Born in San Antonio, Texas [in 1911], Staffel studied under various artists, including Hans Hofmann in New York and the Spanish painter José Arpa. In 1931 Staffel studied at the Art Institute of Chicago under Louis Ripman and Laura van Papelladam. Six years later Staffel was invited to teach ceramics at the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans. In addition to teaching there, he also worked on a part-time basis with Paul Cox, who established a sophisticated production pottery in New Orleans for the manufacture of strawberry-canning pots for the Louisiana jam industry. Staffel was to learn a great deal from Cox about the traditions and history of ceramic Art. In 1940 Staffel joined the Tyler School of Art, Temple University, Philadelphia, where he taught until his retirement in 1978.
The breakthrough in Staffel's art came in the 1950s, when he was invited to produce a set of dinnerware in porcelain. Up until that point he had felt that porcelain was alien to the craft tradition. He experimented with slip decorating and, fascinated by the translucency of the material, began to work toward a combination of form and material that would actually transmit light. Staffel worked with highly volatile, porcelaneous clay bodies and enjoyed the considerable risk element inherent in the medium. This is apparent from his comment: "The best body that I have ever worked with is the body that I know nothing about or very little about" (Winokur and Winokur, 1977). Staffel related his work to the push-pull of the Hofmann mode of expression, emphasizing that one is not aware of the push until one sees the pull. Working on this basis, he builds and throws his vessels -- known as "light gatherers" -- in order to create different intensities of opacity in his forms. His is fond of incising the porcelain to reveal the light through the thin layer of clay. In other vessels he builds his forms out of a number of small clay slabs of different thinnesses and colors. The 1970s saw the most fertile growth of this unique expression in the medium, establishing Staffel as one of the most original vessel makers in American ceramics.
-Garth Clark, American Ceramics: 1876 to the Present, 1987 (p. 300)
For an excellent and informative discussion of Staffel's career, written on the occasion of his retrospective at the Helsinki Museum of Art and Design in 1996, please see Edward J. Sozanski, "A Master Of Light, Ceramic Artist Rudolf Staffel Has Made A Career In Translucency-- Light Gathering, He Calls It. At 84, He's Reaping Wide Notice, Including A Retrospective Of His Life's Work That Opens Next Month In Helsinki", in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 May 1996.
Staffel died in 2002 in Alfred, New York.