September 30, 2018

Durlin Brayton and the History of Laguna Pottery

Laguna Beach is renowned for its long history as an artists’ colony. Perhaps not as well-known is the story of the emergence of Laguna Beach as a world-famous pottery and ceramics center.

It all began in 1926, when Durlin Brayton, a California native and Chicago Art Institute graduate, acquired a parcel of land in Laguna Beach beside what is now South Coast Highway. After setting up a painting and sculpture shop in his home, he borrowed $300 from his father in 1927 and bought a kiln. He and his wife began to create their iconic, vibrantly colored ceramic dinnerware sets: plates, bowls, pitchers and teapots.

The Braytons sold their earthenware from their home, displaying their goods in the front yard to attract buyers. The line of dinner sets they produced in the late ‘20s represented an innovative use of color and glazes. While bright primary colors had previously been used in painted ceramic art in parts of Europe, applying this bold palette to decorate everyday pottery was an American first.

In the early 1930s, Americans began to embrace solid-colored kitchenware, dishware, and gardenware from California’s potteries. Brayton had the talent and the ambition to discover a winning formula—producing cheerful, modern ceramic ware that was affordable. Out of this success, Brayton Laguna Pottery was born.

Brayton married his second wife in 1936, artist Ellen Webster Grieve, who was known as “Webb.” As demand for Brayton Laguna Pottery increased, the couple transformed their home workspace into a larger business. In 1938, they built a new manufacturing facility on five-acres of land between South Coast Highway and Glenneyre Street. Brayton’s new facility housed two tunnel kilns, an area for designers and a store. By this time, the company became less reliant on dinnerware and concentrated on producing decorative ceramic tiles, vases and figurines.

Brayton Laguna Pottery’s work was described by Jack Chipman in his 1992 book, "Collector's Encyclopedia of California Pottery.” He wrote:

“Brayton's pioneering colored pottery was press-molded by hand and then dipped in a remarkable series of opaque glazes including rose, strawberry pink, eggplant, jade green, lettuce green, chartreuse, old gold, burnt orange, lemon yellow, silky black and white. Basic place settings were made along with accessory pieces such as teapots, pitchers and large serving bowls ...”

Throughout the late 1930s, Brayton’s business and reputation continued to grow. In 1938, Walt Disney awarded Brayton Laguna Pottery with the first license to produce figurines of the many popular Disney characters, including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Ferdinand the Bull. Brayton created these Disney figures from 1938 until 1940.

By 1941, Brayton Laguna Pottery was the world’s largest manufacturer of ceramic gift and art pottery. Brayton's pottery was sold in fine department stores throughout the United States and in stores across the globe. Laguna Beach was already a celebrated artists’ colony, and now movie stars and other celebrities were coming to the city specifically to buy Brayton Laguna pottery and ceramics. This led to an influx of creative talent in the city, as potters, sculptors and other artists arrived.

The burgeoning company employed more than 150 artists, designers and potters who worked around the clock. The resulting noise from the constant firing of the pottery caused a few of the neighbors to complain to the local newspaper.

America’s entrance into World War II brought a halt to imported ceramics from Japan, Germany and Italy. The number of pottery companies in California grew as American companies stepped in to fill the demand. Laguna Beach became a major ceramics center, with a total of about 65 pottery companies operating in the city. Brayton had an advantage though, as his company was already firmly established.

The end of the war brought misfortune to Brayton Laguna Pottery. The United States lifted tariff restrictions, resulting in a flood of inexpensive imported ceramics from Japan and Italy. In 1948, the company suffered a serious blow with the untimely death of founder Webb Brayton. Soon after, in 1951, Durlin Brayton died of a heart attack.

Brayton Laguna Pottery remained open and attempted to compete with the foreign imports. But the combination of a changing market and the loss of its founder was too much for the company. It closed its doors in 1968, ending an important era in the history of both California and Laguna Beach ceramics.

The buildings that once housed Brayton Laguna Pottery are today the Laguna Art Center. While the kilns of Brayton Laguna Pottery have long since stopped firing, the pieces created by the company that began in Durlin Brayton’s home live on in collections in homes and galleries in Laguna Beach and throughout the world.