Free-lance ceramist - Member of IAC, the
International Academy of Ceramics
LUCIE RIE BEGAN DESIGNING
JEWELRY AND HER FAMOUS BUTTONS
I would like to initiate my contribution in this inaugural issue of “MATRES, World Women Ceramics” not only affirming that Lucie Rie was an important ceramist, but expressing my admiration for her - - she was undoubtedly one of the most significant female ceramic artists of our time.
I have always felt a deep connection with her in a special way. Her works have deeply attracted my attention since I began to work with ceramics as a teen. Later, in 1999, her work was shown at a magnificent exhibition in Vienna, displayed for the very first time after her emigration to England in 1938 despite the fact that she had never wanted her works to be presented in Vienna during her lifetime. Coincidentally, I am now living in the very eastern part of Austria, close to the Hungarian border where Lucie spent much time visiting her grandparents and escaping the hot summer temperatures in Vienna. During my research to learn more about Lucie Rie and her life, I discovered many amiable facts: when living in England, she missed the strong Austrian coffee that she was addicted to, she loved seeing her order book full and she never lost her Viennese accent. She was born in Vienna in 1902, into a Jewish family of influence as Lucie Gomperz, and grew up during quite an exciting period, where Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Wiener Werkstätte were renewing the style of the younger generation, leaving behind the gloomy and rigid historicizing style of the 19th century.
It was the period when psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud was working on the power subconscious in humans and the interpretation of dreams. It was the period of painters like Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and composers like Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schönberg. In fact, this period marked the beginning of abstraction era across Europe.
Lucie Rie opened her first studio when she was only 23 years old and a student at the Wiener Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts). She quickly developed a unique style and passion for very simple forms with essential lines and sophisticated surfaces. Her urban style was in stark contrast to the colorful and opulent works of many famous artists in Vienna at the time and also differed strongly from the rustic earthy works of Bernard Leach, who was very popular in England at the time.
Unlike the works produced by her contemporaries, Lucie’s pieces are more architectural, and one could actually feel the spirit of simplicity of modernist buildings. Her approach was revolutionary. In addition, she always attached great importance form, following the dictum of architect Adolf Loos on the sparing and appropriate use of decoration. In 1908, Loos proclaimed that architectural ornamentation “was a crime,” relating to Louis Sullivan's expression "form follows function," which is probably one of the most significant principles of modern architecture.
At the end of the 19th century, the popularity of Japanese art and design among many Western European artists reached Vienna, where many of Gustav Klimt`s paintings express this considerable influence. One can see a relationship between Lucie Rie's work and Japanese ceramics and in relation to her close contact with Bernard Leach in later times.
Architect and designer Josef Hoffmann, co-founder of the Wiener Werkstätte, discovered Lucie Rie's extraordinary talent quite early on. He even took her first work to the famous Palais Stoclet in Brussels, the building he designed in collaboration with Gustav Klimt and many artists from the Wiener Werkstätte. After graduation, Lucie presented her works in London, Milan and Paris. After her marriage to Hans Rie, Lucie established herself further as an outstanding ceramist. In 1937, Josef Hoffmann chose 70 of her pieces to be presented at the World Exhibition in Paris, and he even designed a special “corridor showcase” to display Lucie’s works. Unfortunately, the exhibition was overshadowed by the Great Depression and the threat of global war. During this event, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica was shown to visitors to indict the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, during this difficult period, the career of Lucie Rie-Gomperz came to an abrupt end. Being Jewish, she was forced to emigrate to England in 1938 due to the racial laws.
Despite having won many prizes in numerous international exhibitions in England, Lucie was largely unknown in her homeland. She rented a garage and established a studio near Hyde Park, which then had to close during the war. However, she was able to continue working in the glass-blowing workshop of a friend who had also emigrated from Vienna. Lucie Rie began designing jewelry and her famous buttons, which were used in the late 1980s by Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, who was her close friend.
She often invited many people into her studio and was famous for serving her visitors tea and cakes. Her studio remained largely unchanged during the 50 years of its existence. It was later relocated and reconstructed in the ceramics gallery of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1945, Hans Coper, a German immigrant, came into her life. This relationship had a profound effect on her; Lucie and Hans became intellectual and artistic partners. She hired the young man, who had no experience in the field of ceramics, to help her bake buttons. Lucie sent him to a potter who taught him how to make pots on the potter’s wheel. Hans Coper became a partner in Rie’s studio. Together they produced many elegant and functional ceramics that were sold in the most important department stores in London and New York. Hans Coper remained with her until he opened his own studio in Hertfordshire in 1958; their friendship and collaboration continued until Coper's death in 1981.
After going through difficult times, Lucie managed to bring out all of her creative and ingenious spirit. She also often endured the harsh criticism of Bernard Leach, considered the father of the British school of ceramics. They were friends and she was impressed by his views. Despite his brief influence and criticism, Lucie's delicate modernist ceramics clearly distinguished themselves from Leach's rustic and subdued work.
Lucie Rie’s work was further recognized in many exhibitions and received numerous prestigious awards after the retrospective of her work at the Arts Council Gallery at St. James’ Square in 1967, where Bernhard Leach expressed his great respect for her artistic creation.
In 1981, Lucie Rie`s work was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and in 1994 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. In Japan, architect Tadao Ando designed a gigantic rectangular pool for the exhibition “Issey Miyake meets Lucie Rie” in which her ceramics appear to float. In 1991, after teaching at the Camberwell School of Art from 1960 to 1971, Lucie Rie was awarded the title of “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.” Her ceramic work came to an end in 1990, after the first of a series of strokes. She passed away at home in London on 1 April 1995 at the age of 93
Throughout her life, Lucie Rie was interested in experimenting and developing new glazes for materials such as stoneware and porcelain. She further optimized the process of single firing so that she could apply
the glaze on the raw piece. She often applied the glaze with a brush when the clay was still raw and not fired. This unique approach led to surfaces and textures that appear more vivid and alive.
From the late 1940s onwards, Lucie Rie began to use the graffiti technique, inspired by Avebury vases from the Bronze Age, often decorating her pieces with delicately incised lines using metal needles. Nowadays, we speak of the “Lucie Rie Quiver” that pervades the surfaces of rustic and sometimes softly-toned pieces. Lucie Rie always considered herself an artisan. The way she interacted with clay resulted in a fascinating and subtle simplicity, as if not belonging to this world.
The poet and critic Christopher Reid described Lucie Rie`s work as “of unrivaled beauty, strength, subtlety and eloquence… her vases and bowls are like metaphysical poems, animated by… tensions.”
Issey Miyake said “The charm of her work lies in the warmth and nostalgia of the manual labor that floods our hearts. Each of Lucie`s pieces give us a sense of the origin of her creation; each one exists in a world of its own, neither in the East nor in the West.”