April 2024


Planting time: Fascinating figural planters

by Donald-Brian Johnson

Spring is here at last! Time to break out the spades, and break in those new gardening gloves. Time to ferret out that trowel from wherever you stashed it last fall. Yes, time’s a-wasting, and Mother Earth is waiting!

That is, she’s waiting if you actually have a place to plant a garden. Or if you have a green thumb. Preferably both. If not, there are remedies besides artificial greenery: indoor ceramic planters! Not just your traditional bowls and rectangles, these are figural planters, which came into their own in the 1940s and ‘50s. Guaranteed rays of decorative sunshine, figural planters turn any environment into a garden party.

Lifting non-green-thumbers out of their doldrums was probably not the first consideration of the artisans who created these planters. During the early years of the 20th century, America had relied on overseas imports for affordable decorative accents. World War II changed all that. Imports were unavailable for the duration, and inexpensive home décor items (for instance, planters) needed to be home-grown.

Ceramic designers of the World War II years could, quite literally, be called “designing women.” With much of the male population otherwise occupied overseas, female designers surged to the forefront. California alone saw the rise of such talents as Kaye (aka “Kaye of Hollywood”), Yona Lippin, Betty Lou Nichols, Florence Ward (Florence Ceramics), and Jimmie Lee Stewart of deLee Art. But when it came to figurines, the most prolific of them all was Hedi Schoop.

A Swiss émigré, Schoop successfully translated her early work with plaster dolls to the ceramic medium. Acclaimed as “very whimsical and smart,” her figurines won fans due to their flowing lines, eye-catching glazes, and “in-motion” poses. Schoop also served as an inspiration to other designers, including both Kaye and Yona, whose career paths began at her factory.

At first, stand-alone figurines took center stage. Peasant girls, wistful maidens, and courting couples by Hedi and her contemporaries transferred quickly from store shelves to home shelves, as consumers snapped them up. Buoyed by the response, designers expanded their inventory themes. Soon joining the ceramic throng were international characters, children, animals, and even fantasy and fairy tale figurines. The public devoured these too, but still wanted more. Designers once again obliged, and released accompanying pieces (candlesticks, soap dishes, bowls, ashtrays, et al), in colors and designs that complemented the original figurines. Most popular though, were figurals that did double duty, such as wall pockets and “lady head vases” with openings intended to hold a small spray of flowers. At the very top of the double-duty list: figural planters.


Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

“Fritz & Anna,” the “Pleasant Peasants”

“Fritz & Anna,” the “Pleasant Peasants” by Betty Lou Nichols. Fritz’s beer keg doubles as a planter. Tallest figure, 9-1/2” h., $150-175/pr. Image courtesy of the author and photo associate Hank Kuhlmann


Learning the ABCs, graphite, and watercolour

“Blue Dancers”

Hedi Schoop’s graceful “Blue Dancers” kick up their heels. 12-1/2” h., $175-200/pr. (Image courtesy of the author and photo associate Hank Kuhlmann)



No need now for extra pieces such as bowls or ashtrays. Here, the secondary use was built-in. It was a figurine. It was a planter; It was a figural planter! Even better, the “useful” part flowed directly from the figurine design. Now, those peasant girls by Hedi, Kaye, and Yona carried empty buckets, pails, or baskets waiting to be filled with greenery. Some held out open aprons waiting to overflow with the flowers you’d supply, or cradled their arms in anticipation of the floral bouquets that would soon fill them. Exotic Asian figurines held oversize open fans… sleepy babies curled up next to open crescent moons… and elegant ladies lounged against open-top tree stumps or columns. There were even the occasional oddities: the Betty Lou Nichols “Peasant” couple “Fritz and Anna,” with Fritz’s beer keg serving as a planter… the deLee Gay ‘90s girl with a planter opening in her bustle… the clown (by an unnamed designer) waiting for a cactus to grace the back of his baggy pants.

Whether the blossoms you plant are real or plastic, vintage figural planters make attractive containers for mini-gardens. And, since the majority sell for well under $100, the prices are equally attractive. You might say it’s a collecting hobby that just sort of grows on you.

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop,” a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com