Inventory Number C0469

Size 17.75" H x 6.875" W

Material earthenware

Period Art Nouveau

Country of Origin Netherlands

Year Made c. 1884

Status Available

T. A. C. Colenbrander designed the form [Turban], and décor [Firmament] of this striking covered vase. Decoration consists primarily of abstract zigzag and spiky shapes that may be distant cousins of the long, serrated saz leaf of sixteenth century Iznik pottery and Turkish carpets. Along with the title, the presence of distinct zones of design suggests that the theme can be described by these lines from the book of Genesis, 3:1.

And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years: And let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.”

Marks: Painted Rozenburg, Den Haag, D, firmament, 699 / painted Firmament [inside lid].


T. A. C. Colenbrander was a ceramist, architect, and remains recognized today as the first Dutch industrial designer.  Born Theodoor Christiaan Adriaan Colenbrander in 1841 in Doesburg, he became one of the most idiosyncratic and unique European artists of the late nineteenth century[i]. Apparently unhappy with the order of his given name, at some point early in his career he changed their order to become T.A.C Colenbrander, a designation he used throughout his career.[ii]  After training under architect Lucas Hermanus Eberson, who later became the chief architect for Willem III, Colenbrander moved to Paris by 1863 and worked on the Dutch pavilion at the 1867 International Exposition in Paris.  He undoubtedly saw the wide variety of art presented in the pavilions--which included a Mosque, an Egyptian Temple, a Tunisian palace and Chinese and Japanese buildings--from the forty-one countries that participated. This was the first time that Japanese art and architecture was exhibited at an international fair and this made a lasting impression on many artists, including Colenbrander.

Although Colenbrand is lauded for his ceramics, the meandering path he took to become a designer was neither quick or direct. He returned to The Netherlands from Paris no later than 1876 when he is recorded working in the Hague, but the precise details remain elusive. There, he appears to have worked mainly for the government making technical drawings and maps.  He must have spent his free time pursuing other artistic opportunities as there are some non-architectural works known from that period: menu cards and an album for the jubilee of the director a music school. From 1884-9 he served as a designer and Artistic Director for the Rozenburg factory, which was founded in 1883 with the aim of revitalizing Delftware, the traditional tin-glazed earthenware that flourished in The Netherlands from the seventeenth through early-nineteenth centuries. This goal changed with Colenbrand’s appointment and he soon produced lidded vases cups, bowls, candlesticks, decorative dishes and plaques that resembled embossed metalwork from the Near and Far East. Drawing on the formal qualities of mosques, pagodas, and orientalist sources--which he had seen at the Exposition in Paris in 1867--he gave the both the shapes and designs exotic names such as Turban, Firmament, and Pagoda. These architectural shapes became characteristic of his style as was his use of abstract decoration placed on a white background, as well as a bold use of color and the expressionistic painting.

Even though Colenbrander was trained as a draftsman his whole career, he made the transition to industrial designer at the age of forty-three and created a uniquely modern vision for the ceramics of Rozenburg. Rather than embrace the ubiquitous historicism of Dutch design in this period, Colenbrander’s ceramics rejected this impulse in favor of an aesthetic that places him amongst the first practitioners of an emerging Dutch Art Nouveau. Although specific sources of his designs have not been determined, scholars have generally attributed their unusual vibrancy to the influence of Indonesian batik which would have been imported from the Dutch colony. This assertion, while seductive in its clarity, probably oversimplifies the disparate sources that Colenbrand drew upon. The design library at Rozenburg held numerous volumes that might have inspired him, including a French edition of Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament (1856), as well as other publications about Islamic, Byzantine, and Japanese art.[iii] Critics praised the Rozenburg ceramics, especially admiring their glaze and colors, but commercially they were unsuccessful, due probably in part to the high costs associated with Colenbrander’s vision.  He was fired in 1889 and spent time designing wallpaper, textiles and carpets.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Colenbrander was not guided by a proscribed system of design but relied instead on artistic intuition than rational dissection. This process is borne out by his method of drawing his designs directly onto biscuit models in watercolor. However, the colors he used were not intended to be precisely copied by the factory painters. Colenbrander worked with design schemes drawn from fixed sets of color and gave the painters latitude within the colors of the scheme designated for the specific body shape.[iv] Once Colenbrander had approved the decorated body, it would be glazed and fired for the second time. After firing, he inspected each piece and put it on display in the saleroom.

Colenbrander’s career with ceramics appeared finished, but even before World War I his supporters were planning a factory in Arnhem that would produce his designs. Despite the delays caused by the war, and even though the golden era of Dutch ceramics had passed, the factory opened in 1921 with the eighty-year-old artist providing designs. The new concern was called Plateelbakkerij Ram (RAM Pottery), after Aries, the brightest of the zodiac signs. RAM ceramics were of extremely high quality with the earthenware fired at 1000 degrees to achieve a thin hard body, similar to porcelain. The factory developed many unusual colors, including new blues and yellows, which enabled Colenbrander to perfect his designs. These ceramics were very labour-intensive to make as the paint was thickly applied.  When factory administrators tried to introduce a thinner paint that was easier to handle, Colenbrander protested heavily.

From 1921 to 1925, Colenbrander made sixty shapes and 700 different decorative schemes for RAM, which allowed customers some freedom of choice in decoration and shape. With so many options possible, about 5000 pieces were made by the factory.  Ever the perfectionist, even at his advanced age Colenbrander continued to inspect the decorators’ work for quality and generally interfere with every aspect imaginable of the factory.  In 1925 RAM decided to make smaller and less complicated pieces and also wanted to work with other designers, so Colenbrander left. Yet, even in his retirement, he continued to design.  In a letter from late 1925, he wrote that he had enough drawings for a lifetime, but not his, because his was ending.[v] He died in 1930.


[i] For Colenbrander’s life and work, see: Arno Weltens, Theo Colenbrander 1841-1930 (Zwolle: WBOOKS; Assen: Drents Museum, 2014).

[ii] Eveline Holsappel, curator of Applied Art and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in Arnhem, The Netherlands, “T.A.C. Colenbrander: Uncompromising Innovator of Dutch Ceramics,” (Lecture, The American Ceramic Circle Conference, Houston, Texas, November 2, 2012).

[iii] Titus Eliens, T.A.C. Colenbrander: Ontwerper van de Haagse Plateelbakkerij Rozenburg (The Hague: Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, 1999).

[iv] Richard Mills, “Motif and Variations: A Study of Dutch Art Nouveau Ceramic and Carpet Designs by T. A. C. Colenbrander,” Studies in the Decorative Arts 4 (Fall-Winter 1996-1997): 101.

[v] Holsappel, Lecture, November 2, 2012.

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