in this country would be complete without it.
Teco is pottery of the Prairie School, a curious hybridization of the European, medieval roots of Arts and Crafts and the Modernism of Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan. The use of machines, as well as specialization of roles, were always more welcome in the American adaptation of the Morrissian ideal, which was one artist seeing a piece all the way through, entirely by hand. Machines and small assembly lines—both utilized at Teco—were not in concordance with such European rigor but allowed for considerably more innovation in design and technique and kept the prices more affordable than Morris’ work ever was to the middle classes.
Add to this artistic milieu the clean slate that Chicago became after the great fire of 1871, which left the city ripe for a rebuild. Modern methods and design provided a template for new construction which, ultimately, became manifest in the decorative arts. With lines influenced by the flat prairies of the Midwest, the best Teco pots echo all these elements in some of the most beautiful art pottery made at the turn of the last century.
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
Hugh Garden for Teco Pottery
Rare jardiniere with lotus blossoms and arrowhead leaves, model 106
Hugh Garden for Teco Pottery
Important jardiniere with water lilies, model 86