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Gordon & Jane Martz

Gordon and Jane Martz, a ceramic-designer couple and the makers of Martz lamps, met at Alfred University at the New York state college of Ceramics. Theirs was a traditional love story. They fell in love as students, got married after their graduation in 1951, and set up their marital home in Jane’s hometown Veedersburg, Indiana.

Jane’s grandmother Jessie Marshall, fondly nicknamed ‘Muz’, was the founder of Marshall studios, a lamp-making company. Jessie Marshall had begun with painting lampshades out of her home in Indianapolis. She soon expanded her home-business and began producing lamp bases. She soon established a small factory for manufacturing lamp bases and hand-painted lamp shades in Indianapolis. When Jane and Gordon Martz graduated from college and moved to Veedersburg, the company had been operational in the city for more than ten years and Jane’s parents Grace and Nicolas Marshall were at the helm.

Jane and Gordon were a talented couple and Jane’s parents wished them to help out in the family business of lamp-making. Jane had joined the college of ceramics, so as to be able to contribute towards the Marshall establishment. Not only had she expanded her understanding of ceramics and honed her skills at college, she had also found a perfect partner in Gordon. She could team up with her husband and work towards developing the company further. Both Jane and Gordon were trained in ceramics and design and Gordon even had a sound understanding of engineering principles. Thus the couple applied themselves to furthering the development of Marshall studios.

In 1951, Veedersburg was only a small town in Indiana. It was at a distance of about 75 miles Northwest of Indianapolis and situated on the banks of the Wabash river. The Veedersburg area was rich in clay and thus had a number of ceramic establishments. However most of these businesses manufactured bricks and did not dabble in the fine arts. In fact the famed ‘Brickyard’ speedway, used during the Indy 500 automobile race, was built in 1909 using the bricks from these factories.

Jane and Gordon Martz were lucky in setting up their factory in a town with a history of ceramics and a good supply of clay. They began with a new factory at Marshall studios, where they implemented modern design principles to manufacture lamp bases. They soon discovered that the locally available clay was conducive to brick-making but was not suitable for ceramics and pottery. Therefore Gordon Martz worked towards formulating the right mix of soil and with some experimentation fixed upon a blend of commercial and local clay. This was similar to the mix he had invented during his college days. Next Gordon designed the stoneware body and together with Jane, he began working on the designs.

Through their family legacy, the couple realised that there was a higher demand for handmade lamp-shades versus mass-produced ones. Customers liked the appearance of hand-made items better and Gordon recognised that the hand-made effect could be mimicked even in the factory environment. The fact that it was possible, did not mean that it was easy and the couple spent a considerable amount of their time in developing a suitable solution.

They began to mass-produce lamp-bases using a slip-cast and decorated them by hand, using various traditional pottery techniques rather than factory methods. The Martz couple refused to use decals and transfer techniques which were commonly used in the ceramic industry. Instead they formulated a three-fold decorating process. The first step was called ‘incising’, where a freshly-glazed base was etched with the required design. The piece was then fired. The second step consisted of ‘dipping’, where the item was dipped into a base colour and then plunged into glazes of different colours for different time intervals to get a layered finish. Lastly the piece was subjected to ‘brushing’, where it was allowed to rotate on an upright lathe while being brushed lightly with glaze.

The process was fairly easy, but executing it in a professional manner required skill and training. The staff at Marshall Studios, mostly consisting of the Marshall family, had a strong work-code native to the Indiana folk. They soon mastered the technique and the company began mass-producing lamps with a hand-made touch.

Their first successful production was the Martz No. 41. It was based on the Bauhaus principle studied by the Martz couple during their stint at Alfred University. The design was a simple shape consisting of columns. It had a ceramic lamp-base with a long American walnut neck, and a walnut finial on the shade. The walnut embellishments soon became the Martz signature design. They served the dual purpose of making the lamp attractive, while also utilizing the wood-work shop at Marshall studios.

The Martz No. 41 lamp paved the way for the Martz tradition of providing a variety of available colours and adornments. The No. 41 lamp was offered in more than 24 different coloured glazes. The customer had a further choice of selecting a glossy or matte finish. The lamp could be decorated in two ways – brushing and incising. In the first technique, a black glaze was brushed lightly over a dark blue background. The latter technique consisted of etching out a design into the glazed body, making the brown body visible in place of the etchings. The bases of the lamps were all marked with the Martz signature. The No.41, with its clean European design , was very well received by the customer. Other lamps of that time were ill-designed, gaudy and garish and the No. 41 flourished in comparison.

The next lamp from the Martz studio to receive acclaim was the Martz 101. It was a clean pear-drop shape of matte black, beautiful in its simplicity. The Scandinavian design attracted the gaze of Edgar Kauffman, Jr. of the Museum of Modern Art. The association with Edgar was a very fortuitous occurrence for the Marshall studio. Edgar Kauffman’ s father was Edgar Kauffman, Sr. , who had commissioned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design his house Fallingwater . Edgar Kauffman, Jr. was in the process of planning the Good Design Exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art when he came across the Martz No. 101. He immediately placed a telephone call and got connected with Gordon Martz. He invited the Martz couple to exhibit the No. 101 at the Good Design Exhibition at MoMA. Edgar and Gordon got along like a house on fire.

They realised that both gave importance to the same set of design principles. Edgar Kauffman then made a very unique request of Gordon. He asked Gordon to develop an ill-designed, tasteless lamp. He wanted to exemplify good design by showcasing an appallingly bad design. In order to avoid lawsuits, he couldn’t use a real product and thus Gordon was asked to produce an example of bad taste and design. Gordon obliged by crafting a dreadful lamp with a flashy metallic finish. The lamp drove home the concept of good and bad design and also accelerated the sales of the No. 101 lamp. The lamp continued to be a bestseller until 1989, which was when Marshall studio was sold. The lamp paved the way to success for the Martz couple and the Marshalls.

The company grew exponentially and by the 1950s Jane’s brother John Marshall was called in to take care of the growing business. Carolyn Marshall, John’s wife also stepped in to lend a helping hand. The Martz couple could now concentrate on designing and crafting more products. The company began to churn out more and more lamps. The plant on Mill street grew with the production. The Martzes now produced varying shapes of lamps – Tall slim lamps; short, dumpy lamps, big lamps, small lamps and many other kinds of lamps. Marshall studios soon began to manufacture all its offerings, including the lampshades in-house.

Marshall studios was run extremely efficiently and in a meticulous manner. In spite of the fact that the orders were often complex, the studio could be relied on, to not bungle up even the most challenging delivery. There were several lamp styles, and each lamp style could be ordered in any of a dozen different colours and decoration styles. There were also numerous lamp-shade options to choose from. There were, if truth be told, close to a thousand permutations and combinations and there were no computerized systems during those times. And yet Marshall studios had a 100% success rate. A large amount of the credit was due to Jane Martz who helped in the designing, coordinated orders and managed the workings of the plant. Later Jane turned her attention towards sales, where she again proved her indispensability.

After Jane took over the sales function in 1960, the sales escalated to about a thousand lamps in a month. Martz lamps began to be sold in large department stores across the country. The company also secured a number of sales contracts with leading hotel chains, due to the best-in-class quality and clean design of their lamps. They also collaborated with the General Services Administration (GSA) and provided lamps to government offices in the country and American embassies all over the world, so much so that the Martzes became an authority on European wiring.

There is a funny anecdote that Gordon Martz often related – He was supposed to send a consignment of lamps to the American embassy in Moscow, Russia. As a joke, he secretly wrote the words ‘Kruschchev is a bum’, on the base of the lamp, and then glued the lamp’s felt covering over the writing. The message-inscribed lamps were transported to Russia, they were duly accepted and installed and to this day the message might be hidden under the felt. It was nothing more than a well-meaning prank, however it would’ve meant a great deal of trouble for Gordon, had it been discovered. He would have been known to be a true American at heart.

With the Martzes at the helm, Marshall studio’s production was not limited to lamps. They produced dinnerware, tableware, planters, carafes, canisters, tile-topped tables, ashtrays and bookends. Most of the items were produced in the Scandinavian style, which the Martzes especially favoured. The couple developed a culture within the company of utilizing every bit of the resources available to them. For instance, the woodwork shop for the lamps was utilized in producing the tile-topped tables, as were the ceramic tools. Waste trimmings from the woodworking shop was used to manufacture bookends and small items. The couple made sure that each employee’s talent was put to the best use. Gordon and Jane themselves made excellent use of their photography and design skills and created the company catalogues. Their pet bulldog Brutus, took on the part of mascot for the company’s marketing communication. He was even trained to be a watchdog.

The Marshall family had close ties with the local Methodist church. Due to this they realised that there was an increasing demand for altar-ware. Capitalizing on this opportunity, the Martzes introduced a range of altar-ware. In collaboration with Cokesbury, a leading supplier of church furniture and vestments, the Martzes brought out their altar-ware into the market. The decoration for the range was under the charge of Leon Lowe, a highly gifted employee hailing from Veedersburg. Recognizing his inborn talent, Gordon Martz allowed him to decorate the altar-ware in a ‘freehand’ manner rather than using their usual techniques.

Another important feature of the Martz lamps was the focus on safety. Each of their lamps were subjected to UL-testing. The testing was carried out on each part of the lamp, not just its socket, and the lamps were released to the market only after approval. This was a major reason for the company’s robust sales relationship with hotels and government offices.

Despite the couples’ considerable talents, and the excellence of the Marshall company, business began to flail during the 1970s. Modernism in furniture was losing its popularity. Due to the rise of increased industrialization, the family-business model adopted by the Martzes and Marshalls was becoming less feasible. Asia became the prime manufacturer of ceramics due to the low cost of production and labour, while customers preferred to spend less. The emphasis shifted to low cost rather than design. The couple sold the company in 1989, after which the new owners completely shut it down. The proprietors Gordon and Jane, along with Jane’s brother John and his wife, retired from the ceramic business.

Jane and Gordon Martz settled in Arkansas and led an active life until their death. Gordon immersed himself in studio pottery, which had always been his biggest love, and presented his work at a number of local exhibitions. He also spent his time in playing golf and gardening. Jane Martz began writing an autobiographical book exploring the last three generations of artists in the Marshall family. While Jane’s brother John died in 1990, his wife stayed back at Veedersburg and involved herself in the Methodist Church. Jane and Gordon lived a happy life in Arkansas and passed away in February 2007 and December 2015 respectively.

The Marshall-Martz lamp has become an increasingly popular collector’s item. A single fully-intact lamp, can fetch up to $300 at Treadway and Lama. However one needs to exercise caution while buying these lamps. Due to their demand, a number of imitations exist in the market and can be distinguished by their plaster and paint finishing. None of the Martz lamps ever used plaster. All of their products were built with materials like wood, ceramic or tile. Also a range of pottery produced by Karl Martz is marked with a similar Martz signature and can be misidentified as original Marshall/Martz pottery.

There are a number of other important considerations while buying a Martz lamp. The ones decorated through the ‘incision’ technique are the most valuable. A pair of matched lamps are considered more valuable than standalone lamps. Lamps with well-maintained shades are also valued. Since lamp-shades of the Martz style are not available today, it is difficult to replace a missing shade. Thus an original lamp-shade complete with the walnut finial is rare and receives a premium. A range of lamps designed by Gordon was also in circulation in the company’s heyday and is now very uncommon. It has been made in walnut, and does not have a tile-topped table. Some Martz lamps are not marked with the Martz signature. These are usually made of ceramic, are fastened on a walnut base, and have a walnut finial. They can be identified through Martz catalogues or by ceramic experts. Dinnerware sets are rare and are extremely expensive.

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Gordon & Jane Martz