Homer Laughlin’s Fiesta is the best selling dinnerware in American history. Well over 500 million pieces have been produced in the last 70 years. The story of the pattern’s design and manufacture is one that is very interesting. First introduced at a trade show in Pittsburgh in 1936, Fiesta came to represent a new era of tableware design and marketing. The pattern was bold, nontraditional, and even a bit eccentric. The Homer Laughlin Co. realized their pattern could potentially be ignored by consumers as something that would quickly lose its appeal. Although the pattern embraced the spirit of the times with its bright colors, simple design, and unique art deco shapes, its departure from the ordinary placed the Homer Laughlin Co. in a precarious position regarding their investment.
Homer Laughlin hired the famed Stoke-on-Trent designer Frederic Rhead to design Fiesta. Beginning at the age of 19, Rhead took a number of jobs around the world that included working as art director for Wardel Pottery, Roseville Pottery, and professor of ceramics and pottery at University City Pottery in St. Louis. In 1916, he began publishing The Potter, a monthly trade magazine. From Stoke-on-Trent, England to San Diego, California, Rhead became a huge success within the ceramics and pottery industry. His appeal was the ability to adapt to changing tastes and new forms of art. Whether art nouveau, arts and crafts, naïf, art deco, or modern international, Rhead could produce aesthetically pleasing designs for the contemporary table.
When Homer Laughlin hired Rhead to design Fiesta, the company set out to produce a pattern that had no decals or extraneous ornamentation. The consumer’s eye was supposed to be drawn only to the color and the form of each piece. Each piece was to feature glorious curves. Homer Laughlin did not want a pattern that was too rigid for the average consumer. In keeping with the 1930’s zeitgeist, each piece featured concentric rings. Several line drawings were approved by Homer Laughlin and, eventually, permission was granted to begin making the molds. Rhead worked with Dr. A. V. Blenininger and H.W. Thiemecke. In an article for the Pottery and Glass Journal, Rhead said that picking the final colors was one of the more difficult processes of making Fiesta. Five colors were initially introduced in 1936 with a sixth being added one year later. You can see a color chart for Fiesta by clicking here. Ironically, Homer Laughlin developed hundreds of colors with varying tones and hues to be tested on Fiesta molds. The final colors were picked using test marketing. Sets of plates were arranged on a table while developers from Homer Laughlin noted the consumer’s reactions.
Once Fiesta debuted and found such great success, Homer Laughlin looked to expand their piece type offerings. In 1939, Kitchen Kraft was introduced. The initial offering included four of the original Fiesta colors and was a line of bake-and-serve dishes. Kitchen Kraft pieces included mixing bowls, tall salt and pepper shakers, pie plates, and jugs. Despite its success, the Kitchen Kraft line was discontinued in 1945. Over the next decade and a half, Fiesta would see unprecedented success. During the 1950’s, several additional colors were added to the original five Fiesta colors. Colors introduced during the 1930’s and 1950’s are often referred to as “original” or “vintage” Fiesta.
During the 1960’s Homer Laughlin faced fierce foreign competition that threatened the survival of the business. They introduced three colors in 1969 in hopes of keeping Fiesta new and original. Unfortunately, interest began fading in the historically lucrative pattern. As a result, the company decided to quietly discontinue the Fiesta line on January 1, 1973. A small number of collectors continued seeking out hard to find pieces and sharing information via newsletters and trade magazines. Of course, this was prior to the internet.
Homer Laughlin decided to reintroduce the Fiesta line in a co-marketing partnership with Bloomingdales in 1986. In an attempt to reinvigorate sales, Bloomingdales bought rights to the tableware designs of Russell Wright. As Bloomingdales began working on the Russell Wright project, they realized the enormous cost of reproducing Wright’s molds – many of which had been destroyed. Homer Laughlin’s art director suggested to Bloomingdales that an agreement could be reached in which Bloomingdales retained exclusive rights to sale the Fiesta pattern for a limited amount of time. Homer Laughlin, having retained all original molds to the Fiesta pattern would produce the items for Bloomingdales. Five new colors were introduced in the Bloomingdales line. These colors were a bit pale compared to the bright reds and deep blues of the original Fiesta line and those that are in production today. Demand was so great for the reintroduced product that Bloomingdales immediately began requesting more colors. Additional colors were added to the Fiesta line in 1987, 1988, and 1989.
On August 21, 1997, Homer Laughlin produced the 500 millionth piece of Fiesta. To commemorate the occasion, the company commissioned Jope Geisse to model a presentation bowl for collectors. The bowl featured a deep raspberry color and exquisite art deco shape. The bottom of the bowl features a six-pointed star that seemed to grasp the bottom of the bowl. This bowl is shallow and truly is the epitome of Fiesta and art deco styling. The backstamp on these pieces reads “Fiesta 500 M.” Only 500 of these bowls were ever produced and are known as the “holy grail” to Fiesta collectors.
Today, Fiesta colors are bright and are in constant flux. Homer Laughlin continues to test market its colors just as the company did in the 1930’s. New colors are added while others are discontinued based on consumer tastes. In addition to the wide variety of colors that Homer Laughlin has produced over the years, there have also been a number of decal patterns that have been designed and marketed. These patterns include, Fiesta Child’s Tea Set, Fiesta Hometown Heroes, and Some Bunny’s . There are many collectible items that have been made throughout Fiesta’s history that are no longer produced today. Just as colors have been introduced and discontinued, so have piece types. One thing is for sure, Fiesta will forever represent an American tableware tradition. Just as Homer Laughlin and Frederic Rhead intended, eyes will always be drawn to the bright colors and comely shape of the Fiesta pattern.