Sep 11, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
We’ve focused on the mid-century pottery movement in recent posts, but I’d like to travel back in time for this feature. Nearly 50 years before Edith Heath first discovered her love of ceramics, a prodigal son was leaving Chicago and returning to Crystal Lake, Illinois to take over the family business. What’s extraordinary about this tale is that when William Gates left his life as an attorney, he was quickly beset by a host of challenges. The year following his homecoming, the entire tile factory burned to the ground. Every bit of hope for a new future went up in smoke. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it would have been for William to suffer another tragedy so soon after losing his father. It must have been tempting to see that as a sign to pack it in and head back to the windy city, but the love of ceramics was in his blood and William rebuilt and re-imagined the dream.
Adding to the established drain tile business, he pivoted to incorporate architectural terra cotta. The high-quality work and entrepreneurial spirit captured the attention of renowned architects . Soon this humble business became a key collaborator in the birth of the modern architectural movement. The company, by this time, had rebranded under the name: the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Company and, after successful collaborations with Louis H. Sullivan, William decided to pivot again. This time he went from the scale of buildings to the smaller (but equally compelling) stage of home goods. In 1902 the world was introduced to Teco Pottery. While the heyday of this particular brand was relatively brief (around thirty years), its legacy is alive and well to this day. For collectors, an authentic Teco is timeless.
What inspired the Teco name? It’s an abbreviation / combo of TErra COtta. Clever, no?
Perhaps it’s this connection to the built environment that adds to Teco’s allure. After all, a walking tour of Chicago reveals many a building with the American Terra Cotta & Ceramic Co. seal. This level of artistry gets appreciated on a grand scale, so having a piece with such monumental roots in your own home provides a definite aura of uniqueness. Glancing through early catalogs of Teco, it’s evident how much art and diplomacy was ingrained in their corporate culture. Perhaps this quote from Haldane Macfall (found in a February 1921 edition) captures it best: “Art is universal, eternal – not parochial.”
With this ambitious guiding force, supported by a hungry, talented crew, the Teco line included over 500 designs by 1911. To put it in perspective – in under ten years – they had produced a multitude of beautifully designed pieces that were made to last. It’s not easy to produce quality on a large scale, but Teco achieved it. The designs were all unique, but most exuded Arts & Crafts style – that Prairie School look that was finding momentum in the great state of Illinois thanks to the up-and-coming architect Frank Lloyd Wright. As an aside, I think it’s pretty cool to have one company with so many touch points to iconic designers!
Teco pottery can be identified by its matte glazing (green is, by far, the most common color) and crisp lines. The design catalog is organic, yet geometric. (Some may even describe it as architectural – not a leap given the company’s history.) The pieces are simple, yet elegant. It’s no wonder that Teco pottery graced the lobbies of many a fine American hotel. Attending a cultural event in the early 1900s often meant spying a Teco somewhere in the background. Beyond a color scheme and aesthetic, how else can you identify a Teco? Luckily, the pieces are marked on the bottom with a trademark and style number. Later pieces may have “Teco” stamped in rectangle. Here’s a handy guide to navigating the markings. After decades of creative expression, William’s endeavor transitioned again – with the company being sold to another family in 1930. Teco pieces were only made for another decade or so, bringing an end to the experimentation and poetic forms of the 1910s. This company, led by an attorney, left an indelible mark on American design history and next time you’re in New York City swing by the MET to catch a glimpse of that Teco green…