About 12 years ago, Brenda and Ken Fritz walked into an antique shop and opened up Pandora's box. Actually, it was a cupboard, a piece of Americana they were considering buying to add to their already well-established collection of folk art. It was a pricey piece, and Brenda wanted to see the inside. And in that one small act, she got distracted -- a distraction has kept the couple busy ever since.
"There was a piece of pottery," she remembers. "And I said, 'What's that?' And the dealer said, 'It's nothing you collect; it's a piece of Czech pottery.' " The pair walked out of the store with the pitcher and left the cabinet behind. Neither can remember how much it cost: Ken thinks $45, Brenda says $65, but both agree they paid much less than what the sales tax would have been on the kind of collectibles they were used to buying.
Two weeks later, they were in another shop in another state, again looking for folk art. In a dusty cabinet behind a counter, they saw two vases and a pitcher with the same decorative pattern as the pitcher they now owned. "I said to Brenda, 'Any time you have three or more of something, you have a collection,' " Ken says. Today, the couple own 1,000 pieces of Czech and German ceramics, all dating from the period of that first piece -- about 1919 to 1933. Two years ago, in downsizing from their Los Angeles home of 30 years, the place where they raised their two now-adult daughters, they sold virtually all of their vast folk art collection, but they kept the ceramics. Over the past decade, they have become -- they and others believe -- the foremost collectors in the United States of Eastern European Bauhaus-style ceramics, a very specialized and not at all well-known arena.
The ceramics that fill their current home -- a lovely Mediterranean-style manse on a quiet Venice Beach canal -- do not resemble the expected image of classic Eastern European tableware. There are no floral patterns, no gold-leaf flourishes. Rather, these hefty-yet-well-proportioned dinner plates and cake platters, mantle clocks and vases, biscuit holders and spatulas all are decorated with bright, colorful geometric patterns that draw upon the international abstract vocabulary of 1920s and early '30s Modernist art -- the Russian Suprematists and Constructivists, the Italian Futurists and the German Bauhaus school.
A pie-slice quarter of the surface of a platter is decorated with a gray-and-white grid, for example; the rest of the circular surface is a more erratic red and gray pattern of lines and squares. A set of plates, cups and saucers is striped red, green and blue in colors reminiscent of a Tartan plaid, then overlaid with a thick black spider web of radiating lines. A clock and two candleholders on a mantle display a mix of partial circles, stepped lines, arrows and other eccentric geometric forms.
It is a vocabulary of forms that to this day can be identified with its forward-thinking period, shorthand for what was considered truly modern among people interested in being avant-garde. The Czech and German ceramics that the Fritzes collect are not art in its high form, but rather objects made to be used every day -- to serve dinner and dessert, or to top a sideboard. But for a brief time, such quotidian objects brought the art world into people's homes and made it an integral part of daily life. Until the Nazis stopped all that.
For the Fritzes, the attraction takes on many layers. They love the forms and marvel at the variety of the patterns. They love the hunt and have endless stories of uncovering troves of long-forgotten treasures at flea markets and in shops all over the world. And they care deeply about poignant story behind the goods, which were made in factories largely owned by Jews who employed Jewish workers, people whose vision the Nazis abhorred and whose mark on the world can be remembered today, in many cases, only by these remaining mass-produced objects.
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