Cradle of liberty, cradle of craft

Rudolf Staffel
Rudolf Staffel, the son of first-generation German parents who immigrated to the United States in 1852, was born in San Antonio.9 After graduating from high school in 1928 he studied painting with Jose Arpa (1858-1952) and life drawing with Xavier Gonzales (1898-1993). In 1929 Staffel attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but finding the coursework too conservative he spent most of his time in the galleries of the Art Institute and the Field Museum, entranced by the exhibits of glass and ceramics-both ancient and modern. In 1932 he went to Mexico to study glassblowing but ended up apprenticing himself to a potter in San Juan Teotihuacán.

Rudolf Staffel (1911-2002) receiving the American Craft Council Fellows Award in 1978. Photograph by Jim Estrin, courtesy of the American Craft Council. 

In 1940 Staffel joined the faculty of the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia with responsibility for building their ceramics program. During World War II, he enlisted in the Air Force and later used the GI Bill to take life-drawing classes with Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) in New York. Early on his work in ceramics was primarily functional but sometime around 1954 his interest in translucency was rekindled, resulting in his use of porcelain to achieve the light-catching quality he sought and for which he is known. The exceptional thinness of his vessels often resulted in holes, which he patched with other pieces of porcelain. Some of these vessels were hand built and some were thrown. Over time his repairs to them became less utilitarian and more about the transmission of light through different thicknesses of the vessel walls.

Vase by Staffel, 1973. Porcelain washed with copper salts; height 8 ⅞, diameter 5 ⅝ inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, gift of Dr. and Mrs. Perry Ottenberg.

An innovator, Staffel influenced several generations of students. He retired from Tyler in 1978 to work full time in his studio, garnering numerous awards and honors both here and abroad. ERA

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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