Catalina Tile & Pottery: A Decade of Color

 

written by Grove Koger

photos by Tom Lamb and Christine Dodd

It seems that William Wrigley Jr. had gone for a drive one day in 1927 with his master builder, David Malcolm Renton, when their car got stuck in a patch of red clay near the Avalon golf course. When D.M., as everyone called him, suggested that the sticky stuff might be good material for bricks, Wrigley gave the builder the go-ahead to investigate.

Known far and wide as the “Chewing Gum King,” Wrigley had bought Santa Catalina in 1919, hoping to turn it into a resort. Given his plans, he was always looking for ways to develop his investment while providing the local work force with steady employment. As it turned out, D.M. was right about the clay’s potential, and the result was a new division of Wrigley’s Santa Catalina Island Company—a tile factory operating on Pebbly Beach.

D.M. was enthusiastic about the operation, whose products would be marketed as Catalina Tile. The factory, he assured his boss, “will allow us to do some wonderful artistic work in our building program in the future, and within the next five years Catalina no doubt will undergo a wonderful change.”

At first Catalina Clay Products, as the division was known, produced bricks for Wrigley’s construction business in addition to roofing tiles and brightly decorated tiles for floors, patio and table tops. The Arizona Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix (yet another Wrigley enterprise) lined its pool with Catalina tiles, and of course original examples of the evocative tiles remain a prominent feature of many of Avalon’s buildings to this day. As a sideline, the factory also turned out paperweights and the like imprinted with island motifs and tinted with a copper green wash.

Within a short time Catalina Clay Products also began producing plates, lamps, tea services and so on. The company adopted a range of traditional forms and styles—Spanish Revival, Mexican, Native American, Moorish, and Art Deco—as well as creating new ones. Its first set of tableware, which it marketed as “Catalina Pottery for the refined home,” appeared in 1930 and quickly became a company staple. A story in the December 27, 1931, edition of the Los Angeles Times noted that what it called “Avalon-ware” was “recognizable for its flint-like hardness and beauty of form and color.” Within a few years the company was turning out more than 30,000 pieces a month, and eventually created hundreds of colorful shapes and designs. Catalina’s wares were sold in company stores on the island itself and in the Olvera Street section of Los Angeles, as well as by Marshall Field’s of Chicago and Lord & Taylor of New York.

A strong selling-point for Catalina’s wares is that when you bought a tile or a pot, you were buying a little piece of the island. The clay was a Catalina product, of course, but even the glazes were claimed to be prepared from locally mined minerals, including silica, aluminum and uranium oxides. As a result, the company was able to produce its tiles in a range of rich colors, including Monterey brown, Descanso green, Catalina blue, Mandarin (or Manchu) yellow, and Toyon red. This last was named for the bright red berries of the shrubby toyon tree (a member of the rose family) that had been one of the favorite foods of the Native Americans.

Waxing poetic about the distinctive hues, the author of an article from a 1932 issue of the Catalina Islander wrote that “the rich colorings of the satiny mat glazes … have caught in them the joyous golds of the California sun, the vivid blue of the laughing waters of the Pacific, the soft greens of early Spring and rich browns of Autumn, the red of December toyon and poinsettia.”

Alas, the Chewing Gum King passed away in 1932. And it was about this same time that the company started mixing white clay from the mainland (or “overtown,” as Catalina’s residents thought of it) with the island clay. As beautiful as they may have been when fired, and despite what the Los Angeles Times thought about their “flint-like hardness,” the pieces made entirely from Catalina’s red clay chipped easily. White clay had actually been discovered on the island in 1929, and, as D.M. had observed at the time, “the enamel takes very much better on the white than the red.”

The beginning of the end for Catalina Tile and Catalina Pottery came in 1937. That year Catalina Clay Products sold its molds and trademarks to an overtown company, Gladding, McBean, which continued to turn out Catalina Pottery until 1942. But the new company chose not to lease the plant at Pebbly Beach, citing the high cost of transporting materials. The molds and the name went through a few more vicissitudes, but of course the physical—and vital— connection to the “island of romance” had been lost.

Silver Canyon Pottery is located on scenic Catalina Island. Robin is widely known for her work restoring the tiles of downtown Avalon. Silver Canyon Tile specializes in the distinctive “cuenca” style of tile and has replaced 40% of downtown Avalon in restoration efforts. Her most recent endeavor has been to bring the history and fun of tile making to the visitors to the island via her popular studio tours. For more information visit Silvercanyonpottery.com.

The Shaws Cove estate sits in a prime Laguna Beach oceanfront location. Originally constructed for the J. Roy Smith ranching family in 1928, this classically designed Mediterranean Revival beach-front home has been meticulously restored. From it’s prominent oceanfront location to the property’s rich architectural and owner history, 989 Cliff Drive is a unique opportunity. For more information about the Shaws Cove estate, featured with original Catalina Tile in this article, visit ShawsCoveEstate.com or contact co-listing agents Hanz Radlein at hanz@radlein.com or Michael Johnson at michaeljohnson100@gmail.com.

 

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