By James Proffitt
Posted On: Feb 5, 2018
If you’ve never heard of Rookwood Pottery, then you’re definitely not from Cincinnati. The iconic pottery operation was around nearly a century before it disappeared around 1960. It morphed a few times during decades when little-to-no pottery was produced, yet the company legally remained. In 2006 the classic, collectible line of goods roared back to life in the hot kilns of a new operation located in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Now, factory tours each Wednesday morning take folks through the multiple floors where more than 70 employees are creating molds, pressing, sanding, finishing, firing and painting new Rookwood pieces in a 95,000 square foot space. While thousands of homes in the tri-state region feature vintage fireplaces decorated with Rookwood tiles, new homeowners can also get their own Rookwood fireplaces with a new, full line of architectural tiles. Think floors, walls, kitchens, backsplashes, baths and even outdoor installations.
The complete tour, which takes about 40 minutes, offers the observant visitor plenty of cool things to soak up. Like the myriad names of various glaze colors which caught my eye: matador, fawn matte, Fiona gloss, box canyon, bungalow, malachite, eucalyptus, beatnik gloss and Annapurna gloss among others. Everywhere you look during the tour, someone seems intent on doing something, and seem to hardly notice a small herd of geeky gawkers passing by.
The tour winds its way through the factory, which gives visitors an interesting insight into what it’s like inside a true industrial space. Like the glaze colors, other interesting things catch the eye. Hundreds of rolling aluminum racks all filled with pottery, hordes of paint containers and other miscellany are sitting around on racks patiently waiting to be rolled elsewhere. Large skylights allow the day’s sunshine to fall warmly into workspaces while strings of clear lights hang around, as if celebrating some holiday.
One of Rookwood’s most popular pieces is The Cincinnati Zoo’s “Fiona” tile. The baby hippo, born at The Cincinnati Zoo six weeks premature, has garnered worldwide attention and plenty of interest in Fiona tiles, which have produced more than $70,000 for the zoo since first being minted by Keith. He’s like a zoo animal himself once a week as folks crowd around to watch him use a 60-ton press to stamp out six Fiona tiles, then carefully cut and separate them. FYI, Rookwood does not keep Keith in a cage.
“He loves Fiona,” our tour guide, Hibben said, laughing. “Especially after more than 12,000.” Keith smiles, but does not stray from the perfect, straight lines he cuts free-hand.
While checking out future Scripps Spelling Bee awards, a curious onlooker asks “Can I touch that?” (the answer was “yes”).
One tour-taker asks Hibben if any pieces ever get ruined. He smiles and says that’s not a word we like to use. “It’s an anomaly, it’s a little unusual, but it is art pottery.”
Cincinnatian Jason Mayer and Cherie Young, from New Orleans, toured together. Both said they didn’t own any Rookwood, either new or vintage. “But we definitely plan on buying some today,” Young assured. The pair said they had toyed with the idea of picking up a piece recently, but that seeing inside the factory sealed the deal. As they milled around the retail shop after the tour, Young appeared both enthusiastic and contemplative. “Originally we were thinking about the little birds and owls,” she explained, going on to say now they wanted something more significant.
“Being from Cincinnati, I’m into the city and its history, like the Suspension Bridge and Union Terminal,” Mayer said, going on to peruse Rookwood tiles featuring, of which there are many, exploring the city’s heritage. “The things you see in here, I think it’s great. This kind of stuff isn’t common knowledge.”
While new Rookwood pieces are easy to find at the company’s retail shops, once a person gets the Rookwood bug, there’s plenty of both to be found on auction websites nationwide and antique shops — especially in the Cincinnati region. For the most premium vintage Rookwood pieces you’re ever likely to see, check out the Cincinnati Art Museum’s extensive collection – it’s one of the largest in the world! A generous selection is on permanent display at the nearby museum, and admission is always free.
If a tour and museum jaunt have worked up an appetite, there may be a Rookwood burger just around the corner from the museum. The Rookwood Restaurant perched on a hillside atop Mt. Adams was open for decades, situated in the building where the factory was located. Lucky diners could actually eat inside a kiln. The restaurant closed abruptly in late 2016, but Hibben said keep your eyes open, it is likely to re-open sometime later this year.
For more Ohio-made delights, Find It Here at Ohio.org.