Tuesday, December 06
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Baked Earth

Siebert & Rice’s terracotta garden pots from Italy are cult objects on the east end and beyond

Unless you’re a landscape designer or an architect or a committed gardener, you may not have heard of Siebert & Rice, but chances are you’ve seen their elegant terracotta pots from Tuscany. On the East End of Long Island, one need look no further than Meadow Lane, in Southampton, where they are a standard feature of the loveliest gardens. You can also spot them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Botanical Garden, Lomgwood Gardens, and The Cloisters. The company’s most sought-after item, the Artisan Rolled Rim pot, thirty-six inches in diameter, sells out early in the season and currently has a waiting list, making it the horticultural equivalent of a Birkin Bag.

Why all the hoo ha? For starters, each pot is built freehand using the coil method and takes nearly a month to produce. They come from the Tuscan hill-town of Impruneta, just south of Florence, where the local clay is a miracle of geology. Because it is unusually high in iron and calcium, it can be fired at extremely high temperatures for as long as a week without cracking. The terracotta—from the Italian, meaning baked earth—emerges from the kiln ready to withstand extreme weather. Neither snow nor ice nor rain will cause it to break. And it is this clay that the town’s diminishing population of master artisans use to build the handmade vessels and roof tiles for which Impruneta has been known since the Middle Ages.

The business came about through happenstance. In the summer of 1994, Siebert and Rice found themselves sharing a villa in Tuscany. Siebert had left a job in high finance to raise children and Rice was a tax attorney. By chance, both women were casting about for a business project that wouldn’t prove all-consuming. One morning, Rice proposed a reconnaissance to the pottery workshops of Impruneta. When Siebert, who used to collect Arts and Crafts pottery, clapped eyes on the roseate urns, amphorae, and lemon tree pots that were scattered about a potter’s studio, she saw an opportunity. “At that time, very few nurseries were importing handmade terracotta pots from Italy,” she explained from her office in Short Hills, New Jersey. “All they had were the cheap mass-produced orange-y kind.” Which is to say, the kind that chip easily and must be dragged indoors as winter approaches lest they develop craze lines. In fact, even glazed terracotta is prone to cracking when exposed to freezing temperatures. But pots from Impruneta, being frost-free, needn’t be moved. Season after season, they become part of the landscape in an organic way.

Rice shared Siebert’s vision, but when they tried to place an order, the artisans waved them off, back down the hill. “They were used to dealing with big garden centers in Europe,” Siebert explained, “and they took us for American housewives.” Instead of doing the sensible thing and spending the afternoon drinking Chianti, Siebert got talking to the American Embassy in Rome. The next day the new business partners returned to Impruneta. Before the brothers could say Arrivederci, Rice told them when the truck she’d hired to collect their order was expected to arrive.

Back in the States, they researched high-end garden shops and nervously awaited delivery of their goods. (“When we left Impruneta, we had no idea if we’d ever see those pots again,” recalled Siebert.) Three months later, a truck pulled up in front of her home. Rather like old-time tinkers, they loaded up Rice’s station wagon with their wares and called on such design world notables as Bunny Williams, who became one of their first clients. Just a year later, they presented their first collection at the New York Flower Show, where it took Best in Show. The award launched the company into the garden design world, attracting the attention of some of the distinguished names in the industry. Even Martha Stewart took notice. A frost-proof terracotta pot? It seemed hard to credit and yet it was true.

Today the pair have just brought out the latest additions to their American Collection, three Impruneta-produced pots that were designed by the esteemed Swedish landscape architecture firm, Oehme van Sweden. Previous commissions include pots designed by Hamptons notables Jack Lenor Larsen and the late Robert Dash. They’ve also released a pot to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the New York Botanical Society. The artisans, it turned out, have long been accustomed to working from foreigners’ drawings. About fifteen years ago, Seibert had a call from the Biltmore Estate, asking if any of the studios her company dealt with could reproduce the Estate’s nineteenth-century urns. Rice promised to relay the request. A short while later she had a reply. “Not only can we reproduce them,” her contact at the M.I.T.A.L. workshop assured her, “but we have the original molds.”