Tony Hill / Ceramics
Photo: Jet, 1957
Tony Hill (1908-1975) grew up in St. Joseph, Kansas. His parents were Mr. and Mrs. William A. Hill. His father was the head waiter at a local hotel, along with being the editor and publisher of a newspaper called The Protest. Tony received a degree in social work from the University of Kansas at Lawrence and the Graduate School at University of Chicago. He worked as a case worker at United Charities. He took a four month trip to Europe, visited galleries and studied craft and art in Sweden. He returned to the US and worked as a social worker in Albany. In 1940, he married actress Frances Williams. After moving up the ranks as a social worker, he abruptly quit after being passed up for a promotion because the U.S. Social Security Board board “didn't think the country was ready for a Negro representative in a branch office.”
His wife Frances wanted to move to Los Angeles for her acting career and in 1942 that happened. During the war Tony was employed as a turret lathe operator at an aircraft plant in Los Angeles. Then, one evening Tony happened upon a night class Glen Lukens was teaching to “housewives and war workers” at the Pueblo at the Del Rio housing project ( Paul Revere Williams and Richard Neutra helped design the layout of Pueblo Del Rio). Tony was instantly inspired by the potential ceramics had to offer and was the first black student enrolled in ceramics classes at USC under Lukens. It was Lukens who encouraged Hill to start his lamp business.
Photo: Ebony, 1946
In 1944 he co-founded a studio in Los Angeles on South Arlington Ave (with Wilmer James, also a Lukens student). According to a 1946 Ebony article, Tony tried to rent a store and “Security First National Bank wouldn't rent to a Negro”. A white friend rented the store for him. Tony then bought the equipment and a studio was born. Later they moved to Jefferson Boulevard and were in business together until at least 1949. Wilmer moved to Japan with her husband in 1950. It was about then when her name stopped appearing jointly with Hill on the ads for their studio on West Jefferson. In 1963 Tony opened a showroom on Beverly Blvd but kept producing the work on West Jefferson.
Image: Arts & Architecture, 1945
Tony Hill and Wilmer James
An article in Ebony magazine declared him as one of the top five ceramicists on the west coast. It also mentions that he had exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) and a number of galleries. Hill said his first big sale ($400) was to Gump’s in San Francisco. Gump’s also launched the commercial success of fellow ceramicist Edith Heath.
Tony Hill Ceramics ads were a constant in Arts & Architecture magazines from the mid-1940s into the 1960s. According to the magazine, his lamps were Merit Specified for case study houses several times (11,18 and others).
Image: Arts & Architecture
His work was distributed internationally. It was sold to top directors and available in stores like Kneedler-Fauchere, Robert Barber and Barker Brothers-- outlets which should be familiar with those deep into the modern retail scene of the day. In addition, this list from a 1950 article, notes that Wilmer-Hill work was available at “…all the exclusive stores up and down the West Coast: Barker Brothers, J.W. Robinson's,three Bullock stores, Parmalee Dohrman's, Wilder's, Hotel Bel-Air, Gumps in San Francisco and Honolulu, Waikai Beach. Stretching across the country to Marshall Field's, Carson-Pirie-Scott, Macy's, John Wannamakers, Lord and Taylor, Ovington,and all the leading stores in the South including Neiman-Marcus in Texas. Abroad exports go to Sweden, Goth and Choves in Argentine, four different islands in Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, Panama, South Africa, and Mexico.”
Image: Saint Louis Globe Democrat, 1951
He was a frequent subject of Jet magazine’s society section. They often wrote about his travels around the world. This includes international destinations such as Mexico, Brazil, Europe, Haiti, Africa and many trips to New York to participate in exhibitions to sell his work. Jet referred to him as a Los Angeles connoisseur and bon vivant who lived in an “ultra-modern house”.
Image: Jet, 1951
Here is a Jet article that talks about a trip to New York where Tony dined at the Tower Suite/Hemisphere Club in the Time-Life Building. Restaurant Associates, the restaurant operator, selected George Nelson to design the restaurant, including the logo, to the china, glassware, and silverware.
Image: Jet, 1965
He died in 1975 at 70, from a heart attack at the Cairo, Egypt airport. He was on his way to Paris.
According to an article about Tony upon his death, it stated several hundred artisans throughout the country received training at the Tony Hill ceramics workshop.
With such a long and prolific career, lasting from about 1944 to 1975 (based on an ad in the July 1975 issue of Interiors advertising a new line of hand thrown stoneware lamp bases) it’s surprising that more of his work doesn’t surface. The lamp is only the third piece I’ve been able to find. The other two pieces being in 2015, seen here.