All posts in “porcelain room”

Object of the Week: House of the Head

This summer, thousands of people are stepping into Infinity Mirror Rooms filled with lanterns, polka dots, pumpkins, and 115 mirrors. As of this week, 90,000 visitors in Seattle have seen infinity in Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors. Every Infinity Mirror Room makes the most of mirrors. What you may not realize is that mirrors have a long history in art and you can seen some of that history in SAM’s other galleries. The oldest mirror on view is from the 3rd century BC, an Etruscan bronze with an incised back depicting a woman who only wears a cap, necklace, and fancy shoes. Three figures stare at her, as if wondering if she forgot to put on a dress—but it happens to be a scene of seduction by Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love.  (48.36)

There are other small mirrors incorporated into sculptures on view: the Box of Daylight Raven Hat (91.1.124) on the 3rd floor and SAM’s very own mirrored room, which suspends 1,000 porcelains in a gilt rimmed infinity in the renowned Porcelain Room. On my walk through the galleries, however, one mirrored object calls out for attention. It only has four mirrors and is not an attention grabber—unless you happen to be tuned into art of the Yoruba culture of Nigeria. (93.157)

What looks like a small temple, or a crown, has an unusual name and concept to back it up. In Yoruba, it is called an ile ori, or House of the Head. One’s ori is not only your head, but your destiny. Before a person is born, he or she must visit the molder of spiritual heads to choose a destiny and personality which guide one’s character and fate. It is inside you, invisible to others, and is your “inner head,” which is embodied by a small abstract sculpture that is kept hidden in its own house. As seen in this house for the head, it has geometric shapes and numerical calculations, like any residence. Cowrie shells coat the entire surface, befitting the head of a wealthy person. Mirrors embellish the openings, flashing to signal the presence of a significant head held inside. When you want to “get your head together,” this house allows you to concentrate on how to align your thoughts with your destiny.

As I look at this quiet shrine, it leads me back to admire what the Yoruba Supreme Being, Odumare, stands for. He is the Prime Mover and Infinite Intelligence who created himself/herself and the universe. One Yoruba diviner and professor, Kola Abimbola, says the Yoruba have a GPS for life with a system and oracle known as Ifa. In search of more GPS and a dose of Yoruba confidence and creativity, I took a spring vacation in Nigeria. I was there to witness friends becoming chiefs and in the process, a spirit from the otherworld sat down to enact a hilarious conversation about the joys and pitfalls of raising children. Here she is making her point, offering her own version of Infinite Intelligence.

– Pam McClusky, Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: House of the Head (Ile Ori), 20th century. Nigerian, Yoruba, cloth, mirrors, cowrie shells, leather, Gift of Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam, 93.157. Mirror with scene of the Judgement of Paris, 3rd century BC., Etruscan, Bronze, Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 48.36. Sketch of scene on the mirror back Egungun Mother in Erin Osun, 2017, Photo: Pam McClusky.
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Building a Digital Collection: The Photographs and Lists of William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains

Do you ever wonder how Seattle Art Museum acquired enough porcelain objects to fill an entire room? Through my Directed Fieldwork (DFW) at the University of Washington I decided to illuminate a piece of the provenance story behind some of SAM’s porcelain objects in the beloved Porcelain Room.

Not much is known about the New York dealer, William H. Lautz’s life outside of the porcelain world, however William Lautz was a key figure in the growth of eighteenth-century porcelain in the United States during the 1940s and 50s. I’ve created a digital collection of porcelain object photographs and associated descriptive lists from the New York dealer, William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains, from the physical collection held in SAM’s Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library.


As a dealer of European porcelain, Lautz helped form the Warda Stevens Stout Collection at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis1, the Martha and Henry Isaacson collection in Seattle, and the Blanche M. Harnan Ceramic Collection, also in Seattle; the latter two now located partially at the Seattle Art Museum.


Both Martha Isaacson and Blanche Harnan were founding members of the Seattle Ceramic Society, which stimulated the collection of European porcelain through study groups. Their stated goal was to collect European porcelain worthy of exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. To that end, they connected with important dealers in the field.

In the mid-1950s, Lautz sent barrels of porcelain to the Seattle Ceramic Society, accompanied by photographs and descriptive lists of the pieces. In turn, the Ceramic Society members selected pieces and returned empty barrels to Lautz with checks for their purchases. This method became known as the “Seattle Scheme” and continued while the Seattle Ceramic Society members grew their individual collections.2

Over time, the Seattle Ceramic Society and its members held five exhibitions of their European porcelain collections at the Seattle Art Museum between 1949 and 1964. Many active members of the Ceramic Society donated pieces of their collection to the Seattle Art Museum, including the aforementioned Martha and Henry Isaacson and Blanche M. Harnan, along with Dorothy Condon Falknor, DeEtte McAuslan Stuart, and Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser.

To create this digital collection, I scanned all of Lautz’s photographs into JPEGs and all of his descriptive lists into PDFs. Using Adobe Acrobat’s OCR function, I made the lists keyword searchable. I then created a spreadsheet with the associated metadata for each file to improve online navigation and searching. The files and associated metadata are now available on Shared Shelf Commons, which allows you to browse and view them alongside contributions from many other institutions.

Once the collection was in Shared Shelf Commons, I used Omeka to create an online exhibition by linking photos of the Lautz pieces that ended up at SAM with their descriptions. By providing online access to William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains photographs and descriptive lists I hope to encourage researchers and others to investigate the porcelain objects in SAM’s collection and to visit the Porcelain Room at SAM to see some of the objects in person.

–Nicole Sonett, Intern, Dorothy Stimson Bullitt Library

Note: We want to thank Julie Emerson, the former Ruth J. Nutt Curator of Decorative Arts at the Seattle Art Museum, for her assistance in identifying porcelain objects from William H. Lautz Antique Porcelains that are now featured in SAM’s Porcelain Room.

1 Nelson, Christina H., and Letitia Roberts. A History of Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain: The Warda Stevens Stout Collection. Memphis: Dixon Gallery and Gardens; Easthampton, MA; New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2013.
2 Sebastian Kuhn in “Collecting Culture: The Taste for Eighteenth-Century German Porcelain,” in Cassidy-Geiger, Maureen et al. The Arnhold Collection of Meissen Porcelain, 1710-50. New York, NY: Frick Collection in association with D. Giles London, 2008.
Photos: Natali Wiseman.
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SAMart: Rare and beautiful, and new to SAM

Porcelain, such as this centerpiece, embodied the essence of taste for Europeans of the mid-eighteenth century. At that time, porcelain was costly and a European formula had only recently been attained through scientific and technological struggle. Using the recently devised formula, the white translucent ceramic could be molded or cast in wonderful, light, airy, sculptural forms—such as this basket-shaped bowl supported by a swirl of foliage and cavorting, fanciful putti.

Only two other examples of this form are known; both are in England. Previously unrecorded, this rarest, most beautiful piece of Bow porcelain was recently acquired by SAM. It will be installed in the Porcelain Room this spring.

Centerpiece, 1750, Bow Porcelain Manufactory, London, England, soft-paste porcelain, 7 × 9 ½ in., Kenneth and Priscilla Klepser Fund, 2013.15. On view in spring 2014, Seattle Art Museum, fourth floor, Porcelain Room.
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Protecting Art in an Earthquake

When a natural disaster strikes, like the recent earthquake in China1, saving human lives is naturally the first concern. In the aftermath however, the loss of cultural artifacts and historic sites can be devastating to communities as well. Art and architecture provide evidence of our shared histories and give us a foundation on which to build a common identity. Living in Seattle, an area of the world prone to seismic activity, one might ask what Fremont would be like without its troll, or the Seattle skyline without the Space Needle? Hopefully, we will never know.

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