Guy Wolff hung his shingle in 1971, in a little barn in Bantam, Conn. (Local lore has it that it once belonged to actress Mary Pickford.) Since then — and even before — he has been a potter deeply devoted to and inspired by centuries-old design — Italian, French, and notably, English flowerpots from the 18th and 19th century. His pots are handmade, wheel-thrown and distinctly antique-looking. Far from baroque, they are elegantly rustic. In that studio, Wolff happily created pottery for locals, summer tourists and wealthy New Yorkers with country homes in northwestern Connecticut.
But in 1993, his profile shot through the roof.
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That year marked “a perfect storm of publicity,” says Peter Wakefield Jackson, vice president of Napa Home and Garden, a wholesale company. Jackson, a master potter himself, is also a longtime friend of Wolff.
“His pots were featured on the cover of Horticulture magazine,” Jackson says. “Martha Stewart (from nearby Westport, Conn.) visited his studio, and Smith & Hawken put his white clay pots into their catalog.”
Not long afterward, Stewart visited “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” bearing a plant in one of Wolff's pots. (It should be noted that Wolff — who doesn't watch TV — had no earthly idea who Stewart was.)
Like many who have been touched by an Oprah show, Wolff was catapulted from relative obscurity into a world where his phone started ringing off the hook. In 1994, Smith & Hawken is said to have sold more than $1 million worth of his flowerpots.
As befits an art and a craft, the pots also are on display in the New York Botanical Gardens, the White House and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo.
Wolff made his pots by himself up through 1996. That's when he called Jackson in a panic. “He was afraid he wasn't going to be able to keep up with the orders,” Jackson recalled. “He was afraid he was going to lose the business of Smith & Hawken.”
So Jackson — who then had a factory — jumped in to help. A few years later, Jackson took Wolff to visit some of his potter friends in Honduras and got them started following the traditions used by Wolff. Eventually, as artisans in Portugal, Mexico and Vietnam joined the fray, this became known as the Guy Wolff Guild, a loose association of craftsmen. Today, the Guild pots are made in Honduras and China. (You can get a pot thrown by Wolff himself, but you'll have to make a trip to his new studio in Connecticut.)
With their antique look, solid and gradated colors, and sometimes scalloped rims, each pot looks specially made. They come in a variety of colors, sizes and styles, from rose pots, orchid pots and urns to seed pots (shallow pots ideal for growing bulbs and paperwhites) and Long Toms — tall, skinny pots whose depth provides great root support for year-round plants.
The most popular at Perfect Petal (perfectpetal.com) are Wolff's scallop-topped pots, which come in solid and gradated colors of moss, antique green, verde white, willow and white washed (which most closely resembles a terra cotta look).
On each garden pot, you'll find the “G. Wolff & Co.” stamp on the body, as well as a number, which indicates the “wet weight” of the clay used to make the pot. For instance, a No. 2 pot is made with 2 pounds of clay, so it would be smaller than a No. 4 pot. The designation is a quaint throwback to Victorian times, Jackson says.
In the Guy Wolff collections sold by Napa Home and Garden, pots retail from $10 up to $100. For the Guy Wolff Greenhouse collection, the average retail price is about $12; for the Guy Wolff Guild line from Honduras, the average retail price is $20.
A few words about the care of Guy Wolff pots: They can be used indoors or outdoors, but they're not frost-proof, which means it's safest to bring them indoors before a frost — or if they're the larger outdoor pots, cover them. Also, natural salts, minerals, soil content and fertilizers will be absorbed by the pot and will evolve the finish over time, as Wolff intended.
Don't have a green thumb? Use them decoratively. They're also terrific for fresh floral arrangements or for holding napkins or flatware. Orchid pots make great luminarias thanks to the pre-cut holes used for root aeration.