Standard Ceramic Acquires Sculpture House Ceramics Division
Florida-based Sculpture House is a business with a long history in the greater New York area that traces a century old history through the tutelage of two families. By the end of this summer, Standard Ceramic’s Turnbull family will become the third line of craft-oriented businessmen to extend part of that tradition. Standard will acquire the Ceramics Division of Sculpture House as Bruner Barrie, the company’s CEO, moves closer to a full retirement.
Early Ettl Studios catalogue
The company’s history began in 1883 when John Ettl emigrated from Hungary and established Ettl Studios in New York City. He was a master mold maker and caster and soon received acclaim for his monumental castings at the Chicago World Fair. This business flourished and expanded to include the manufacture of precision sculpting tools and modeling clays. Ettl’s two sons, Charles and Alex joined their father in the business. When the elder Ettl died in the 1940s, Charles, a sculptor, took the Ettl Studios name and established himself in Connecticut. Alex took the helm of Sculpture House, the manufacturing entity.
Image of Alex Ettl with his wife
Image of the Ettl men: father John, sons Charles and Alex
Alex Ettl had a farm in Princeton, New Jersey, where he located the business operations of a sub-division of Sculpture House, called Standard Clay Mines. This was a clay manufacturing operation that sourced raw clays from Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Massachusetts, and other states. Alex Ettl had a friend named George N. Barrie, Jr who, with his family, were frequent guests at the Ettl farm in Princeton. In 1965, Alex agreed to sell the business to his friend George, which included the New York studio and the Princeton clay operation. All the material work was done in the Manhattan location, now on 30th Street between Park and Madison Avenues, which by now included metallurgy and grinding operations in addition to casting and clay and tool manufacturing, all done by a large contingent of mostly immigrant crafts people.
Image of the Ettl team working on a monumental casting
Barrie brought the company into the turbulent 1960s. He was a people-oriented manager and believed in helping his employees, sometimes at the expense of the business’ bottom line. His son, Bruner, shocked his liberal-leaning family when he volunteered for military service in 1966, at the height of the conflict in Vietnam. Bruner served for four years in the US Air Force and returned to New York to take his place beside his father in the family business. Soon, Bruner’s no-nonsense military approach to the company’s operations created a conflict between father and son – a conflict that each seemed to accept with humor. Bruner recall, “He would see someone on the train into work and hire him! He hired every family member withing a 50-mile radius! He came into work around 9 every morning. I was there at 0700 hours. One day, I moved his desk on to 30th Street. He showed up and asked me ‘What is that?’ ‘You know what it is,’ I replied. He turned around, walked back to the train station, went home, and never came to the office again!” Bruner took the helm, reorganized, and has successfully led the company ever since.
Despite the colorful family history, Bruner credits his father’s friendship with Alex Ettl for laying the seeds for his strong work ethic. At the age of fourteen, Bruner worked for Ettl at the clay factory. The days were long and continued into the evening at the Ettl farm, baling hay and doing other manual farm labor. His military service gave him confidence to manage the company, but he was not too proud to admit his limitations. “As a new owner,” he recalls, “I really got beat up on sales trips. People were firing questions at me that I couldn’t answer, and I knew I had to learn.” He spent six years in the plant every day, learning every operation. He took ceramic lessons at night. “I spent five months learning to throw,” he chuckles. “Pulling it up, pushing it down, pulling it up, pushing it down. I finally got a good one and my sober Swiss teacher cuts it in half! ‘Too thick here; too thin there.’ I learned.”
Bruner tuned into the clay culture of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1973, he wanted to promote the ceramic and clay industry and planned an event at the Princeton Farm. “We got about 6 wheels and planned to give everyone 50 pounds of clay. We promoted it as a ‘Pot Party.’ People showed up and wondered where the pot was!”
Bruner’s lively recollections belie his love for his work, a love that is driving his concern for the business’ future as he ages. He explains, “About ten years ago, someone took a group picture of all our employees. I looked at it and realized I was the youngest one in the photo – and I was 64 years old! I knew I had to start making adjustments.” He began a process of bringing in younger employees, specifically a group of Italian metallurgists. He sold the plastalina manufacturing division to Chavant, Inc. He and his wife relocated to Florida and he manages operations there. At about the same time, he connected with Standard Ceramic and arranged an agreement for Standard to manufacture Sculpture House’s clay. For the past decade, Sculpture House maintained its customer base and sales while Standard produced the product. On August 1 of this year, Standard will take over the full operation, with Sculpture House’s customers purchasing directly from Standard. The products will remain the same.
Bruner says that when his wife Nancy pointed out that he is approaching age 75 and suggested that it is time for him to retire, he began to plan how to divest himself. “I thought – how about Graham [Graham Turnbull of Standard Ceramic]? I have always found everyone at the company to be so friendly and helpful,” he says. “It’s very much like a family.” Standard Ceramic is proud to carry on the family tradition for Sculpture House, a company with 139 years of family management.