Barbara Willis Cigarette Box

Very nice example or an early Barbara Willis Box circa 1943. In the crackle turquoise and brown finish. Great condition. No repairs, cracks or hairlines.

Price on request.

Barbara Willis – California ceramist

Nearly 40 years after she stopped producing pottery, Barbara Willis discovered that her works from the 1940s and ’50s were highly collectible. She re-started her career in her 70s.

September 15, 2011|By Valerie J. Nelson, Los Angeles Times

Nearly 40 years after she had stopped producing pottery, Barbara Willis made a startling discovery at a Long Beach flea market in 1995. Without her knowledge, she had become a highly collectible artist.

After she pointed to a vase and said, “I made that,” she learned that her vibrantly colored, crackle-glaze pottery from the 1940s and ’50s was in demand. Collectors had been searching for her for years.

Prodded by fans, Willis re-started her career as a ceramist when she was in her late 70s, hand-molding pieces in her Malibu kitchen. The first time around, she was among the first to adapt studio techniques to commercial pottery, using molds to mass produce simple geometric wares that had a hand-made look.

Willis died Sept. 3 of natural causes at her home in San Ramon, Calif., said her daughter, Liz Graham. She was 94.

“She was a really important figure in the commercial pottery scene in California,” said Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design. “She also was one of the first of what we now call Midcentury Modern designers in California.”

“Barbara set out to make pottery that had the visual feel of handmade pottery that could be made inexpensively enough for the general public to afford,” he said. “She was enormously successful at it.”

Her vintage pieces are prized for their combination of terra-cotta bisque and volcanic or crackled glazes, much like those thrown by master ceramist Laura Andreson, with whom Willis studied at UCLA.

In the early 1940s, Willis began making pottery in a studio her father built behind her family’s Fairfax district home. By 1948, she had a North Hollywood studio and more than a dozen employees.

“Her glazes were really splendid and really distinctive,” Stern said. “And she achieved something difficult by making crackle glazes that appear to have broken lines in them. She brought that to a new level by having employees use wire brushes to make striations. It was quite sophisticated.”

She was soon making $25,000 a year at a time when “my girlfriends were making $1,200 a year,” Willis told The Times in 2003. “I was very successful, especially for a woman.”

Her streamlined pieces that included vases, bowls and platters remain her most popular. She also made small items such as ashtrays, candle holders and housewares decorated with decals.

As inexpensive ceramic imports flooded the market in the 1950s, most of California’s small potteries were forced out of business. Willis closed her shop in 1958 after having produced more than 250,000 pieces, she once estimated.