Born in Vienna in 1902 to a well-to-do Jewish family, Lucie Gomperz grew up skiing, boating, and playing tennis, as well as visiting Europe's finest cultural landmarks. At 20, she entered the Kunstgewerbeschule, a school for arts and crafts, where she was instructed by Josef Hoffmann, a founder of the Wiener Werkstätte. She encountered a potter's wheel on her first day there and was, as she said, "lost to it." Soon Hoffmann became a champion of her work; in the ensuing decade he brought her pieces to exhibitions in London, Milan, Brussels, and Paris, where they won awards and accolades. During this period, she married a robust skier named Hans Rie.
On the eve of World War II, the Ries fled to London. Hans planned for them to stop briefly before emigrating to America, but Lucie had decided to stay, and convinced her husband to cross the Atlantic without her, effectively terminating their marriage. According to John Driscoll, owner of New York's Babcock Galleries, the two suitcases she had carried from Vienna were packed not with clothes or household essentials, but with her pots.
Yet the people she turned to for support in England disparaged her work. Bernard Leach, the preeminent figure in British ceramics at that time, found fault with every piece she showed him (though he took a liking to her). The head of the pottery department at the Royal College of Art expressed indifference. Rie spent a few years trying to adapt to the prevailing aesthetic—Leach celebrated the country craftsman and the rustic, "folksy" pot—but it was an uncomfortable period for her. As war descended and pottery was deemed superfluous, Rie turned to button making.
After the war, she met a young man named Hans Coper, who signed on with her as an apprentice. He showed a knack for throwing pots and became her lifelong friend and collaborator. Coper convinced Rie to return to the vision she had been pursuing in Vienna. Her pots became refined and arresting. At once delicate and strong, they were formal (she eschewed "throwing lines," i.e., drag marks left by fingertips) while also conveying warmth and humanity: Many pieces have a slight wobble in the rim, or a gentle tilt. In 1949, the Berkeley Gallery in London staged Rie's first major exhibition.
By the 1950s her work was being acquired by museums, and she was soon exhibiting around the world. Yet no matter how exalted her reputation grew (she became a Dame of the British Empire in 1991, four years before her death), she always insisted that her pieces weren't simply artworks but also practical objects. "Once, I bought a bowl from Lucie," says Driscoll, "and she made me promise I'd use it and not just put it on a shelf. She thought that was a sterile approach. Every once in a while I'd send her a photograph of the bowl with some apples or oranges in it."
Driscoll purchased his first pot for $30. Today, a Rie can sell for upward of $50,000. "Her followers have always been devoted, even as the prices have risen," says Cameron Shay of Graham Gallery. "I wish I could get in a hundred Lucie Rie pieces right now; I would have buyers clamoring for them."
Ben Williams, a ceramics specialist at Phillips de Pury, says that Japanese collectors prefer her bowls to vases. He has attended tea ceremonies featuring Rie pots—a practice that would have pleased their maker. In the U.S., collectors tend to buy with an eye toward decor. "They'll situate a couple of pots on a shelf with an amazing painting behind," he says. "Buyers want something iconic."
Not long ago, the words "iconic" and "pot" would never have appeared in the same paragraph. But Rie's work has blurred the lines between craft and sculpture, utility and fine art. "She was clued in to how a form occupies space," says Driscoll, who compares her work with Brancusi's. "She understood presence."
Where To Find It
Rie's ceramics can be identified by her seal—her combined initials in a raised lozenge shape.
• Babcock Galleries, New York, 212-767-1852;
• Graham Gallery, New York, 212-535-5767;
• Jeffrey Spahn Gallery, San Francisco, 415-519-2857;
• Phillips de Pury & Co., New York, 212-940-1300;