Nestled in an old brick building on a nondescript side street, this Seattle gem has been deemed by top designers as one of the nation's most...

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Nestled in an old brick building on a nondescript side street, this Seattle gem has been deemed by top designers as one of the nation’s most comprehensive sources for 20th-century American pottery.

Indeed, Laguna Vintage Pottery in Pioneer Square is a candy shop of color, boasting such rare finds as Bauer hand-thrown vases, California custom tiles and artist-signed dinnerware.

And there’s another rarity here: Laguna co-owner Michael Lindsey, an expert on vintage American ceramics. He can find just about any American pottery piece, if he doesn’t already have it. A Franciscan plate missing from your grandmother’s china collection? He can do that. A rare Russel Wright glass? No problem. A 1920s tile-topped table? He can do that, too.

And he does it all without pretense — or huge price tags.

This is a one-of-a-kind shop for all — from those who know nothing about American pottery, to serious collectors, to those up on the latest art trends that are recognizing vintage American pottery as a serious art form.

Laguna specializes in 20th-century American ceramics — plates, vases, lamp bases, garden containers — with an emphasis on dinnerware from the 1920s through the ’70s.

In fact, it is one of only two owner-operated stores in the nation that specializes in vintage California pottery, according to Bill Stern, executive director of the Museum of California Design in Los Angeles and author of “California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism” (Chronicle Books). The other, Naomi’s Antiques to Go, is in San Francisco.

Cheap and cheerful

Most of the pottery in Laguna was made in the early to mid-1900s in California and the Ohio Valley, where clay was abundant and natural gas and hydroelectric power (for firing kilns) was cheap.

The history of American pottery is a product of economics, geography and a need for cheer during the Depression, according to Lindsey and Stern.

In 1920s Southern California, a population explosion set off a building boom, luring dozens of pottery companies to turn out tile for housing.

But by the end of the decade, California (and the rest of the nation) was rocked by the stock-market crash and then the Great Depression of the 1930s.

With tons of clay and hundreds of employees but no one to buy their tile, the pottery companies soon began making ceramic dinnerware “because people still had to eat,” Stern said.

“The colors just jumped off the tiles and onto dishes, and it became enormously popular all over the country,” he said. “It was inexpensive and the colors were cheery, which they needed during the Depression.”

An art form

With most of the manufacturers gone, this type of pottery is seeing a resurgence in popularity and value today.

“The industry was so big then and it’s largely gone now, and people are taking notice,” Lindsey said. “Many want the nostalgia of having what their parents and grandparents had.”

Museums also are taking note and appreciating vintage American ceramics as an art form. Stern said his exhibit on California pottery enjoyed long runs in San Francisco and L.A. museums.

Accessible and affordable

Despite the increasing popularity of this pottery, much of it is still accessible and affordable to the average consumer.

At Laguna Vintage Pottery, for example, a dinnerware piece (such as a plate or bowl) runs from $15 to $75, basic art pottery (vases, candleholders and bookends) is $30 to $40 per piece, higher-end art pieces (vases, lamps and garden pieces) start at $200 and the unique tile-topped wood tables can run in the thousands.

The vintage tiles scattered throughout the two-level space are works of art, many from the early 1900s — and certainly nothing like the accent tiles you would find in a box store.

If you plan to bring children here, watch them carefully — breakables are everywhere you turn (and turn carefully, too).

And don’t be surprised if some of the dinnerware or art pieces looks familiar.

“Many people come in and immediately recognize patterns their mothers or grandmothers used,” Lindsey said. “There’s lots of nostalgia here.”

Colleen McBrinn: 206-515-5655 or cmcbrinn@seattletimes.com

Window Shopping, a weekly feature in digs, takes readers into various stores around the Puget Sound. Send us ideas at homegarden@seattletimes.com.