Since 1871, the fires have burned brightly at Haeger Potteries in East Dundee, Illinois, where German immigrant David Haeger launched his brick-making business near Chicago to help rebuild the city after its Great Fire of the same year. The company, one of America’s largest pottery producers, that once produced millions of bricks to resurrect the Windy City now creates sleek and stylish décor that can be found in homes and offices around the world.
Company president Alexandra Haeger Estes carries on the work started by her great-grandfather. “As a child, I was always fascinated by the kiln [a 250-foot tunnel that fires up to 2000 degrees] and its cherry red flame; it was and still is magical,” says Haeger Estes, who practically grew up inside the 156,000-square-foot factory located on the clay-rich banks of the Fox River.
Learning the business directly from her father, Joseph F. Estes, she became president of Haeger Industries in 1979. “What makes us special is that we’ve always been family-owned,” Haeger Estes says.
When the company’s founder died in 1900, the brick manufacturer already had begun producing simple red pots for the florist trade. Haeger’s son Edmund brought an artistic vision to the family enterprise and in 1912 launched a glazed artware collection that eventually helped turn Haeger Bricks into Haeger Potteries.
Through the years, a succession of artists have helped design the company’s artware, with stylized pieces ranging from figurines and vases to candlesticks and bookends. The most notable was Royal Hickman, who from 1938 to the early 1950s created Haeger pieces in the popular Royal Haeger line.
“Up until then, we were producing mostly lamps and vases in pleasing and classic shapes,” Haeger Estes says. “Royal Hickman brought us into a flamboyant stage with his daring designs.”
One of his most iconic designs was a statue of a sleek black panther, introduced in 1941, still made today, and sold for about $50.
In recent decades, Haeger Potteries has focused on making products that are both beautiful and useful, such as vases, bowls and trays. Its functional artware includes pieces created for the Frank Lloyd Wright Museum Shop in Chicago, as well as for large retailers such as Macy’s, J.C. Penney, and Crate & Barrel. The company, which has 70 employees, also makes natural stone bakeware, including products for Pampered Chef.
Using clay from Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia, sand from Illinois, and powdered oxides from Ohio and Pennsylvania to make the glaze, materials are mixed in the factory and fashioned through two processes: slipcasting, in which liquid clay is poured into molds and dried, and press molding, in which clay is shaped using pressure.
Haeger’s streamlined manufacturing process, combined with its emphasis on quality and contemporary designs, have kept the company in business while most U.S. potteries have succumbed to foreign competition.
“We have the capacity to produce up to a million pieces a year,” says Terry Rosborough, the company’s vice president of manufacturing. “Every piece is hand-inspected.”
The company’s approach continues to work—not just for consumers but also for collectors who appreciate Haeger’s stylish designs, colors and glazes.
“Haeger is distinctive in that it continues to mirror a period of time in American style when decorative arts were at their height,” says Peter D. Gehres, president of Belhorn Auctions in Columbus, Ohio.