Beauty from the Lab
Minimalistic in form and manufactured with exquisite precision, classic laboratory ceramics, such as the tactual porcelain crucibles and skinny alumina trays by CoorsTek in Colorado, can be as strikingly decorative in a modern home as designer potteryware.
The area around the town of Golden, Colorado, feels ancient, with flat-topped mesas crowning tumble-down hills at the foot of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. Ridges heave up from the tilting plain like the backs of dinosaurs. Prospectors and scientists have uncovered Triceratops tracks hereabouts, petrified wood, and the fossilized bits of more than 200 plant species. The place is a beautiful old mess, its geology famous for minerals but also for clay, which is particularly fine and well suited to the making of ceramics.
As reality is transmuted more and more into the virtual, I like to remember that everything made by humans is made from stuff pulled from earth or air. Silicon has a valley named after it, after all. Less well known is ceramic, deployed all over the high-tech landscape for its ability to insulate, resist, conduct, shield, and do other yeoman work. Ceramic traces a direct path between the most ancient manufacturing—humans were firing clay figures 24,000 years ago—and the Great iPhone Era.
I’ve loved ceramic ever since the time my mother was given a small collection of chipped and crazed Ming Dynasty bowls that had been dug up in Indonesia by Jesuit priests—friends of hers. I was ten. By their delicate feel and obvious durability, it was apparent that they were made of the same stuff—porcelain—as my mother’s English Spode china.
Ideal design from the cusp of modern
Decades later, while editing a science magazine, I started to collect laboratory ceramics. Vintage labware had begun to turn up on eBay: crucibles, funnels, casseroles, spoons, spatulas, and combustion boats. Basically: cookware for chemists. There were tiny dollhouse-scale crucibles as well as huge mortars that could hold 272 dry ounces of material. These pieces were utterly functional in shape, creamy gray or ivory in color, modern. But their modernity had a retro feel, echoing the apothecary. They had reached their ideal form and then ceased evolving: It was hard to tell a brand-new piece from one produced almost eighty years before. Modern, then, but from the cusp of modern.
“These pieces were utterly functional in shape, creamy gray or ivory in color, modern.”
My lab ceramic pieces usually sported a simple mark, “Coors U.S.A.” I didn’t think much about that until I moved to Colorado, drove through downtown Golden on the way to Vail, and passed an old brick building attached to a much newer one. A sign announced the CoorsTek advanced ceramics company, and I finally put two and two together.
Coors—a Colorado family company
Early this year, after signing documents affirming that I was not a spy and understood I was entering a facility governed by federal security laws, I got a look inside the CoorsTek plant where the labware is now made. It’s one of several CoorsTek factories in Golden, and the only one to which I was likely to gain entry: The rest of the operations, here and in Europe and Japan, are devoted to a myriad of high-tech products such as body-contouring ceramic armor plates for soldiers (also beautiful objects, by the way). It’s a billion-dollar private company, owned by the Coors family, that long ago leveraged its labware skills to make ceramic parts of exquisite precision, used in rocket nose cones and hip-replacement devices and highly specialized one-off bespoke projects like the high-intensity lights that memorialized the Twin Towers after 9/11. But it’s the labware that I was interested in anyway, the seed of the whole ceramic enterprise.
My guide around the factory was Rob Spurrier, who has been at the company for thirty-six years and is now plant operations manager. A formidable, matter-of-fact journeyman tool-and-die man, Spurrier seems to like that he works for a bleeding-edge technology company whose roots lie in methods you could learn at the community center.
“Making this product follows your fifth-grade pottery class that you might have taken at school.”
It’s true that despite the oversize scale of the kilns, casts, racks, and presses in the huge plant, there’s a handmade vibe. Pieces are generally pressed by machine, not thrown, but if two parts have to be joined together, the slip technique would be familiar to any potter. I spotted one fellow working on ceramic “furniture” (which is the name for pieces that other ceramics rest on during manufacture). A piece cracked apart in his hands; he chucked the shards into a bin and started on another. Everywhere were racks of unfired “green” labware, looking as fragile as any raw clay things, awaiting the kiln. “Pugs” of refined clay, known as body, made in a nearby Coors plant and shipped here in metal tubes, looked like enormous strands of Plasticine.
Porcelain from ancient China to 1940s America
Classic labware is made of porcelain, invented by the Chinese more than two thousand years ago and improved in the thirteenth century. It is made by pulverizing and mixing a white clay called kaolin with other materials into a paste, forming the paste into shapes, then firing it at very high temperatures until the minerals liquefy in a glasslike way and bond with the rest of the material. Not until the 1700s did the Europeans crack the formula and technique. One who succeeded was Johann Böttger, a German pharmacist-turned-alchemist. Soon, there were porcelain factories all over Europe producing housewares and decorative goods. Porcelain, improved again, proved ideal for chemistry. It resisted chemical attack. It was minimally porous. It retained its mass. It could be subjected to thermal shock. The Germans dominated its manufacture.
That last fact meant trouble for American labs when the blockade of World War I ended the importation of German goods. The US government asked local industry to fill the labware gap. One firm that responded was Herold China and Pottery, in Golden. It had been installed in a defunct bottling plant owned by Adolph Coors, founder of Coors beer, by a clay expert named John Herold. Its purpose was to make ovenproof kitchenware. The pottery did not prosper, though it had early success producing crucibles for lab use at the Colorado School of Mines, also located in Golden. Herold left, then returned in 1915 to tackle the problem of producing labware for the national market. Coors soon bought the company outright and installed his son, Adolph Jr., to run it.
Alumina brings advanced ceramics
The Coors company went on to produce much of the country’s lab ceramics. Not much changed until the 1940s, when Coors acquired technology for forming clay into shapes that were far more complex and precise than conventional porcelain techniques could achieve. Then alumina launched the era of advanced ceramics. With alumina, purified aluminum oxide powder is swapped for clay. The powder turns into a ceramic under tremendous pressure. Over the decades, the process was advanced to make ceramics from boron, silicon, tungsten, and more. The range of modern ceramics is now fantastic. They can be hard as metal yet melt at much higher temperatures than metal. They can conduct electricity, or not. They can transfer heat easily, or resist it. They have names like Y2 O3, yttria-stabilized zirconia. But one property they share is beauty. Ceramics beg to be touched.
“The range of modern ceramics is now fantastic…. But one property they share is beauty. Ceramics beg to be touched.”
“I love the surface finishes we can achieve, and the feel of ceramic,” says Harrison Hartman, who runs marketing at CoorTek headquarters and keeps a foot-long, wood-handled CoorsTek pestle in his office. “Ceramics can be heavier than metal, and more dense.”
Jessica Nall, one of the company’s de facto historians, has an IT background but after joining CoorsTek became obsessed with clay and took a pottery class to learn to throw it. She got permission to hand-throw some scrap CoorsTek lab clay outside the factory. “You can throw it,” she found, “but it’s really difficult. I had to bring it back here to get fired and glazed because a traditional hobby kiln is much lower temperature.”
As the factory tour came to a close, I found myself wanting to cut a slice of clay and take it home as a piece of advanced Play-Doh. I sensed that Rob Spurrier would rule this not only verboten—the formula is proprietary—but silly. As a man who had overseen the production of millions of pieces of labware for scientists, he seemed to find my interest in crucibles and combustion boats as objects of beauty somewhat odd.
In 2011, Darrin Alfred, Curator of architecture, design, and graphics at The Denver Art Museum, gathered sixty-four pieces of CoorsTek for a small show called Potters of Precision. Alfred was attracted to the “simple, clean, straightforward, unadorned quality of the product,” and told me that Edgar Kauffman Junior, famous director of the Industrial Design Department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, had connected the dots between labware and the aesthetic of modern home ceramics almost seventy years ago. On page twenty of Kauffman’s small 1950 book, What is Modern Design?, there’s a photo of porcelain dinnerware by the great Eva Zeisel, next to several pieces of CoorsTek ware. The latter, Kauffman wrote, was “used widely in modern homes because of elegance, usefulness, durability and low cost. In a laboratory, beauty is not required, but [it] appeared spontaneously in vessels that serve the scientists’ precisely stated needs.” I own vintage Zeisel dinnerware, swoopy, thin and minimalist, which I keep in my kitchen. I also have a stack of sixteen little CoorsTek alumina lab trays, each about the length and width of an old matchbox, on my desk. Unglazed, with a lovely matte finish, they have a pale ivory color that indicates 99.5 percent pure alumina. I pick them up, rub them, clank them together; they give off a modern sound, somewhere between that of metal and glass. They’re not something Ming Dynasty porcelain potters could make, or Johann Friedrich Böttger, or for that matter Adolph Coors, but they are something they would all recognize and admire. Something real, and of this earth, ancient and new at once. △