I treasure my Petra Ceramics collection for its fresh bright colours, hand-painted onto some of the whitest and most durable ware in the business. Below are some of my Petra jugs. The largest is 6.5 cm tall.
This is the story of Petra Ceramics, as told to me by Petra herself.
German-born, Petra Donath came to New Zealand in the mid-1980s when she was 30 years old. Like many Aucklanders at that time she went to pottery night classes, hoping to learn new skills and also to meet people and improve her English. Petra didn’t take to hand-throwing but then a chance meeting with Christine Harris led her to slipcasting.
Inspired by Christine’s bold colourful mugs and vases, Petra and her electrician husband Murray de Lacey set up a workshop in an empty building on Karangahape Road – and Petra Potz was born.
Petra’s first materials – and a lot of help and advice – came from Quentin and Kathy Whitehouse who ran Western Potters Supplies. By the late 1980s New Zealanders were craving colour and Western Potters had begun selling bright new decorative pottery stains. Petra was soon buying moulds, slip, colours and glazes from Western Potters, all carted across Auckland in her little Morris Minor car.
Money was tight after the 1987 stock market crash, and do-it-yourself was the order of the day. To apply her glazes, Petra used an old Electrolux vacuum cleaner with a spray-painting attachment.
The first simple platters were made from stock moulds,
hand-painted and stamped ‘Petra Potz’ with a little kiwi emblem. On her first day at the Mission Bay craft
market everything sold out in less than an hour – a real boost since Petra had
no confidence in her decorating ability.
Soon Petra Potz were selling at a market in Devonport, then at Victoria
Park Market. The 1987 stock market crash had put an end to most of Murray’s electrical work,
so this new income was a godsend.
Soon Petra hired an assistant to help with selling, then for a time Helen and David Osbourne from a new shop called Colours in Whangarei retailed her entire output.
As the business grew, Petra moved her workshop from Karangahape Rd to Stanley Street, then again to a factory in Akiraho Street in Mount Eden. When Crown Lynn closed in 1989 Petra bought some factory equipment and hired several Crown Lynn staff. By now, plates and bowls were made on jiggers which were faster and more consistent that slipcasting. The machinery was set up by Murray, who had come to work with her fulltime.
Alongside the factory area Petra set up an outlet shop, furnished with second-hand glass shelves and an old silk parachute hung from the ceiling. Customers could buy seconds or full-price pieces while they watched the pottery at work on the other side of the vast building.
Petra and Murray ran a tight ship, with clearly defined roles. It was Murray’s job to keep the machinery going, make the slip and manage the slipcasting process. Petra was responsible for decoration, glazing and firing.
Sir Tom Clark’s nephew, ‘young’ Tom Clark, helped a great deal with the technical development of Petra’s slip. The main clay component came from New Zealand China Clays at Matauri Bay, one of the whitest and best in the world. Some of Petra’s early pieces have crazed and stained over the years, but she and Murray worked hard to create a consistent quality product. They learned to test their ware by putting samples in a pressure cooker for a couple of hours – the equivalent of about ten years of household use. Any crazing signalled that more work was needed on recipes and techniques.
Every item was cast in a mould or made on a jigger, then a team of hard-working women fettled the unglazed pieces, smoothing rough edges and removing any imperfections. Next the ware was decorated, then put through a kiln, then dipped in clear glaze and fired again.
The factory was kept clean and dust-free to prevent contamination of the white clay base and bright colours. Initially Petra got her modelling done and moulds made by freelancer Hemara Hemara. Before long she hired the services of Bruce Yallop, another freelancer who had been a senior modeller at Crown Lynn. As Petra Ceramics grew, an in-house mould maker was needed to reduce costs and speed up the process. After a search Petra and Murray recruited an English mould maker who was working in South Africa.
At its height the factory employed 25 people, including ten decorators. Petra required hard work and discipline from her staff: ‘I always told them, you don’t have to be artistic. You have to be punctual, you have to be tidy, you have to be fast, you have to be a good learner.’ One decorator pushed the boundaries, more interested in developing new patterns than fulfilling production quotas. One day when Petra had to go out, she gave the wayward young woman yet another pep talk. ‘I said to her, don’t play around. You have got your list, you have got to finish what’s on the list.’ When Petra returned the decorator had once again not finished her list - but on this particular day she developed the Pacific pattern - a top seller for years.
Coffee was coming into vogue in the 1990s and Petra Ceramics did endless runs of mugs and latte cups and saucers, for both domestic and commercial use. The most popular patterns were Pacific, Lemon, Blue Flora and Molle. Petra kept her hand-painted patterns light and loose, always including a lick or two of black for definition. New designs were always a collaboration with the painters who could execute her ideas.
Like other potteries, Petra Ceramics gained a lot of business from the commercial sector. Cafes – including Palmers’ Garden Centres and McDonald’s – wanted tea and coffee cups and plates. There was a steady demand for pure white ware for hotels, and big platters and bowls for caterers, supermarket food cabinets and delicatessens. There were even two sizes of juice containers for hotel dining rooms. Some catering ware went to hotels in the Pacific Islands. Occasionally Petra made one-off patterns for a particular client. Among others, there is a 60-year commemorative platter for the homeware chain Levene’s, and a tomato-themed serving dish for Dolmio – a giveaway for people who collected and sent in a certain number of spaghetti sauce labels.
Above: a hotel juice container. Height 25 cm. This holds four litres. There was also a wider eight-litre version.
By the mid-1990s it was obvious there was room for more expansion, but Petra and Murray decided not to get any bigger – they felt they would be working even harder, for very little extra return.
Then in a few short years everything fell apart. In 1999-2000, Petra had a serious illness and while she was recovering, the business was sold as a going concern and Petra and Murray moved to the South Island. They retained a lifelong love of ceramics, but never returned to the industry.
The new owner kept many of Petra’s patterns but there were also a few new styles such as the striking black and white Zebra design and new pieces including cat figurines, kidney-shaped bowls and ‘garden ball’ decorations . Sadly though, the business had lost its driving force. Petra went back only once, and the factory was obviously in decline. Most of the staff had been put off work and there was an air of dirt and decay about the place.
In 2007 Petra Ceramics went into receivership and the factory closed permanently.
Above: From a Petra Ceramics 2003 brochure. Courtesy Lesley Madgwick
Identifying Petra Ceramics
Petra Ceramics is generally very easy to identify. Almost all pieces are backstamped. The first, from the late 1980s, carries the Petra Potz mark. There are many variations on the Petra Ceramics theme, all used in the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
Petra also occasionally used stick-on labels. Below, this label is on a hotel juice container
Below: this mark appears on a vase made after Petra had sold the business. Used between 2000 and 2007