“We got two,” declares the character Pete Campbell in Mad Men. He is returning a tomato-red and lettuce-green ceramic serving dish he and his bride received as a wedding gift—thus piquing the interest of viewers everywhere.
Suddenly, diehard fans who couldn’t care less about ceramics were each vying to acquire their own ceramic “chip and dip.” One fan site identified it as the work of Brad Keeler Artwares and reached out to me, his granddaughter, for confirmation.
Having never watched Mad Men, going purely based on their description, I too became certain it was his. How could it not be?
Brad Keeler’s work was distinctive, if not what some might consider kitsch. During his heyday, my grandfather was known primarily for his buffet service lines. Due to the fragile nature of ceramics and because the company was only in existence for a relatively short period of time— approximately 1939-1952—most of his work has since been lost. Among the widely available today are those which featured bright red lobsters situated on a green lettuce leaf. Others included roosters and hens, or produce like peppers and radishes, and of course the now-infamous tomato of the Mad Men variety.
Mad Men fans were not the first to discover the work of Brad Keeler. Among ceramics collectors, Brad Keeler pieces are highly collectible, and not just because of scarcity. And why shouldn’t they be? His work was artistically and aesthetically superior to many of the other ceramics artists of his day. He was also a self-starter, and an innovator. With the help of a collaborator, Dr. Andrew Malinovsky, Jr., whose father had collaborated with Keeler’s own father, he would develop the ceramics world’s first “true red” glaze, which they called Ming Dragon Blood. That red would become his signature development, gracing the lobsters and tomatoes as well as a line of Chinese-inspired home decor items.
Brad Keeler’s career began practically at birth. He was the eldest son of Rufus Bradley Keeler, of the acclaimed Malibu Potteries and founder of Calco Potteries. After fire ravaged the Malibu plant, eighteen-year-old Brad was part of the cleanup crew. His first official job was with Phillips Bronze and Brass using his natural artistic skill to deftly create life-like sculptures including parrots, busts like the one of department store mogul John G. Bullock of Bullocks Department Store, and reportedly he even had a hand in developing the original Oscar statuettes.
From there, Keeler moved on to working for Padre Potteries before jumping into business with a friend named Jimmie Webster. The short-lived partnership with Jimmie Webster produced some pieces that were marketed under the moniker of “Bradster” but when the partnership dissolved, Keeler continued to sketch, sculpt, mold, decorate, and fire his fine figural ceramic works out of his home-based studio in the backyard. Some of his earliest works were figural birds, most notably flamingos, which he was able to market and sell in local department stores as demand increased. For his first outside facilities, he rented space from Evan K. Shaw’s American Potteries in Los Angeles, where he designed a number of the Walt Disney character figurines for Shaw. A fire destroyed the American Potteries factory, but by the mid-1940s, Keeler’s business had blossomed and he built a full-scale factory on family property on Delay Drive in Los Angeles.
As the 1950s got off to a start, a new Glendale Freeway was slated to cut right through the factory grounds. He was now a married father of two boys and one girl, ages 16, 10, and 4, respectively. Knowing there would be no stopping it, Keeler went all-in: He decided to sink his resources into building a new, state-of-the-art 40,000-square-foot factory in San Juan Capistrano, selling the family home in Glendale and moving them to a temporary but exclusive and extremely expensive cliffside residence in Laguna Beach while the factory was being built.
For this new factory, which would mark a turning point in his career both as an artist but most importantly as an entrepreneur, he would commission something spectacular, something that would get people talking and raise the profile of his brand, Brad Keeler Artwares. Alongside the likes of major players Gladding, McBean and Pacific Clay Products, Keeler would sponsor the creation of a larger-than-life ceramic mural for the upcoming Los Angeles County Fair, to be held at the Pomona Fairgrounds and curated for a special exhibit on clay by none other than Millard Sheets. The mural would depict the four elements necessary for pottery: fire, water, earth, and the potter. This mural would anchor the lobby of the new Capistrano factory.
The headline for September 19, 1952 of The Huntington Park Daily Signal reads, “Huge Ceramic Mural for County Fair.” In the photograph, Keeler is standing beside the mural’s artists, Arthur and Jean Ames, protégés of Sheets.
As expected, the mural and the publicity surrounding the mural brought much-anticipated attention to his endeavor. But also around this time, Keeler’s little-known heart condition was becoming more dire. He was already on “the rice diet,” so what more could he do? The factory construction continued apace, and soon the holidays were upon them. But then the worst occurred: On December 16, 1952, Brad Keeler died of heart failure. He was 39 years old.
Today, his work is revered for its charm, its color and its whimsy. What about the Mad Men connection? Much more knowledgable now, I am confident in saying: That chip and dip was not Brad Keeler. In fact, considering the 1962 date and my own research, I think it is most likely Holt-Howard.
As for the ill-fated Capistrano factory, my grandmother, my namesake, would try and fail to keep up the business, but it would soon close, and all of its proprietary molds and designs would be sold to pay down debt.
Today, though, the mural still stands in San Juan Capistrano as an official city landmark. Though it is listed as The Twin Winton Mural, it references its origins as an original commission by Brad Keeler, a testament to the enduring nature of history, and of clay.
Catherine Porter writes about her grandfather and great-grandfather as well as other topics of interest. She is currently at work on a book about them, “Clay Bodies: The Brief Lives and Lasting Legacies of Rufus B. Keeler and Bradley Keeler, Father and Son Ceramicists.”
For more ceramics fun, check out “Bitossi and Beyond: Your Guide to Mid Century Modern Ceramics.”