1913 – 1959
Theme/Style – Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Modernism
Media – Low-fired pottery, terra cotta, tiles
Artistic Focus – California Faience was one of the pioneering Arts and Crafts potteries on the West Coast in the early twentieth century. More influential than many larger operations of its day, the company is still renowned for the high quality and simple beauty of its wares. It was also a studio where hundreds of artists and students were welcomed and mentored, always fostering fresh techniques and ideas while carrying on the fine traditions of its founders.
Career Highlights –
- In 1913 California Faience was founded on San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley, California as “The Tile Shop” by Chauncey “Tommy” Thomas (1876-1950).
- As early as 1914 The Tile Shop’s products began to bear the mark “California Faience.” The use of the word “Faience” (which refers to low-fired, brightly colored pottery) was a way of differentiating their products from porcelain.
- In 1915 The Tile Shop’s California Faience pottery was shown and sold at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco; and it was at this time that William “Billie” Bragdon (1884-1959), a former classmate of Thomas’s, became his partner in the business.
- Through 1919, The Tile Shop sold their pottery wholesale to dealers such as Paul Elder & Company and Gump’s in San Francisco. The shop also began its associations with outside artists, including Beniamino Bufano and Margaret Clayes.
- As more decorative tiles were produced, they were included as embellishments to items created by coppersmiths including Dirk van Erp. Most significant of all was the shop’s association with architects Julia Morgan and Walter Steilberg, for whom they made tiles for the MacGregor home in Berkeley, followed by a multi-year commission to make tiles for William Randolph Hearst’s home at San Simeon.
- 1922 brought a need for more space and a move to Berkeley’s Hearst Avenue, as well as a change of name to “California Faience Company.”
- The largest piece ever created by California Faience was a 1926-1927 commission for the baptismal font for the Mormon Temple in Mesa, Arizona – a huge basin supported by 12 life-size ceramic oxen – along with a frieze of tiles for the temple’s exterior.
- Through the late 1920s, Thomas and Bragdon expanded their venture with a formal association with Thomas Gotham’s West Coast Porcelain Manufacturers in Millbrae, resulting in a line called California Porcelain, which continued until it became a casualty of the Great Depression in 1931.
- California Faience’s last major commission came in 1933, to produce a series of tiles for the “A Century of Progress” International Exposition in Chicago. During the Depression years the company opened its doors to even more artists such as Richenda Stevick, Hermione Palmer and Mary Fuller McChesney.
- In 1938, just before the start of World War II, Chauncey Thomas left the company, bought out by his partner, William Bragdon. Always congenial and supportive, Bragdon continued to welcome both artists and students to the bustling operation.
- The post-war years brought an influx of low-cost ceramics from Asia and Europe, and a decline in income and orders for California potteries such as California Faience. Chauncey Thomas, who remained a close friend and correspondent of William Bragdon, passed away in Glendale, California in 1950, and Bragdon decided to retire in 1955, selling the shop to Clarence and Alice Stevens, who after three years sold the business to Douglas and Elena Baugh in 1958.
- William Bragdon continued a close association with the shop after his retirement, as an unpaid consultant who worked there regularly. When he passed away in 1959, California Faience closed its doors permanently. Its continued notoriety is a testament to Thomas and Bragdon’s commitment to the art form, and enriches their legacy.
- A major catalog exhibition entitled Of Cottages and Castles: The Art of California Faience was held at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California in 2015, and the Pasadena Museum of California Art in 2015-2016.
Selection of Works by this Artist
Bibliographic references are available upon request.