News & Events
Discover Mid-America September 2008
Frankoma speaks of function and art
Story and photos by Bruce Rodgers
If there’s a mystery behind Frankoma Pottery, it’s why it isn’t more popular as a collectible. The elements are there.
An engaging and often romantic story about the founder John Frank and his wife Grace Lee. A business idea to capture the masses. A natural resource that responds to the graceful touch of a human. And a product alluring in both function and beauty.
Add to that two daughters, Joniece and Donna, as spokespersons for a legacy that mirrors their separate individuality tied to a shared family bond, reflected in independence, creativity and plain old Oklahoma pioneer spunk.
Transplant from Chicago
In 1927, Chicago native John Frank was a fresh graduate from the Chicago Art Institute with a job in Oklahoma and no money to get there. Frank had been hired to establish the first ceramic art department at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. But he need fifty dollars for train fare. A fellow classmate gave Frank the money. He was assured she had a rich relative.
Once there, Frank went about setting up a studio.
“They didn’t even have a room for him, put him back in the old armory, no electricity, full of dead critters, spiders and varmints,” said Donna Frank.
Frank settled in, building his shop, making friends and scouring the state for clay desposits. A fellow church goer introduced Frank to a student named Fred Bowman. From a family in western Oklahoma, Bowman had a sister named Grace Lee. She was a secretary in Oklahoma City.
“It took him (Bowman) until the last week of January 1928 to finally get them together,” said Donna.
“Fred and his girlfriend and mom and dad piled into the front seat of a Model-T. You know what space there is in there – they took turns sitting on each other’s lap.”
Frank was enamored with Grace Lee and she recognized the attention with her smile. They made another date for the following Saturday.
“On that Saturday he drove her to Oklahoma City then brought her back to his studio at the university. He proposed to her.
“She didn’t say ‘yes’ and she didn’t say ‘no’,” continued Donna. “He couldn’t afford a ring on his teacher’s salary so here’s what he did — he threw her a pot. Talk about romantic!”
The date was Feb. 5, 1928 and the pot became known as the Engagement Vase. Romance never did seem to leave the couple.
In 1933, Frank started a pottery manufacturing business. His clay source came from Ada, a town in the Arbuckle Mountains south of Oklahoma City. The white Ada clay fired to a light beige color.
Frank’s hope was to bring fine “art ware” and sculpture to ordinary people who could appreciate the beauty and enjoy its function. It’s a business philosophy Frank stuck with his entire life.
With the help of OU professor and sculptor Joseph Taylor, and student employee Ray Murray, designs were added to the production line while Frank continued to teach at the university until 1936. By cutting those ties, Frank and Grace Lee then fully committed to the state’s only commercial pottery. Taylor created the company’s first trademark, a large ceramic vase with a pacing cat in the foreground, known as the “Pot and Puma” logo.
But Grace Lee wasn’t particularly taken with the name Frank Potteries. “She thought it needed something more marketable, and being the first and only pottery in Oklahoma, why not ‘Frankoma.’”
Grace Lee’s input didn’t end there. Frankoma was the first to put color dinnerware on the market in 1942. “Knowing my mother, I think she got tired of white of seeing white plates,” said Joniece.
Joniece also gives Taylor a lot of credit artistically. She studied under Taylor. “All I wanted to do was run Frankoma and study under Joe Taylor, and I was able to. He designed beautiful pieces of sculpture and art. It completed the psychic needs you had.”
By 1938, the studio in Norman became too cramped and the Franks moved to Sapulpa, a town southwest of Tulsa. A new building was built but just months later a fire devastated it. It was a setback but they dug in and rebuilt the facility.
In 1942, Frankoma’s signature dinnerware line was introduced, the Wagon Wheel. Southwest and Native America designs served as inspiration. The factory turned out pitchers shaped like a wagon wheel and boot-shaped vases. A few years later came the Mayan-Aztec line of dinnerware and to follow the hallmark colors of Prairie Green, Desert Gold, White Sand and Onyx Black.
By 1954, the Ada clay tapped out and quality declined. Frank went looking for a new clay. He found it at Sugar Loaf Hill in Sapulpa, a rich red clay that gave off a terra cotta coloration. The new find had Frank experimenting with new glazes and perfecting his one-step process where the clay and glaze are fused and fired at the maturing point of the clay.
“Both have to reach a certain point and the glaze is a bubbly gas and it seeps into the clay and bonds while the clay is allowing gases to escape through the glaze,” explained Joniece.
Frank’s motivation, said Donna, was to cut production costs. “So he could sell to the average person,” added Joniece.
The Frankoma line expanded — mugs, Christmas plates, ceramic Christmas cards, pitchers, candlesticks, salt and pepper shakers, ash trays, serving trays, honey pots, bookends and even Frankoma jewelry. Frank seemed willing to create whatever he thought the average family would take to.
By 1955, the Franks achieved some measure of success. The reward was to build a family home. Bruce Goff, an acclaimed architect born in Alton, KS and at one time chairman of the School of Architecture at the University of Oklahoma despite a lack of formal credentials, was commissioned.
His singular style was called organic architecture, client and site specific. Goff built a number of residences in the Midwest and his design of the Boston Avenue Methodist Church in Tulsa is considered the one of the finest examples of Art Deco architecture in the United States.
Donna and Joniece live in the Goff-designed house, which sits above a terraced slope in a quiet Sapulpa neighborhood. It’s exterior is clad in terra cotta “knee” tile, which contrasts to its curved shape atop the hill.
“It’s shaped like a smile,” said Donna.
The feel vibrates a gentle lived-in energy, quietly urging repair here and there. The interior includes a sunken living room and cone-shaped tile fireplace. The front of the home displays an elevated swimming pool overlooking the terraces. Entrance to the house is from the rear through a 900-pound glass door easily opened because of its off-center hinge. Exquisite tile decorates the door, allowing one to see out but not into the house.
Inside, bathrooms remain outside the bedrooms in turrets hugging the outside of the structure. The walls are moveable with an abundance of shelve space.
“This house was built to display pottery,” said Donna.
Frankoma, sculptures by Joseph Taylor, original Maxfield Parrish prints, a large photo of Pablo Picasso and works by other artists decorate the house. No question this is an artists’ abode.
John Frank died in 1973 and Joniece became president of the company. Another fire struck in 1983 and the factory was rebuilt. But dark economic factors were at work.
Frankoma’s employees were aging as was the company’s sales network. The ma and pa businesses Frankoma catered to were disappearing and big-box stores taking over, selling cheaper, imported dinnerware and pottery.
“The K-Marts, the Targets and all that — there was no way I could meet their price points,” said Joniece.
Bankruptcy hit and the family business was sold to an out-of-state investor. The doors closed at the end of 2004. In 2005, the business reopened under new ownership.
In the end, Donna and Joniece were left with little money but a very special house to maintain. They get by on Social Security, what pieces they can sell to Frankoma collectors and by giving tours of their Bruce Goff-designed Frank Home “The Pottery House.”
The two women aren’t bitter or angry. They are proud of their heritage and cherish the memory and the creative work of their parents.
“Why do people still love Frankoma?” asked Joniece. “It’s very simple — it’s good art.”
Reservations to tour the Frank Home in Sapulpa can be made made by calling 918-224-6566 or email Joniece@aol.com. Cost of the tour is $5.
The 14th Annual Frankoma Family Collectors Association Show & Sell will be held Sat., Sept. 27, 10 am-3 pm, at Freddie’s Pavilion in Sapulpa. Call 405-728-3332 for membership information or go to www.frankoma.org. The website also lists current values on particular pieces and information on research books and other resource materials.
Contact Frankoma Inc. (under new ownership) at 918-224-5511, 800-331-3650 or visit www.frankoma.com. The website hosts a shopping cart and information on limited editions of Frankoma.
Linda Odom came to Oklahoma from Houston, moving to Tulsa in 1981. Later, while traveling in the early 1990s for her job, Odom stumbled across Frankoma.
“I started buying it at thrift stores,” she said. “I could tell it was handmade. I worked in art, made a living as an artist for awhile, and here is this beautiful pottery in thrift stores I could buy for 50 cents, a dollar or at garage sales for practically nothing.”
Odom didn’t know much about Frankoma so she started doing research. Soon, she had a booth in an antique mall and was selling the pottery. There were snickers from other dealers. Odom was perplexed. Maybe it was a case of Frankoma being a prince in other lands and a pauper at home.
“The colors ... it was obviously a quality product,” said Odom. “I had made pottery. I knew what it took, and it was just beautiful.”
Odom ignored the doubts from fellow dealers and began to make money on Frankoma. “I bought a box-lot full for $20 at an auction, all salt and pepper shakers. I made hundreds. What I bought for nothing would sell for $30 to $40 a piece.”
Eventually, Odom joined the Frankoma Family Collectors Association and met Donna and Joniece. “They are such interesting people and I found their house fascinating,” Odom said.
Odom has space at Tulsa’s I-44 Antiques & Collectibles Mall and said she has over 500 pieces of Frankoma at her home and in the mall.
“I probably have the biggest display in Oklahoma, maybe the whole region,” claimed Odom. “A lot is dinnerware. All the pottery I have, they don’t make anymore, with glazes they aren’t making anymore. The small pieces, the tiny figurines are very collectible, very desirable.
“The stuff they are making now is completely different. I don’t carry anything in the new(er) glazes.”
I-44 Antiques & Collectibles Mall is located at 2235 E 51st St., Tulsa, OK. Call 918-712-2222 for more information.