Why America Still Gets Fired Up Over Fiestaware

The colorful plate that shattered tradition

On a January day in 1936, The Homer Laughlin Co. set up its booth at a trade show in Pittsburgh, poised to introduce a new line of dinnerware. Laughlin had already been a successful pottery company for 65 years, but the firm was going out on a limb this time out.

In sharp contrast to the stuffiness of bone china patterns, Laughlin’s new line burst forth in brilliant glazes of yellow, green, red and cobalt. Its deco designs were simple and urbane, appealing to “aspirational” consumers long before there was a name for them. Most ambitiously, Laughlin broke the tradition of forcing customers to buy china in large (and costly) dinner sets. Stores would sell pieces individually—a cup here, a bowl there. Not only did the strategy appeal to Depression-era budgets, but it also encouraged Americans to freely mix and match styles and colors.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

The line was called Fiestaware. In 1936, it was a bold idea. Today, it is the best-selling dinnerware in American history.

That is no mean feat, considering that Fiestaware’s designs have barely changed in 78 years. The exception, of course, are those kaleidoscopic, incandescent colors, which might have been Laughlin’s most brilliant branding idea. By introducing and discontinuing a signature color roughly each season, the company created variety, trendiness, collectability in a single stroke.

But there’s a cautionary tale here, too. When Homer Laughlin shelved Fiestaware’s bright colors in favor of drab earth tones in the early 1970s (it was, after all, the brown decade), sales fell off a cliff, forcing the company to discontinue the line. That’s when fans—and there are legions of them—literally stepped forward and saved the day.

“Collectors seized upon something that they thought was gone forever, and the value of the out-of-production dinnerware rose sharply,” related the company’s vp of sales and marketing, Richard Brinkman. “By the mid-1980s, fashion began trending toward a retro style, and we decided the time was right to revive Fiesta. We were right.”

Indeed they were. By 1997, Homer Laughlin’s West Virginia kilns turned out their 500 millionth piece of Fiestaware. Since then, the colorful pottery has stood as proof of many a cardinal rule of branding: Do one thing well, keep quality affordable and (if you can afford to) make your products on American soil. Manage all three and you’ll win a new generation of consumers. As John Parham, president of brand-extension agency Parham Santana, appraised it: “Millennials love authenticity and made in the U.S.A.—and Fiestaware has got it all going on.”

And in any color you want.

Photo: Courtesy of Homer Lauughlin China Company