Telling history through tiles

A tiled lion fountain at the Adamson House. Vicki Godal / TMT

The story of Malibu Potteries

By Yayoi Lena Winfrey/Special to The Malibu Times

A community’s history is often told through its artisans and Malibu’s is no exception. To learn something about Malibu of the 1920s, visit the majestic manor at Ocean Park and Main Street in Santa Monica where the California Heritage Museum is currently exhibiting Malibu Potteries, California Tile-The Focus Series, until Jan. 2, 2005.

Part of the Everyday Life in California collection, these colorfully designed tiles are appropriately displayed in the kitchen of the family-style house where the museum is located.

Upon entering the abode’s kitchen, the visitor is greeted by a selection of black-and-white photos that visually tell the story of Malibu Potteries, a factory that manufactured an abundance of vibrant tiles. Signage, identifying the various stages of tile making from the composition of clay to production methods, accompanies samples of the finished pieces mounted on walls.

Founded by May Knight Rindge in 1926, Malibu Potteries employed 125 people in its heyday, including designers Rufus Keeler and William Handley.

After battling the State of California over building Pacific Coast Highway through her land, Rindge was in a financial crisis. Despite inheriting an estate valued at $20 million from her late husband, Frederick Hastings Rindge, she quickly depleted her resources with legal expenses. Rindge hoped to find oil on the 4,000 acres of coastal land called Rancho Malibu near Zuma Beach to offset her expenditures. Instead, she discovered both red-and buff-colored clay deposits, and fresh water from Sweetwater Canyon, and began making tiles.

With a $250,000 investment, Rindge created Malibu Potteries with the corporate name of Marblehead Land Company. The company’s original logo, featuring a Native American man in profile, is part of the California Heritage Museum exhibit.

Rindge hired Keeler from California Clay Products Company (Calco) to run the pottery and supervise the construction of the plant. Located on the beach just south of the Malibu Pier, the pottery measured 44,000 square feet.

A highly skilled designer, Keeler was an amicable supervisor. He lived in a tent on the beach next to the factory during the week. Employees worked from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for women, and 5 p.m. for men.

Exhibit photos show a group of ladies, dressed in clothing from that era, with their heads bent in concentration as they make tiles for circular tables. Well treated by their employer, most workers could swim, canoe or ride horses during their lunch break.

Malibu Potteries’ products were primarily sold to architects, builders and designers, and salesmen were provided with catalogs containing exquisite hand-painted illustrations and miniature tile samples. Sales binders are also displayed in the exhibit.

Besides tiles, the factory also manufactured soap dishes, towel hooks, chimney tops, ashtrays and smoking stands, bookends, vases and urns, decorative plates and cups, and lamp bases. A showroom on North Larchmont displayed many of its sale items.

Known for their color and clarity of glaze, Malibu Potteries’ tiles featured geometric motifs influenced by Moorish and Saracen cultures, Mayan and Egyptian patterns, and renderings of ships, peacocks and other birds.

One of Handley’s better-known designs is the Persian rug floor tile installed at Malibu’s Adamson House Museum, owned by the state of California. The state recently completed the purchase of the contents of the museum from the Adamson House Estate.

A fire in 1931 forced the closure of Malibu Potteries, but Rindge managed to keep the factory open until 1932, following The Great Depression.

The Adamson House is open to visitors. Other tile items can be viewed at City Hall, the magnificent Mayan Theater downtown, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and Dana Junior High School in San Pedro. And, of course, many fine samples can be seen at the California Heritage Museum’s exhibit.

California Heritage Museum Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Fourth Annual Antique & Contemporary Tile Sale will take place Saturday from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. at the California Heritage Museum located at 2612 Main Street in Santa Monica. Besides contemporary tiles, antiques, art pottery and Monterey furniture will be on sale. In case of rain, the event will be moved to June 12. Early bird admission is $10 at 9 a.m. while general admission after 10 a.m., is $5.

For more information, call 310.392.8537.