There was only one portrait on the walls of the tiny apartment where the potter Lucie Rie lived above her studio in a mews house near London’s Hyde Park. It was a photograph of a fellow Austrian-Jewish émigré to Britain, the industrialist Fritz Lampl, and it hung above her bed.
Rie had befriended Lampl in Vienna during the 1920s, when they mixed in the same circle of avant garde artists, philosophers and writers. They soon became lovers, although, as both were married—she to the hat manufacturer Hans Rie, and he to the fashion designer Hilde Berger—they met in secret. The Ries had separated after fleeing from Nazi-controlled Austria to London in 1938, but as Lampl was still married, they sought a plausible excuse to spend time together.
The solution was for Rie to help with the production of the glass buttons that Lampl had started to make for department stores and fashion houses after Britain’s existing button factories were requisitioned by the government to supply buttons for military uniforms during World War II. Rie joined the dozen or so Jewish émigrés who Lampl employed to make buttons and advised him on their design. As well as enabling them to meet regularly, the arrangement allowed her to earn enough money to sustain her studio during the war and to experiment with a new and unexpectedly intriguing area of design—which would have an enduring influence on her work in ceramics.
When Rie, who was born in 1902 to a wealthy and cultured Viennese family, arrived in London, she was established in Austria as gifted young ceramicist, who applied then-radical modernist principles to the making of subtly styled pots for daily use. Once in London, she faced the challenge of doing so in a country where even supposedly “progressive” potters favoured a sturdier, earthier aesthetic. She also struggled to find customers whose taste was as sophisticated as hers.
Rie began her work for Lampl by making glass buttons in his workshops, mostly for sale to Harrods, Liberty, and other London department stores. As buttons were exempted from wartime rationing on the (predictably misogynistic) grounds that such humble luxuries would raise female morale, sales were brisk. She was soon encouraged to make ceramic buttons in her studio and to hire more refugees as assistants. Among them were Rudolf Neufeld, who helped Rie speed up production by using moulds rather than working by hand, and Hans Coper, a young German sculptor who became her closest collaborator until he left to open his own studio in 1958.
After years of self-imposed purism with regard to the design of her ceramics, Rie enjoyed the chance to be playful and experimental with her buttons. She used an extensive palette of colors and realized buttons in both abstract shapes and figurative forms that included flowers, shells, leaves, stars, fossils, and knots. Her choice of clays was equally eclectic, and she continually reformulated recipes for lusters and glazes to create new surface effects.
At its peak, Rie’s pottery studio employed eighteen people to produce over six thousand buttons a month and became known as the “Button Factory.” When the war ended, her focus returned to ceramics, yet she continued to accept occasional orders for unusual buttons. Her biographer, Emmanuel Cooper, was convinced that Rie’s wartime foray into buttons inspired the vibrant pinks, greens, yellows, and turquoises in her post-war pots, as well as her highly refined glazing.
By her death in 1995 at the age of ninety-three, Rie was hailed as a visionary ceramicist who had modernized studio pottery, and her wartime excursion into button making was largely forgotten. Yet a few years earlier, when the Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, presented her with a special collection of clothes, Rie thanked him with the gift of a set of buttons she had made in the early 1950s.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton and, most recently, Design as an Attitude published by JRP|Ringier.