In Praise of Malibu Potteries

By Jamie Brisick

Our spring line is rich in SoCal textures, landscapes, and history. Jamie Brisick followed the path of our design team and visited the Adamson House in Malibu, nestled steps away from First Point, to give color to our most vibrant textiles this season. . .

“Necessity is the mother of invention” goes the proverb. And necessity was very much at work for May Knight Rindge, widow of Frederick Hastings Rindge of The Rindge Family fame—and fortune—when she launched Malibu Potteries.

In the first half of the 20th century, Fredrick Rindge was one of the wealthiest men in America. In 1892 he bought the 13,300-acre land grant of what today is known as Malibu, and did everything he could to protect it from outside interests—a crusade that May would inherit when her husband died in 1905. May was savvy. When the state threatened to build a railroad through her property, she found a loophole that would keep them from doing so, provided there was an existing railroad. She immediately built a railroad on her land. She got into all sorts of legal battles, but those legal battles were costly, and by the early twenties May needed money.

At the time there was a lot of oil prospecting happening in California. She tried that—but came up dry. Instead she found red and buff clays. There was clay, clay everywhere, and all of it made for tile!

In 1926, May founded Malibu Potteries, east of the Malibu Pier. The factory was run by Rufus Keeler, an innovative ceramic engineer who worked with local artisans to create some of the most colorful and inventive glazed tiles in the country. Their styles were influenced by Moorish, Egyptian, Mayan, and Saracen cultures—as well as May’s love of children’s books. At its height they had 125 employees and produced over 30,000 square feet of tile a month. Sadly, Malibu Potteries lasted only six years—a fire destroyed the factory in 1931.

I learned all the above on a recent tour through the Adamson House. Our docent was a warm and knowledgeable woman. You could feel her love of Malibu, and of this house. She explained that when May’s daughter Rhoda married Merritt Adamson, a ranch hand, in 1915, Mama Rindge gave her daughter and new son-in-law the property, and there they built The Adamson House, in 1929, which presides over what would later become one of the most famous surf breaks in the world.

Designed by Stiles O. Clements, known as the “Taj Mahal of Tile,” the house is spectacular. A fusion of Spanish Colonial Revival and Moorish Revival architectural styles, it is a study in exquisite craftsmanship, with teak woodworking and hand-painted ceilings and lead-framed bottle glass windows. But its most stunning feature is the tile work, which is so prominent you can’t find a single room without it. The highlight for me was the 60-foot imitation Persian carpet. Made of 674 tiles in vibrant colors, complete with what would be fringes on a real rug, it is the largest tile Persian carpet in the world.

And the tile work is not limited to the house. It crowns the wall that stretches into the iconic First Point wall, aka The Pearly Gates of Malibu. The surf history that has taken place alongside this wall! Gidget hung out here. Miki Dora flipped the bird here. JFK and Marilyn Monroe were said to have stopped off for a beach visit here. In Big Wednesday the re-creation of this wall is almost a character in the film.

I was standing in the footsteps of giants. I was also standing in the footprints of the Outerknown design team, who’d done a trip here a few months back that turned out to be hugely fruitful.

“The Adamson House represents artistry of pattern and color throughout its entirety. It’s inspiring, as a designer, to see a cohesive story integrated into all the spaces with the intricate, but rustic, patterns of the tiles. When you see the tiles in person, you can tell they were lovingly hand made,” said Lynn Siodmak, Outerknown’s Textile Designer. “My design Yerba Buena was inspired by a Moroccan-influenced tile I saw in the Adamson House. It is multi-colored, with radiating forms.”

“And the minimal foulard design, Zuma Tile, was inspired by large alcoves at Los Angeles City Hall, in which Malibu Potteries tiles were installed in 1928,” said Lynn. “This is a subtle pattern with the simple motifs of the tiles set in a regular rhythm.”

At the Adamson House I spent a lot of time with these tiles, and felt a sort of aspirational nudge, a reminder to reach high. And at the end of the tour, the docent showed us something that tied it all together for me. She showed us a chunk of tile from the actual Malibu Potteries factory. She explained that after the fire it had fallen into the sea, then years later washed up on the beach, right there at First Point.

“So you mean to tell me that this piece of Malibu history washed in on the very waves that Gidget and Miki Dora and all the surfing greats rode.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said.