This is the most brown-bread, down-home countrified deco you’ll ever find, but deco it is nonetheless, and pretty glorious at that. This is desert and plains deco.
Affordable dinnerware and serving pieces, mugs, novelties, memorial figures, Route 66 items, limited editions, commemoratives, souvenirs–Frankoma Pottery has served the needs of everyday life since it’s beginnings in Norman, Oklahoma in 1933. This practical earthenware, known for its terra cotta look and colorful glazing, has gradually taken its place in the realm of serious collectibles.
John Nathaniel Frank, a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and a ceramics professor at the University of Oklahoma, established the then-called Frank Potteries in a small studio in his home in Norman. His studio was equipped with only one small kiln, a butter churn for mixing the clay, a fruit jar for grinding glazes and a few other tools. Using light cream-colored clay discovered in the Arbuckle Mountains near Ada in southern Oklahoma, he began selling his pottery on a part-time basis.
After some initial success with the pottery, he resigned his post at the university in 1936 and, at the suggestion of his wife Grace Lee, renamed the business Frankoma Potteries, a combination of his last name and the last three letters of Oklahoma. At the time, it was the only commercial pottery being produced in Oklahoma. Along with his wife, he worked full time in his Norman studio experimenting with glazes and creating vases, decorative pieces and sculptures.
Even though they attempted to create beautiful things that the average person could afford, the business struggled as pottery wasn’t received well in the Depression years.
Enticed by the Chamber of Commerce, they moved the entire operation to Sapulpa, Oklahoma in 1938. They continued to haul clay from Ada, which required a three-day trip. The plant, then named Frankoma Pottery, was constructed in the hills in the northwest area of Sapulpa on land provided by the Chamber. Its popularity increased and, due to its location on Route 66, tourists stopped, shopped for and bought pottery. It grew into a prosperous business and in the mid 1950s, the Franks commissioned world renowned architect Bruce Goff to design their dream house in Sapulpa. It features colorful ceramic brick and tile that John and Grace Lee had themselves designed and created. The house is filled with decades worth of collecting art and travel souvenirs. The home, now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, is opened each September during the annual Frankoma Family Collectors Association Reunion exclusively to members of the Association. It is not open to the public.
The cream-colored raw “Ada” clay remained the basis of the pottery until Frank discovered that the clay in Sugar Loaf Hill near Supulpa worked well for his pieces. In the mid-fifties the company switched to the red-brick colored Sapulpa firing clay which gave the pottery a unique look of older terra cotta. Due to the color changes of the clay the final coloring and vivid glazes of his pieces also changed.
Most Frankoma glazes have names relating to nature. Native American and Western-inspired Frankoma Pottery is most recognizable in the colors of Prairie Green and Desert Gold. Other glazes include: Sky Blue, Autumn Yellow, Black, Brown Satin, Flame, Redbud, Peach Glow, Robin Egg Blue, White Sand, and Woodland Moss. Frank experimented with formulas for his glazes using rutile, a mineral containing titanium dioxide, which allows the color of the clay to partially show through the glaze.
The early wares, especially those made with Ada clay and marked with a “pacing leopard” (1936-38), are highly sought by collectors. The limited editions and all wares with a Southwestern theme are becoming increasingly popular. Also collectible are the political mugs, bicentennial plates, ceramic Christmas cards, Teenagers of the Bible plates, and the Wildlife series. Frankoma has enjoyed increased publicity from exposure on various television shows, by Martha Stewart’s personal collection, in antique and collectible malls throughout the United States and on online auctions. The pottery is still affordable and is both visually pleasing and functional.
Frank died in 1973 and the Frank family is no longer associated with the business. After two fires and a bankruptcy, the plant was purchased by a Maryland investor in the early 1990’s who ran the operation for fifteen years.
After passing through several hands, and one passionate attempt at revival, Frankoma finally shut its doors in 2011, greatly mourned.