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California ceramic champion Bill Stern dies at 79

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Bill Stern, the energetic food critic from Los Angeles turned conservative, who then founded the Museum of California Design, a pop-up conservation project that explored the under-explored corners of Californian design, including design by women, died at 79.

Stern, death has been confirmed by the museum’s chief financial officer, Michael Michaud, died Saturday in his sleep of unknown causes in his Los Angeles home.

With the death of Stern, says Michaud, the world of design lost an information font on Californian industrial design – Stern’s main area of ​​interest was commercial ceramics. “I don’t know who else had the kind of knowledge he had.”

During a peripatetic career – which included a stint as a park warden in Alaska, a period spent dubbing Hollywood films in different languages ​​and many years as a restaurant critic for The Times and LA Weekly – it was Californian pottery that would become his greatest obsession.

And it started with the collection. In 1981 he acquired his first set of dishes – Vernonware Brilliant, made in Vernon – from a distant porn star neighbor. This sent him into a rabbit hole in flea markets and real estate sales in search of what Stern when described in a 1994 interview like, “Mmmore, mmmore.”

Michaud, a longtime friend of Stern’s, remembers a house filled with ceramic.

“Plates, bowls, lamps, whatever you can think of,” he recalls. “The house was crowded, from floor to ceiling. You would open a cabinet and it would be stacked with plates of all the colors of the rainbow of Bauer», The company known for the colorful lines it produced for the first time at the beginning of the 20th century.

The habit of collecting eventually led Stern to the police station.

Curator Bill Stern poses with oversized coffee mugs from his 2001 ceramic collection.

In 2001, Bill Stern posed with original pieces from his ceramic collection – a stack of oversized coffee mugs.

(Michael Tercha / Los Angeles Times)

In 1999, he established the Museum of California Design to organize a range of programs on the subject, including numerous exhibitions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Palm Springs. Among the most notable shows organized by Stern was “California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism”, which was presented at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2001, before going to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles two years later, as well as the group exhibition of 2012 “California’s Designing Women, 1896-1986,” also presented to the Autry.

This latest exhibit featured more than 200 works by 46 female industrial designers from California. These included established figures, such as household goods designer Gere Kavanaugh, as well as those who were virtually unknown, including Wilmer James, an African American designer of earthenware whose work had never been exhibited before in a museum.

Jeff Weinstein, a New York-based arts journalist (and longtime friend of Stern’s) who edited the exhibit catalog, says the show helped create a recording of women’s work that would otherwise have been forgotten.

“It was a personal victory for him to interview women who were beautiful women and beautiful designers who were hidden and still alive in Los Angeles,” he says. “Many of them were between the ages of eighty and ninety, and he understood the story. It was a fabulous sight. “

When LACMA presented its “California Design, 1930-1965:” Living in a modern way “” exhibition, part of the 2011 Pacific Standard Time series, Stern was not only a consultant curator, many pieces from his own collection were included in the show.

William B. Stern was born on May 13, 1941 in New York to a doctor father and an artist mother. For his undergraduate studies, he went to Alaska, finishing his Bachelor of Arts at the University of Alaska in 1964. During this time, he also worked as a park warden.

“He told me a lot of stories about life with salmon he would catch and canned goods that people would drop by parachute,” says Weinstein.

In the late 1960s, Stern returned to New York to study comparative literature at Columbia University.

He moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, finding a job at Warner Bros, where he rolled out the different languages ​​he had learned at university in the field of film dubbing – helping to produce scripts and hire actors to translate films for Europe. Release.

In the 1980s, he began criticizing gastronomy, first writing restaurant reviews for the Los Angeles Reader, followed by L.A. Weekly and The Times. At the latter, he showed interest in a wide variety of dishes, reviewing a Russian banquet hall, a Western steakhouse, and a Barcelona-style bistro.

In a 1990 story called “The Truth About Organ Meats”, he sang the praises of organ meats in a town where he did not feel enough restaurants were served: “Although chicken livers and gizzards are as rare as teeth chicken in these areas, you can find them fried in some Pioneer Chicken stores. ”

In another story, he described the cookies and the sauce as “one of the gummy horrors of American country cuisine.”

Curator Bill Stern in his Los Angeles home in 2003.

Writer and curator Bill Stern in his Los Angeles home in 2003.

(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

At the end of the 1990s, more than a decade after having acquired the fatal dish from his neighbor, he organized entire shows on ceramics. But he has always been most interested in ceramics produced in California, still protecting state contributions to design.

In 2001, a journalist writing about “California Pottery” at SFMOMA asked him about Fiestaware, the Virginia-made ceramic that filled American kitchen cabinets in bright colors in the late 1930s, at a when most of the porcelain was white.

“It’s a scam,” said Stern. Fiestaware was a Californian idea, he said to the interviewer. “The rest of the country was aesthetically still an extension of Europe – ivory porcelain with intricate floral patterns on the edges.”

“Part of my role,” he said to a writer for this article in 2003, “is to pass on this knowledge to a previously unknown part of American culture. I firmly believe that every human being must learn that what they see has not always been there. “

Stern is survived by his cousin Margaret Stern, who lives in New York.

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