Sep 23, 2013
01:23 PMStyle & Shopping
Guy Wolff's Mastery of Garden Pot Design Depends on His Litchfield County Roots
Here’s my theory and you can take it or leave it. I contend that Guy Wolff would never have become the Superstar of the Flowerpot if he had set up shop anywhere else but Litchfield County.
I allege that it is because this neighborhood is such a horticultural hotbed that Guy Wolff’s work took a U-turn straight down the primrose path. And I’m not the only one to take this stance. Suzanne Staubach said as much in her hot-off-the-press biography, “Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden” (University Press of New England, 2013), generously photographed by Joseph Szalay.
And Guy Wolff also agrees, judging from the text. If Tina Dodge had not waltzed into his pottery and planted the seed, he wouldn’t be earning his living throwing flowerpots today. However, he would definitely be a potter. In fact, he had an inkling from an early age that some sort of “hands-on” craft was in his stars.
“I knew I would be doing something with my hands when I was 4 or 5 years old,” he asserted in a recent interview. “Everybody around me was making things.”
Indeed, he had a unique childhood, and those early influences are traced in detail in Ms. Staubach’s biography. Not only was Alexander Calder almost family (Mr. Wolff’s mother spent part of her pregnancy as a guest in the Calder house), but Walter Gropius, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and György Kepes of the New Bauhaus School of Design were colleagues of his father, Robert Jay Wolff. Marcel Breuer was his uncle. These and other creative types were fixtures floating in and out of Mr. Wolff’s home during the boy’s formative years.
Needless to say, he was influenced by the brilliance of their work. That said, he also realized that he would not follow in his father’s footsteps as an abstract Impressionist painter. “My father worked two-dimensionally. But I instinctively knew that I’d be working three-dimensionally. Paper is meaningless to me. I have to crumple it up for it to have meaning,” he says.
The fact that Guy Wolff’s mother was a potter undoubtedly steered his direction, although he was not particularly receptive during his early years. More to the point, an early trip to Sturbridge Village subliminally guided his path. “I was 8 years old when my mom took me to Sturbridge and I noticed that everything was beautifully proportioned and felt more comfortable. Everything had symmetry, proportion and grace.”
But still, he didn’t see himself as a potter. “It was the last thing I thought that I would be doing,” he admits.
Although he did not initially see pottery in his future, he was definitely lured in the creative direction. “It was crazy the inspiration that surrounded me when I was a kid. There were no boundaries to making beauty happen. It was everywhere. You had an obligation to follow your path and it had to be an honest and truthful path,” he says.
Then fate intervened. He attended High Mowing School—an open-ended, progressive, craft-oriented high school in New Hampshire—and, as it turned out, the best teacher was a potter. For three to five hours a day, five days a week, Mr. Wolff threw pots alongside his mentor. Perhaps it was serendipity, but one great teacher steered the nascent potter toward his lifelong career.
But you can read all about the education of a potter in the biography. And Suzanne (Suzy) Staubach should know what it takes to build a potter, because she also practices that trade at Willow Tree Pottery in Ashford, Conn.—as well as being an author and bookseller. She was originally asked to do the book for Globe Pequot Press, but the project eventually moved over to the University Press of New England. To get the grit for the text, she interviewed 22 of Mr. Wolff’s colleagues and friends as well as shadowing him with tape recorder in hand.
As she interviewed Mr. Wolff, he worked on his wheel, throwing pots. “It was a great honor and privilege to do the project with him,” Ms. Staubach says. “Being a potter made me appreciate how he works—not only his speed, but also how he moves the clay.”
It’s true. Guy Wolff takes massive pride in how many pounds of clay he shapes into pots daily, emulating potters who lived centuries ago.
Of course, with Bauhaus in his background, modernism would have been the obvious route. You will have to pick up Suzy Staubach’s book to find out how Guy Wolff made the leap from the modern art world in which he grew up to focus instead on traditional forms of pottery with very utilitarian functions. But perhaps “traditional” is not the right word, because Guy blazed his own spin on throwing pots. “Tradition is not a form to be imitated but the discipline that gives integrity to the new” were the watchwords written by his father that have served as guidance throughout his development as an artist.
He definitely evolved a signature of his own. But rather than the sleek, spare lines of the modern style of his father’s circle, he went the retrospective route, studying at potteries from Jugtown, N.C., to Wales.
He threw vases, tankards, mugs, plates, bowls, and similar useful ware. But flower pots were not really on Mr. Wolff’s radar screen when he set up his pottery in Woodville, Conn., in 1971 across the street from the home in which he grew up. It wasn’t until Tina Dodge planted the idea that Mr. Wolff began exploring flowerpots.
With typical Guy Wolff scholarship, he studied the history, mastered the process, and perfected a vessel that would cradle roots to their best advantage. At the time (and at present), nurseries peddled their plants in plastic, but gardeners in this neck of the woods immediately shifted their newly adopted botanicals into a more comely frame. The result was like night and day.
To his credit, Mr. Wolff invested a great deal of energy studying his craft. “You can’t make something beautiful if you don’t have an understanding for the medium,” he says of the immersion process. He had already bonded with clay. However, flowerpots are a very different game. The rigors of growing plants—of roots pushing against clay, demanding oxygen, constantly straining against the walls of their container—require a very specific type of pottery.
In addition to the plant’s requirements, flowerpots have to deal with constant rough handling during transplanting, and the like. Flowerpots are the foot soldiers of the pottery world, which might be one reason why growers turned to plastic. Mr. Wolff, on the other hand, was dedicated to demonstrating that you could have both good looks and durability.
Although he was never technically a gardener, per se, he hobnobbed with the gardening crowd. “I spent all those years looking at flowerpots, the conversation was already started,” he explains.
Setting up shop where he had roots, he inadvertently settled into a horticultural hornet’s nest. “People around here were crazy about plants,” Mr. Wolff noticed. “Those people really wanted this to happen.”
Meanwhile, his patron—Tina Dodge—was getting the message out. “Tina Dodge kicked doors open,” Mr. Wolff affirms. Potted plants would never be the same.
Full disclosure here—I wrote one of the forewords for the “Guy Wolff: Master Potter in the Garden” book. In it, I talk about my long friendship with Guy Wolff and my gratitude as a gardener for all he has done to elevate potted plants. Not parenthetically, I talk about his laugh—which is the synthesis of his larger-than-life personality, his joy for life, his free spirit, and his fire-in-the-belly all condensed into the epitome of mirth. Everything Guy Wolff does is done with verve and dedication. Beneath that gleeful laugh and bandana-clothed head, a very serious scholar lurks.
Whether it is the music that he plays solo or in conjunction with his musician/gardener wife, Erica Warnock, or when he researches pots or lovingly coaxes clay to his will, Mr. Wolff immerses himself in doing it his own unique way with a flourish. He is a good advertisement for the joys of his craft. “Throwing is exhilarating,” he insists, “all that material moving under your fingers. Physically, it’s quite addictive; there’s a motion to it.”
I first wrote about Guy Wolff’s “dance of the hands” in an article for Victoria magazine. That was before Smith & Hawken or Martha Stewart discovered his work and put him into the public orbit.
Many books went home with Guy Wolff’s fans when he appeared at Hickory Stick Bookshop in Washington, Conn. I believe that the Hickory Stick still has some signed copies left. You should definitely seek one out. Then go to Woodville and pick up some flowerpots. If Guy Wolff isn’t in the process of throwing pots, he’ll be plucking the banjo.