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Rediscovering Rookwood in a Contemporary Setting

Most people in these parts know the story of the groundbreaking Rookwood Pottery Company, founded in the late 19th century, and its revival in Over-the-Rhine over a decade ago. What many may not be aware of is how the reinvented company is creatively influencing contemporary designs, integrating its historic architectural tiles.

“We are taking our legacy and making it new again,” says Mary Guanciale, Rookwood Pottery art director. “We are showing people how historic tiles can fit alongside contemporary designs. These historic designs can really sing in contemporary installations. It’s our way to take care of our past, but nurture the present and future.”

Since Rookwood Pottery reintroduced tile in 2006 it has revived dozens of style lines using original molds from the early 1900s. Most significantly, Rookwood Pottery’s current team of ceramic artists have used the original designs to create inspired new companion pieces. It’s a way people can have a contemporary feel to a kitchen, bath or fireplace design, yet incorporate splashes of 100-year-old pieces created from the original molds.

“If you were to look at the old and new together, no one would know that it was decades later that a piece was created. The installation is seamless,” says Jennifer Berger, Rookwood Pottery sales director. “It’s not just taking old designs and modifying them. It’s also taking historic designs and incorporating them in a new, contemporary way. We are showing how Rookwood is a gorgeous tile that bridges that history.”

Guanciale says producing new pieces inspired by the historic ones “is a way to stay true to Rookwood’s innovative core, building on the past while looking toward what’s next.”

Indeed, artistic innovation was at the centerpiece of Rookwood Pottery’s success after it was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols Storer, granddaughter of Cincinnati’s famous businessman, Nicholas Longworth. She had traveled the world bringing artists to Cincinnati from Japan and Europe, creating an impressive team that was given the freedom to create and experiment.

They came up with a pottery line that won awards around the world, known for glazing processes that would create distinctive colors, especially it’s underglaze technique used to paint decorations and intricate illustrations. Its matte glaze would be the first of its kind. In fact, some of those glazes are still part of the current Rookwood Pottery’s “secret sauce,” as Guanciale says it retains proprietary formulas used over 100 years ago.

By the 1920s, Rookwood Pottery had expanded heavily into lines of architectural ceramic tile, preserved by the number of Rookwood Pottery fireplaces and bathrooms found in Cincinnati’s older homes. But Rookwood Pottery tiles were also used around the country in mass installations and can still be seen in such places as New York City subway stations and in Chicago’s Monroe Building.

“The genius of Rookwood Pottery’s historic approach is the focus on how to make tile unique and beautiful and become more than just a functional surface,” Guanciale says.

Rookwood Pottery fell on hard times during the Depression with stops and starts over the next 50 years, going through a number of brand owners, none able to maintain a true revival. That changed when investors opened Rookwood Pottery with a thriving factory in 2006. The revival began with Arthur Townley, an avid Rookwood Pottery collector who used his life savings to purchase and preserve remaining Rookwood Pottery assets in 1981, including more than 2,000 molds, glazes, notes and trademarks. Townley finally sold the assets to the Cincinnati team, who launched the pottery facility in 2006.

Berger says Cincinnatians are pleased to discover that Rookwood Pottery’s contemporary line of tiles is a way to preserve and accent what may already be in their homes, or are excited to be able to create their own Rookwood Pottery legacy in a design project, perhaps remembering an installation in their grandparent’s or parent’s homes.

“We are seeing people come in and want to accent what was built in the 1920s,” says Berger, “and we are seeing people with new construction who want to have Rookwood in their home and do it in a fresh way.”

A Rookwood Pottery installation does become a true artistic expression and customers enjoy literally becoming artists themselves by designing projects that can be a creative mash-up, drawing from a rich line of historic and contemporary tiles that build on the originals.

All orders are custom and still hand made. “People love the unique, hand-crafted nature of it. No two tiles are exactly the same,” Guanciale says. “Each tile passes through about 13 sets of hands before it reaches your home, so it is truly an artistic process. Richness of glazes and uniqueness of designs just can’t be matched by other tiles.”

Today, Rookwood Pottery employs about 70 people, including a core creative group of artists and designers. Besides architectural tile, Rookwood Pottery also features an extensive line of custom commemorative items such as plates, mugs, trophies and, most famously in the last year, a line for Fiona the Hippo. It also features contemporary and traditional pottery including vases, bowls and dinnerware.

Guanciale gets excited about architectural tile because it is a way to instantly link Rookwood Pottery’s rich historic legacy in modern design settings. “The new pieces we’ve designed incorporate the same type of inspiration and innovation that made Maria a thought-leader of her time.”

Guanciale notes there have been revivals of other pottery lines around the country, but as she puts it: “Anyone can make beautiful architectural tile, but only Rookwood Pottery can offer a legacy of over 100 years of history and artistry to support it.”

Looking to incorporate Rookwood Tile into your next design project or searching for that perfect gift? Visit our Factory & Design Studio or one of our retail locations in Over-The-Rhine and Liberty Center.

Thank you to Lead Cincinnati for sharing the story of our history, our process, and our unique approach to ceramic creations.