It began with an unlikely friendship between a Vernon meatpacker and a pioneering Los Angeles graphics designer who shared a fascination with modernist design. One day, the designer, Lou Danziger, told his old friend from New York about a group of Pasadena students who had extended the modernist idiom into the world of ceramics, turning out large planters and sculptures that looked like white doughnuts, halved avocadoes and stacked pyramids.

And suddenly, an opportunity was born.

The wife of meatpacker Max Lawrence offered to check out the students' work, on display in 1949 at a nursery on Barrington Avenue in West Los Angeles. "She saw the forms and the shapes and she knew there was nothing like it on the market," said Lawrence, now 92. His wife, Rita, believed that the artistic forms could soften the stark austerity of Los Angeles' newly constructed midcentury homes while honoring a prime principle of the modernist movement: functionality.

Within months, the couple had gone into business mass-producing and selling the students' creations as part of a new ceramics company called Architectural Pottery. By the mid-1950s, the company was selling pottery to architects and designers across the country. Lawrence closed his meatpacking business and went to work with his wife full-time.

The company's influence on design can still be seen today.

"If you go to a gas station or if you go to a bank or you go to a commercial building and you see the big white cylinder, it's because of Architectural Pottery," said Bill Stern, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Museum of California Design and author of "California Pottery: From Missions to Modernism" (2001).

Architectural Pottery pieces that sold for $100 during the 1950s can retail for thousands of dollars at Los Angeles stores and galleries specializing in 20th century furnishings. The old pots are simply difficult to find. Collectors, alert to the renewed popularity of mid-1900s home décor, spend weekends scouring yard sales and flea markets, trying to score a vintage pot.

Andy Hackman started his search for Architectural Pottery about 10 years ago and has about a dozen pieces for sale at California Living, his vintage store on La Brea Avenue.

"Architectural Pottery wasn't just about functional pots you planted trees or bushes in. It achieved a sculptural value," he said.

One sure sign of its collectibility: Even faithful ceramic clones can be as hard to find as the real thing.

"I can't make them fast enough," said Michael Stephenson, who reproduces some of the most famous Architectural Pottery pieces through his 5-year-old San Diego company, Vessel. His copies of matte-white hourglass ashtrays and gourd-shaped bird feeders start at $165 retail and are sold through stores in San Diego and Palm Springs.

"I always had an appreciation for postwar design and a real desire to collect Architectural Pottery," said Stephenson, a former house painter. "It was one of those things I thought was so great."

Max Lawrence marvels at the fact that Architectural Pottery has become the ceramics equivalent of an Eames chair or a George Nelson sunburst clock.

"We were establishing a basis for what exists [in pottery] today," said Lawrence, who closed the company in 1985 after a fire destroyed the production plant in Manhattan Beach.

These were pottery forms, Stern said, that "never, ever existed before."

Lawrence credits his wife for seeing the potential in the forms, created by ceramics professor La Gardo Tackett and his star pupils, John Follis and Rex Goode, at the now-defunct California School of Art in Pasadena. As the orders came in, dozens of other ceramicists were hired.

"We were living in [modernist architect] Gregory Ain's Dunsmuir apartments at the time," Lawrence said. "We knew about modern design because we lived with it. Our furniture in the house was Eames and Knoll. When Rita saw the pottery, she saw the possibilities."

Rita Lawrence worked as the firm's creative director while Max managed the business. Unlike most other California ceramics companies at the time, the Lawrences allowed the potters to take credit for their creations because they wanted to attract and retain talented artisans. The company went on to produce tens of thousands of pieces over 35 years.

"We were very proud of our relationship with the young designers," Max Lawrence said.