This austere vase embodies nearly the exact opposite of Wedgwood’s well-known decorative aesthetic. Founded in 1759, the firm developed a sophisticated earthenware, often either black to imitate ancient Greek ceramics, or blue with relief decoration featuring neoclassical husks, swags of flowers and pastoral scenes. Early wares made of this material were cheaper than porcelain, but just as beautiful to a growing bourgeoisie. When modernism’s definitive rejection of this “decoration for decoration’s sake” approach, coupled with the worldwide economic Depression, took hold in the 1930s, Wedgwood embraced pure form and functionality to stay competitive in the redefined middle class market.
The designer behind Wedgwood’s modernist line was Keith Murray, an architect who took a sixteen-year foray into ceramic and glassware design to ease his own economic difficulties. Murray’s architectural perspective is evident in his pared-down ceramics—particularly his use of dynamic grooves and ridges as a utilitarian decoration, which stands in stark contrast to the loud and vibrant art deco ceramics of his contemporaries.
The most definitive characteristic of Murray’s minimal design, however, is its crisp form—this particular example is defined by its cleanly tapering conical shape. While in Wedgwood’s typical wares, the object served as a ground for decoration and color, Murray consigned glazes to a secondary role: to accentuate the form of the object itself. He selected newly invented matte glazes for many of his most successful Wedgwood designs, which produce muted, creamy hues with a subtle sheen—neither hiding nor upstaging the shape of the vase. Although Murray’s encounter with factory-made industrial design was brief, his legacy encouraged the continued streamlining of ceramics for the modern home.
The vase is now on view in the Cooper Hewitt’s First Floor, Gallery 113.
Chelsea Butkowski studies art history and communication at SUNY Geneseo. She worked as a Peter Krueger intern in the Cooper Hewitt’s Product Design and Decorative Arts Department in summer 2014.