JOAN AND Walter Mondale were looking at the samples of handmade pottery on the dining table this winter. "Don't get this one," he said, and pointed out that the plate was bit warped. He picked up the mauve plate by John Glick. "This is my choice," he said. "It's sturdy and well-made.
Joan Mondale is an art historian by profession and a potter by preference, but she agreed with her husband, who up to now has not been noted for his art expertise.
"We usually don't give him credit," said Elena Canavier, Joan Mondale's art adviser. "But he has a really good eye. And she encourages him to join in on the decisions."
The Mondales had not even moved into the vice president's residence when Joan Mondale began to plan ways to keep the house from being just another of those great stiff traditional "government issue mansions." It bothered her that there was only one set of china -- for breakfast, for the children's snacks, for barbecues, for state dinners.
The Lenox china, a standard white with gold border and vice-presidential seal and a traditional silver had been selected by the Spiro Agnews, when it was thought he would be the first vice president to live in the official residence. A variation of the china is used in official American residences all over the world. "It's beautiful," said Mrs. Mondale, "but it's not handmade." (Local distributors are L&N Hill Co.)
Joan Mondale wanted the house to be a display case for the best of the American arts. She believes there's no hard line between people who work in clay and people who paint with oil. So, along with borrowing paintings, sculpture and crafts from American museums over the country, she set out to build a permanent collection for the house, and the other second ladies of the country to come after her. The only problem was money.
Finally this winter, from the household accounts, she had salted away enough money to order 16 place settings of stoneware pottery, glass dessert plates, wine glasses and woven placemats. "We think of the gold-rimmed china as our everyday ware," she said. "This is our company service. At the same time, she also borrowed from museums a small collection of handmade wood furniture to integrate with the house's more traditional furnishings.
Each setting of the pottery includes a dinner plate, soup bowl, bread-and-butter plate, salad plate, cup and saucer. (The service plates are hastily washed in the kitchen and reappear as entree plates.) The plates are made by John Glick of Plum Tree Pottery, Farmington, Mich.
"Each plate is different," Glick explained at a recent luncheon to display the plates and meet the artists. "I think I like your soup plate better than mine. Eat it up so I can see the bottom. Yes, that's the one. I like it best, but it's too late to swap now."
With which, everybody else compared their soup plates. The mauve, gray, blue plates not only have different decorations on the face, but the scalloped edges also are slightly different.
"I don't want to make two alike". Glick said, "but I plan enough similarity so they'll stack together and are recognizable as a set. The glazes are primarily responsible for the change in decorations from one plate to another."
Glick said the Mondale order is not the largest he's ever had -- he once made a service for 24.
The service plates sell for about $26- $30 each. The ones the Mondales chose would cost $28. A bread-and-butter plate is $6.50. It's certainly not dime-store prices, but it's far under the price for some production line "good china." The Lenox gold-rimmed pattern sells for about $20 with a seal and about $15 without, but other china patterns go up into the hundreds of dollars.
Contrary to what you hear, Glick has no compunctions about it going into the dishwasher. "It's non-chip," he said.
Glick has been a potter since 1960, one of the earlier members of the crafts revival. He sells most of his work from his own shop at his pottery, but Helen Drat in Philadelphia also carries some of it.
He normally fires his pottery seven times a year; but because his kiln is so large, it takes him some months to make enough pottery to fill it.
His work was seen first nationally in "objects USA," the Johnson Collection that toured the United States. He was one of the potters chosen to make a table setting for Rosalynn Carter's famous Senate Wives Luncheon two or three years ago, when potters and glassmakers each made settings for the tables. The services were later displayed throughout the country.
The glassware by Nancy Freeman at Olive Bridge, N.Y., is a handblown stemware of clear glass with maroon and white waves, almost Art Nouveau whiplashes, encircling the glasses. The set consists of a water goblet and two wine glasses.Shirley Koteen, special assistant for projects, worked with Freeman to make the sizes right for red and white wine.
"The first glass Nancy Freeman sent us was gorgeous. We loved it. So we poured some wine in it to try it out. We found the size of the opening was just right -- if you had a small nose, but if your nose was even a bit large, it didn't work. So she had to make a larger opening."
"That's the thing when you commissioned your own china and glassware," said Canavier. "You can have it made to suit your own preferences. If you buy ready made, you have to accept sizes and shapes that might not be just right."
The glassware also was at the White House luncheon, but the shapes have been slimmed down and changed subtly, notices Canavier, who bought some of the earlier glasses for herself. The glassware retails for $28 a stem.
The translucent burgundy glass dessert plates by Richard Ritter are a wonderful rich color, with small designs of other colors like marble eyes peering through. They are surprisingly heavy for glass. For my taste, his plates were the most beautiful of the table setting. Ritter only made the plates as a favor to the Mondales. He doesn't plan to make them commercially. His vases ( $275-$1500) and paperweights ( $95- $150) are carried by Contemporary Art Glass, New York City.
Vally Possony, Joan Mondale's pottery teacher, and in her late 70s one of the best-known of Washington potters, made the stoneware mushroom salt and pepper shakers ( $15 a pair). Her pottery, including dinner plates ( $40) is available from her studio.
The placemats were woven by Sandra Rubel of New York City, a weaver and fabric painter who had never made placemats before. "And I doubt I would again. They were so much work. It isn't worth it. Not for anyone but a very dear friend." The placemats have burgundy, beige pink and metallic yarns woven together with fringed sides. Her fabric sells for about $50 by the yard.
As a centerpiece, Joan Mondale chose a glass candelabra, woven and twisted pyrex glass rods, made by Eva Schonfield of Baltimore. The candelabra holds 10 candles and has replaceable candle holders, one set fancy, the other plain. A similar work sells for $500.
Earlier, for the house's collection, the Portland Museum of Arts and Crafts gave a set of 36 demitasses by Kathleen Frazer of Washington. "After dining off the gold-rimmed china, you should see the surprised look on people's faces, when we serve after-dinner coffee in these," said Bess Abell, Joan Mondale's press officer. The cups have buttons. "People always talk about them and I think really enjoy them. Frazer's work is now carried here by the American Hand in Georgetown."
Joan Mondale's first commission for the house was probably a teapot and 16 large cups by Warren MacKenzie of Stillwater, Minn. The residence's collection also includes two platters by California potters Peter Voulkos and Ann Nadel and a pot by Juan Hamilton of Sante Fe, N.M.
During the Mondales' travels, foreign governments have been quick to realize what she likes. She has an oxblood red vase from Denmark and a stoneware vase from Mexico, plus three pieces from China, which she doesn't like very much, she freely admits, though she's an ardent admirer of China's Sung period.
The furniture collection was organized by the Smithsonian Institution's David Hanks, with the help of the American Crafts Museum in New York City and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston.
The furniture, seen with the contemporary art on the walls, helps to make the house look more comfortable and friendly. Joan Mondale showed a picture of the rocking chair by Sam Maloof to the vice president and made him agree to rock in it before she'd borrow it.
"Sam Maloof is one of the leaders of this generation of woodworkers," said Joan Mondale. With her usual total recall for every detail of an artist's life, she went on to say that "Being in his house in California, you can tell that everything he touches is important to him -- chairs, tables, bookcases. He wants it all to be beautiful to hold and touch. It's all done with such love and care. You can look at his rocking chair and see his delight in crafts and his love of material."
Two pieces, a small curving chest/table and a spiral three step library stair, were made by Wharton Esherick, (1887-1970). Joan Mondale credits him with being "the man who raised woodworking to an art." About a year and a half ago she visited his house, now a museum, just outside of Philadelphia.Vally Possony's house in Falls Church has a freeform kitchen with counters made by Esherick. He also made the front door and its fine latch.
The umbrella stand complete with maple umbrell, made by Wendell Castle, makes most people do a double take. Another similar piece, with a wood overcoat on an otherwise functional coat rack, was shown here some time ago at Fendrick Gallery. Castle lives in Rochester, N.Y.
Washington's Peter Danko is represented by a pair of his famous chairs -- the first to be molded from a single piece of plywood. They sit in the place of honor on either side of the sofa in the drawing room. A small chest with four drawers, made of Douglas fir and oak with galvanized steel mounts, metal and porcelain pulls, is the work of Garry Knox Bennett of Alameda, Calif.
Many more craft works by some of the major artists of the country have been borrowed from Northeast museums for a year's display in the house. The Mondales had display cases built on either side of the sitting-room fireplace to show the crafts. Dale Chihuly's "First Eye Dazzler," a sort of a bowl, is here. Harvey Littleton's blue tubes sit on the buffet in the living room. There are others all around -- including an enormous urn by Canavier in the living room; a "tacky pot" made by the Mondale's daughter in her first pottery class; some large pieces by Possony -- oh, yes, and a bowl or two by Joan Mondale herself.
The crafts at the vice president's residence are not in the same monetary class as the vast antique portrait and furniture collection in the White House. But they represent the beginning of a collection which should be treasured more every year. Suppose that when the White House was built, Mrs. Adams had gone around and collected the best of American crafts of 1800 and that they'd been carefully kept ever since in the house. Think what it would be worth! Think how wonderful it would be. A 100 years from now, Americans will go through the vice president's residence, and say, "That Joan Mondale, she thought ahead. She saved for us the best art of the '70s."