Unlicensed Star Wars Ceramics

It's an experience familiar to most collectors of Star Wars paraphenalia: You're walking around a flea market or a toy show and something strange catches your eye. On an unassuming table, perhaps beside some old silverware or a loose Mork from Ork action figure, sits a bizarre-looking Star Wars-themed ceramic. Moving in to take a closer look just makes it seem all the weirder. Perhaps it has stars where its eyes should be or is porcupined with colorful plastic inserts, like a giant intergalactic Christmas ornament. Perhaps the vibe it gives off is more short bus than Lucas. Perhaps it's a pig dressed like Darth Vader.

Placing your hand on the item your brain rifles through its catalog of official Star Wars licensees. California Originals, Roman, Sigma . . . but this doesn't resemble the output of those outfits. In fact, it looks slightly more sophisticated than some kid's post-nap kindergarten craft project. You can't imagine anyone at Lucasfilm giving their approval to anything remotely like it. Turning the piece over, hoping to get a peak at the legal information, you uncover yet another odd detail: the words "Ralph 1980" inscribed into the base of the item.

This story more or less encapsulates my introduction to the weird world of unlicensed Star Wars ceramics, a category of collectible that I've been pursuing now for about seven years. The field is varied and mostly uncharted. In fact, given its personalized and largely handmade nature, it's darn near undefinable beyond reference to general characteristics.

It's impossible to discuss this stuff without first touching on the fad for DIY ceramics and pottery that emerged during the 1970s. The '70s were a great time for personalized, go-your-own-way activities, weren't they? The CB radio craze, super-louche custom vans, the pernicious and still inexplicable vogue for macrame -- all bespeak a widespread cultural effort to bring personality and uniqueness to everyday commercial wares. Perhaps then it's not surprising that DIY ceramic stores sprang up around the country during the era. Generally speaking, these establishments permitted patrons to use their resources to create decorative baubles that suited their tastes and interests. And since it was the Age of Star Wars, those tastes and interests often intersected with elements familiar from that galaxy far, far away.

The internet seems largely mute on this topic, and I have no personal experience, so I've gathered some reminiscences of these establishments from people who remember patronizing them.

Here's Canadian collector Scott Bradley:

Back in the late 1970s, these types of do-it-yourself ceramic/pottery establishments were in full swing. One local shop had created a couple of small bedside lamps for my parents' bedroom and we went out to pick them up one evening.

This shop was one large room that had a myriad of finished and unfinished ceramics of all kinds for sale on shelving units, with other people's unfinished projects scattered around the room. You could also make your own, and this shop also gave classes on how to make them onsite They had molds for some ceramics although I never thought at that age to see if they had any Star Wars molds. They did sell the Darth Vader (Knight), R2-D2 (Robot) and Chewbacca (Monkey) lamps; both finished and unfinished.

Patrons could use a variety of materials available onsite to paint and decorate their items. Some items also came with accompanying accessory kits. My Chewbacca (as well as the other Star Wars lamps) came with accessories such as blinking lights, electric cords and plastic buttons (like Lite-Brite) that you could use to fill in various holes. I have attached an example of the kit that came with the Chewbacca lamp.

Once the pottery-maker finished painting their item to their liking, they could also glaze it to give it a shiny coating. They would leave their custom wares onsite and pick them up and pay for them when they were done (or they could just buy a completed example). There were also kilns onsite where you could fire handmade clay items too.

Noted food collector Jonathan McElwain recalls making a Star Wars ceramic:

I remember going and buying one of those Vader lamps at a shop local to me when I was a kid. It was called the Snoop Shop and it was located in Shrewsbury, PA. I think it must have been in the time between ESB and Jedi.

The Snoop Shop was a small store, but chock full of all sorts of raw ceramic items. My recall is that the store sold the ceramics, paints, and lamp conversion kits. We painted it at home and then took it back in to be glazed and fired. My younger brother also made one of those Vader wall hanging pieces. I've still got both pieces.

We later made some Garfield mugs, which I am sure came from the same store. That would have been a little later on, post-Jedi. So, they were doing unlicensed products for other trends of that time period.

Finally, here's Cleveland-based collector Bobby Sharp recounting his experience:

When I was a boy, my family and I would take our camper to a campground about an hour outside of Cleveland. Once a week there would be a ceramics painting workshop in one of the activity barns. For years, two old women would bring in their ceramics. You would purchase your piece and paint it up. They had hundreds of pieces ranging from cheaper, small pieces to very large items. I remember seeing the 12" R2 ceramics there several times. I was never allowed to purchase the more expensive wares.

As you've no doubt gleaned from these stories, unlicensed Star Wars ceramics comprise a number of different forms: Depending on the whim of the maker, they might be fashioned into banks, lanterns, lamps, or music boxes; they might even be painted and left otherwise unmodified, to be employed as decorative statuary on a coffee table or fireplace mantle. Mugs were popular too; sometimes these derived from the same master sculpts as the larger pieces. One of the Darth Vader mugs is simply the head of the common Vader lamp with a handle added to its side.

Other known forms include disks intended to be fashioned into clocks, wall hangings, lightswitch covers, pie birds, even rip-offs of Kenner's large-size action figures. Given the regional nature of retailing during the period, as well as the personalized thrust of DIY crafting in general, variations in form and decoration abound: The most common forms, including the ubiquitous lamps representing R2-D2 and Darth Vader, exhibit a range of appearances broad enough to drive even the craziest of variation collectors . . . well, crazy.

But one-offs exist as well. These are perhaps my favorite because they're the products of the time and intensive work of particular individuals. Of course, they're also unique, meaning you can make your friends and neighbors writhe in jealousy by simply wafting one of these lovely uglies across their sight lines. What's that? You haven't seen my lumpy plaster Jedi with glued-on cotton hair? How about we idly stroke it while sipping tea from my bucktoothed Yoda mug?

Below you'll find links to Archive entries on a variety of these items. I've lumped them into various categories for ease of comparison. I've made no attempt to account for variations -- like I said, that'd be crazy -- and the collection is by no means complete, but it should give you a good idea of what's out there. If you decide to collect this stuff, I wish you happy hunting. May none of your purchases break in the mail.

Thanks to Scott Bradley, Tony Damata, Duncan Jenkins, Jonathan McElwain, Steve Sansweet, Bobby Sharp, Amy Sjoberg, and Pete Vilmur for contributing to this feature. Extra special thanks to Jarrod Clark for doing the graphics.


Character Lamps

Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi Lamp

Wall Plaques (Set 1)

Wall Plaques (Set 2)

Wall Hangings Based on Ben Cooper Masks

Yoda Items

Darth Vader Items

Ewok Items

R2-D2 Items

Character Statues

Kenner Large-Size Action Figure Knock-Offs

"Handle" Mugs

"Halo" Mugs

"Round" Mugs

"Star Swirl" Mug

Darth Vader Bank

Chewbacca Bank

Clock Face

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