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Party On A Platter - Fiestaware Article

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Party on a Platter -- Fiestaware propagates through collectors, branding

May 20,2006 Kate Lohnes Link to article

McAllen Monitor Staff Writer

If a bull were released in Fred Mutchler's home instead of the proverbial china shop, it wouldn't just break a plate. It would wreak havoc.

A middle school teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mutchler is a dinnerware collector of serious proportions, most notably as a collector of the coveted Fiesta dishes. Of the more than 4,500 pieces he has collected since the 1970s, Mutchler said 1,500 of them are vintage and recent Fiesta dinnerware.

"I hate to admit (I've spent) in excess of six figures," Mutchler said, estimating what he has spent on Fiesta dinnerware over the past several decades. "For me, it's an enjoyable passion. I love to exhibit it and I love learning from it. I'm a researcher by nature and I love delving into the history of it."

Mutchler is one of many collectors enamored with the Fiesta dish line, formally titled "Fiesta dinnerware" but affectionately called "Fiestaware." With its bright colors, durability and collectible nature, some experts say Fiesta has proven itself worthy of "American icon" status.

Fiesta dinnerware is only one of several product lines made by the Homer Laughlin China Company, which was founded in 1871 in Newell, West Virginia. Homer Laughlin also manufactures heavier-duty china for the hospitality business, said Ray Liebman, marketing consultant for the company, but slightly less than half its sales come from Fiesta.

"(Fiesta) stands on its own brand," he said. "Fiesta has grown to almost have its own groupies, it is such a strong brand. It appeals to such a wide array of demographics. We've seen young people attracted to it because of the colors and shape, and we've talked to older people who buy it because their mother collected it. It also covers so many different design elements in one plate. It would be wonderful for anyone in the design world to find a dress or skirt that goes with everything."

The first Fiesta products hit the market in 1936 and became known in the 1940s and '50s as the dinnerware of choice for the American housewife. Fiesta kept its art deco design and colors (red, ivory, cobalt blue, yellow, green and turquoise) until 1973, although the name was changed to Fiesta Ironstone in 1969. In 1973, Homer Laughlin stopped manufacturing Fiesta, leaving the older pieces to circulate among fans at trade shows. Fiesta returned to the market 13 years later, when then-art director Jonathan Perry decided to re-introduce Fiesta sets manufactured from the original moulds. In 1998, the company celebrated its 500 millionth piece of Fiesta and currently offers 13 different colors, including the original six, in more than 50 shapes, including dinner plates, salt and pepper shakers and pitchers.

Part of the Fiesta phenomenon is spawned by its enthusiastic collectors, said Amy Levine, creator of the documentary DISHES. The film, made in 2003, highlights the lengths many Fiesta collectors will go to find vintage pieces, including making pilgrimages to the company's annual warehouse sale in West Virginia.

"The collectors are really good people," she said. "They know that it's weird, that people say 'You collect what?' Some people don't understand why they spend so much money on a pitcher they're never going to use, but they almost get a joy out of that."

Avid collectors aren't the only people who use Fiesta on their tables. Levine said Fiesta is the top-requested item on bridal registries across the United States. Fiesta also has glamorous celebrity endorsements, from Martha Stewart to Andy Warhol, whose collection is housed in a Pittsburgh museum.

Fans of Fiesta like the brand for several reasons beyond star quality, Levine said.

"I think one of its biggest advantages is that for good, nice-looking quality dishware, it's really affordable," she said. "It's cheap enough for college students to have and it's nice enough to serve a nice dinner on."

The vibrant colors also make the dishes an eye-catching addition to the home, said Judi Noble, art director at Homer Laughlin. The company follows fashion trends in magazines and the red carpet to decide what each year's color palate will look like. Developing the colors Fiesta has now had initially been a challenge, she said, because the company had to develop a lead-free form of color. The color with the biggest consumer response, scarlet, was the hardest to create, Noble said, because vintage forms of red Fiesta contained low-level traces of uranium oxide.

Radioactivity aside, colors and shapes used to create different Fiesta pieces have led to several pricey items over the course of the 20th century, Mutchler said.

"There are a number of outstanding pieces collectors crave that if they had the budget to buy them, they would," he said.

The prized possession on any collector's list would probably be a turquoise, covered onion soup bowl, an item that technically never should have existed, Mutchler said. Fiesta discontinued manufacturing the covered onion soup bowl before turquoise was introduced as a color in late 1937, yet there are two or three dozen known examples of it. In antique markets and auctions, these bowls have sold for anywhere from $4,000 to $7,000 apiece, Mutchler said.

Fiesta's future in Mutchler's house is tenuous. Although he said he will continue to collect different objects (as a co-founder of the Homer Laughlin China Collectors Association, he said his appreciation for dinnerware is a permanent one), Mutchler said the original plan for his dishes was to sell parts of the collection to pay for his children's college, but how much remains to be seen.

"For the most part I have been a collector since I was a little kid," he said. "It's literally in my blood. I don't think I'll ever stop collecting something."

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