Kobi Klaitman
Kobi Klaitman
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Pottery Appreciation

A new book delves into the history of Lapid ceramics—once ubiquitous in Israeli homes

Dana Kessler
February 01, 2021
Kobi Klaitman
Kobi Klaitman

If you got married in Israel in the 1970s, you undoubtedly received a Lapid dinnerware set as a gift. Most every Israeli kitchen cupboard in the second half of the 20th century contained Lapid ceramics—and many of them still do. Lapid was part of the country’s day-to-day life and local aesthetic. But in 1990 the factory closed after 47 years.

Israel was never big on documenting its recent past, and outside of the collectors’ circle, the legacy of Lapid ceramics was in danger of disappearing, until now. A new comprehensive book, Lapid Ceramics: A Melting Pot, is part history book, part coffee-table book, part product catalog. It can be ordered directly from its author, Kobi Klaitman, or found in select Israeli bookshops and on eBay. It is in Hebrew, but due to its beautiful photographs, you don’t have to read Hebrew to enjoy it.

Klaitman, a wine and food writer, began his research eight years ago—a couple of years after the passing of his father, Rubin Klaitman, who worked as maintenance manager at the Lapid factory in Jaffa. Klaitman’s research initially started as a means of satisfying his own curiosity. But years of rummaging through archives, interviewing people, and even hiring a private investigator to help him find the descendants of Lapid’s founder, Pesach Freedman, turned into a book. Israel’s once-magnificent pottery industry went virtually undocumented—like many other fields of Israeli culture—and Klaitman knew he couldn’t let the information he gathered go to waste. “We are a young country that succeeded in building industries, as well as destroying them. We run forward very fast but forget to look back,” Klaitman told me, hoping to rectify this, at least in his father’s field.

“Lapid mirrored many facets of Israeli society,” Klaitman said, explaining the “melting pot” in the book’s title. “Stylewise, Lapid was influenced by local archeology as well as Scandinavian pottery—this kind of mixture is very Israeli. Lapid’s designers brought influences from the countries they came from, and at the factory, Jews, Christians, and Muslims worked together. Arabs, from Jaffa as well as the occupied territories, worked there. I asked workers if there were any tensions between Jews and Arabs at the factory during the Six-Day War or the Yom Kippur War, and they answered: No, people came to work, worked hard and at the end of the day went home.”

The factory opened in 1943, during the British Mandate, manufacturing tiles and sanitary ware. In 1949, after the founding of the state and under new ownership, Lapid opened its art department, which it would become famous for. Industrialist Kurt Musberg, the new owner, purchased Lapid’s huge tunnel kiln, which was used to fire its hand-painted stoneware at exceptionally high temperatures. The oven was more than 165 feet long, and since it took two weeks to turn on and two weeks to turn off, it worked 24/7 for all those years until the factory closed—except on two occasions when it needed repair. Musberg brought in Bertha Rosenthal, who had a Ph.D. in chemistry and owned, together with her husband, factories in Germany and Czechoslovakia. Rosenthal established Lapid’s art department and hired Elsbeth Cohen Silberschmidt, who became the company’s best-known designer.

Lapid’s commercial boost occurred in 1957, when the company was purchased by Koor Industries, Israel’s largest industrial enterprise. Koor was born as the industrial arm of Solel Boneh Construction, founded in British Palestine in 1924 by the Histadrut (the General Federation of Labor) to construct roads and buildings.

Koor purchased many factories and production plants. Its ceramics division included quite a few factories, including Lapid, Naamam porcelain, and Harsa. After Lapid became part of Koor the idea was to stop manufacturing bathroom fixtures and to concentrate on tableware and art ware, but the workers’ council put its foot down; they worked on quota-bonus compensation, and making sinks and toilets was much easier than hand-painted vases. Although Lapid never abandoned its bathroom fixtures, it became known for decorative tableware, which was hand-painted. If you turn a Lapid object over you can see who it is was painted by—almost all painters were women, and they usually signed by first name only. In the 1970s and ’80s decals were introduced, but Lapid never stopped hand-painting.

For Israelis, Lapid represented a local aesthetic. We didn’t know that many of its designs were inspired by, or indeed copied from, Scandinavian pottery. There were some local influences, too, such as archeological earthenware discovered in the area, desert colors, and images of Arab women holding pots on their heads. The names of Lapid’s lines were also often local, like Ein Gedi, Negev, Carmel, or Arava. But in general, Lapid’s designs were less Israeli than generally believed to be.

Arik Franco, art strategy and development consultant and senior editor at Middle Plane magazine, believes Lapid didn’t develop an original style. “Lapid’s ornaments were usually being copied from what was being done in Nordic countries, a few years before,” he told me.

Original art or not, Lapid’s popularity can’t be denied. The company’s heyday was in the 1960s and ’70s. At first, its pieces were an expensive, high-end commodity. Lapid even commissioned artists to guest-design special items, like the little statue of Dosh’s famous cartoon character Srulik, who symbolizes Israel.

In the late 1960s, marketing manager Dan Eyal decided to leverage the fact that Lapid’s CEO Joseph (Yoshko) Givol knew all of the country’s bigwigs. Through Givol, Eyal approached Lily Sharon, the wife of Ariel Sharon, who at the time was a high commander in the army. Eyal knew Lily Sharon hosted garden parties and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse: He would bring her all the dishes she needed for her parties. He told her to put everything back in the box at the end of the event—without washing the dishes—and he’ll have them picked up the next morning. All she had to do in exchange was this: Whoever asked where her dishes were from, she had to answer, “They’re from Lapid.” Eyal told Klaitman that Ruth Dayan, the first wife of Moshe Dayan, then Israel’s minister of defense, coveted the same deal for her own parties. He was more than happy to oblige.

Lapid grew and by the 1970s its products were mass produced—even though most were hand-painted—and infiltrated nearly every Israeli home. Lapid’s dinnerware was still considered prestigious—something you give as a nice wedding gift—but very popular. Another route in which Lapid entered every Israeli home was via workers’ committees, who bought Lapid products and gave them as holiday gifts to their workers. Employees of huge companies like the Egged Transportation company, Israel Aerospace Industries, and of course Koor, all got Lapid dinnerware for Rosh Hashanah. If you consider the fact that up until the dramatic shift in Israeli politics in the 1977 election, which ended an almost-30-year rule of the left, the Histadrut was the largest employer in the country, it’s easy to see how almost all Israelis ate on Lapid plates.

But during the 1980s Lapid started to decline—first artistically, then financially. Lapid’s closing, in 1990, is also part of Israel’s story. There are a few reasons for the factory closing: the government opening Israel up for import; the collapse of Koor, which created thousands of unemployed; the expensive real estate Lapid was located on; and changing of public tastes. People started opting for lighter and cheaper dishes from overseas rather than Lapid’s heavy and expensive tableware, even if it was of high quality and lead-free.

Israel used to have a thriving ceramics industry. Lapid, Harsa (a sanitary ware manufacturer that had a 10-year period of making art ware that nowadays is very highly revered), and Naaman were part of about 20 Israeli ceramic factories. Today nothing of this glorious industry remains. There isn’t even one pottery factory left in the whole of Israel—only small private studios.

Many Israeli homes still hold Lapid objects without realizing or appreciating it. But in the last 20 years or so, collectors discovered Israeli pottery. If once you could find discarded Lapid sets on the street, nowadays collectors are willing to pay a pretty penny for them in vintage shops, at antique markets, and on eBay.

One of them is Robert Lebow, interior designer, living in Huntington Woods, Michigan. His ceramics collection is about 500 pieces; some 200 or so are Lapid. “I began collecting in the early ’90s when I first moved to Tel Aviv,” Lebow told me by email. “One of my great fascinations with Tel Aviv was the Bauhaus architecture which seemed to be of no interest to anyone other than me. I was at [the Jaffa flea market] Shuk Ha’Pishpeshim nearly every morning, buying whatever pleased my eye and digging up information on the companies and artists whose work I was collecting. Other pieces came from the street. Tel Aviv apartments were emptied, and everything thrown on the street for rubbish collection. I would go through boxes looking for all things vintage Israeli.”

Lebow was fascinated by the history the ceramics represented. “In the beginning, in the ’30s and into the ’40s, ceramic artists were still purchasing supplies from Europe. Many of the artists and artisans were Europeans working with European products in their new home of Palestine. They were creating Western European forms using Western glazes in Palestine for their Bauhaus buildings, more Western art. Where was Palestine in these pieces? It wasn’t there. They were European products made by Europeans. Fast forward to the mid-late 1940s and most dramatically in the early ’50s, the artistic rebellion occurred and there emerged the Israeli style, which is very hard to define.”

Even though the foreign influences were very present, Lebow does believe Lapid had a certain Israeli style: “You can see it in the abstraction of pieces, in the changing of shapes and decorations. Lapid was ‘less so’ Israeli style than Harsa, since it was ‘safer,’ less risk-taking than Harsa. But the pieces with the Arabian Oryx or Mountain Gazelle are, I believe, purely Israeli.”

Around 1998, Lebow managed to get an appointment with the curator of modern art at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. He presented his exceptionally well-photographed and documented catalog of the collection. “Flipping each page with hardly looking, the catalog was handed back to me with these words: ‘Wedding gifts. These are nothing but wedding gifts. Everyone has a closet full of them. They are of no interest.’ For years I carried that dismissal with me. It bothered me because the person who proffered those words couldn’t see the value in the pieces. Today, it no longer bothers me and I realize how wonderful it was for loving families and friends to purchase such fabulous gifts, made in Israel by Israeli artists, a fine show of nationalism and pride in the culture.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.

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