Lucie Rie photographed by Stella Snead. courtesy Kathy Fehl
Lucie Rie, photographed in the 1960s © Stella Snead/Kathy Fehl

The British ceramicist Lucie Rie was best known for her sublimely simple, single-fired and raw-glazed pots. Hawk-eyed, sharp-tongued and tiny (she stood at under 5ft tall), Rie cut an indomitable figure in the mid-century ceramics scene. “I don’t like pots,” she said contrarily in 1975. “I just like some pots.”

As rigorous and disciplined in life as she was in her work, Rie invariably appeared pristinely turned out in a uniform palette of white or grey, with her mornings dedicated to pottery and her afternoons to studio-based socialising.

Rie’s unequivocal style is currently having a moment. Last September, a bronze-rimmed 1980s bowl glazed in her signature “American Yellow” sold at Sotheby’s for a mammoth £125,000 (a figure since smashed by her one-time apprentice Hans Coper). Now an exhibition at York Art Gallery, Lucie Rie: Ceramics & Buttons, spotlights Rie’s sartorial credentials, focusing for the first time on her overlooked incarnation as a prolific wartime button-maker.

There’s beauty to behold in this 550-strong survey of Rie’s buttons. Circular beads and glass cubes are shown alongside ceramic buttons shaped like fans, flags and flowers, decorated in every glaze imaginable, from vivid gold to naturalistic, earthen tones. Seen alongside 70 of her career-defining pots, these minuscule ceramic artworks are both jewel-like and fantastically sculptural.

An assortment of Rie’s buttons © Phil Sayer

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rie isn’t short on fashion fans. Jonathan Anderson, an avid admirer, kick-started his growing collection of her ceramics with a sinuous 1950s salad bowl. The designer cites the potter as a reference for his work as the creative director of Loewe as well as his eponymous brand. He’s not alone. Issey Miyake first came across Rie’s creations in the late 1980s, and soon visited her at her studio for tea. So inspired was he by their meeting that he organised a major exhibition of her work in Tokyo in 1989, and dedicated his entire 1989/90 runway collection to her aesthetic, in a show featuring her buttons. “Seeing some of her work,” Miyake told an interviewer in 2016, “I sensed that this is what it means to create — I remember feeling suddenly energised . . . ”

Born in Vienna in 1902 to an affluent Jewish family, Rie was forced to flee her Nazi-occupied native city for London aged 36. While at home she was already a star, her work chiming with the flourishing Modernist movement, in Britain she was an unknown entity, completely at odds with the rustic sensibilities of the contemporary studio potters. Bernard Leach, the leading light of British studio pottery, thought her glazes too thick and her pots too thin, dismissing her work as lacking humanity.

Undeterred, Rie set about recreating her Viennese studio at her home in Albion Mews, close to Hyde Park, where she lived until her death in 1995. But there was little place for pottery in London at the outbreak of the second world war. In what she named “the cabbage years”, Rie instead found work designing buttons at the Bimini Glass workshop in Soho, where from 1940-43 she helped supply everyone from Liberty to Harrods. “Although there were austerity measures in place,” says the show’s curator Helen Walsh, “accessories and buttons could still be produced because women needed access to those frivolous materials to keep their spirits up.”

Porcelain bowl, 1955-60 © Phil Sayer

It was Rie’s boss at the factory, George Schenker, who suggested that she give ceramic button-making a go. So successful were her efforts, produced both by hand and using plaster of Paris moulds, that she took on assistants to accommodate the demands of the couturiers who soon came knocking.

“Rie always had a strong Modernist aesthetic, from her home to the way she dressed,” says Walsh. “Her buttons were totally different from anything that was being produced at the time.” Her mastery of colour, which meant she could instinctively match her ceramic glazes to fashion designers’ fabrics, put her in high demand. In 1941, International Textiles magazine celebrated Rie’s “Chinese white, royal blue [and] scarlet” button glazes, reporting that the House of Worth had decorated a red winter coat in her natural clay buttons, while Edward Molyneux had bedecked his “Debris” dress with ceramic buttons that she had fashioned after air-raid wreckage.

It’s a moment that Jonathan Anderson seemingly nodded to in his recent AW18 men’s show, when he covered a simple white Loewe shirt with a bevy of minuscule 3D terracotta pots. The designer, who has over the years determinedly amassed many of Rie’s original buttons, has also recreated her ceramic knots and coined glass buttons in plastic. “What was interesting is how feminine some of them were,” Anderson has said of Rie’s fastenings. “Buttons for me are very sculptural things.”

In his appreciation for the art of the button, Anderson has company. At Chanel AW18, Karl Lagerfeld applied knotted brass fastenings to tweed jackets in much the same way as its founder did in the 1920s and 1930s. And with the renaissance of the blazer, which featured in the Resort 2019 collections of everyone from Fendi to Chloé, and the recent rise of women’s tailoring, the button is once again centre stage.

Intricate buttons feature on a Chanel AW18 jacket © Jason Lloyd-Evans

At its peak it’s estimated that Rie’s Albion Mews workshop was producing around 6,000 buttons a month. Yet these miniature money-spinners never really captivated the ceramicist, who saw them as a distraction from her true calling. “Rie never really valued the buttons or saw them as art,” says Walsh. “For her they were simply a means to an end. Despite their popularity, she wasn’t prepared to give up the dream of being a potter.” In fact, when demand waned after the war, Rie’s buttons and accompanying moulds lay shelved in her studio until her death in 1995, when she bequeathed them to Issey Miyake.

It’s only today that their real artistic worth is being fully recognised. “Rie ushered in a New Look for pottery in much the same way that Dior did for fashion,” says Walsh. “The buttons are really crucial to her development as a potter. Not only did they help to keep her going during the war, you can see in them the beginnings of her later work. They are a crucial stepping stone in terms of form and decoration.” And compared with the eye-watering auction prices of her pots, you can pick one up for buttons.

‘Lucie Rie: Ceramics & Buttons’ is at the York Art Gallery to May 12 2019

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