words Lesley Jackson
“When I was a student, porcelain was associated with kitschy souvenirs or stupid mugs,” recalls Czech designer Maxim Velcovsky. “But recently a new wave of ideas has revived the material and placed it in a different context.”
Porcelain and ceramics – considered until recently the last bastion of conservatism and design mediocrity – is suddenly the new creative frontier. Every avant-garde designer seems to be dabbling with them, from Marcel Wanders to Studio Job.
Velcovsky himself is in awe of the material. “At the beginning it is a liquid, at the end it is a stone. I like this kind of laboratory where you combine ideas and technology.” Dutch designer Joris Laarman is another recent convert. His experimental work, Limited, mapping the disintegration of a ceramic vase, was recently displayed in the Design Museum Tank.
Another signifier of changing attitudes is that three of the most traditional European ceramics manufacturers have recently ventured into contemporary design. The venerable German porcelain factory, Nymphenburg, currently has three leading international designers on its books: Konstantin Grcic, Hella Jongerius and Ted Muehling. Royal Tichelaar Makkum, one of the Netherlands’ oldest ceramics companies, renowned for its traditional Delftware (tin-glazed earthenware decorated in blue), has also developed an adventurous contemporary ceramics line, with contributions from, amongst others, Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders and Jurgen Bey.
Now the trend has spread to Britain. Last year Wedgwood commissioned artist Robert Dawson (aka Aesthetic Sabotage), best known for his trompe l’oeil tile panels, to design a series of plates featuring magnified details of 19th-century willow patterns and landscape prints sampled from the company’s archives.
Like many of the more surprising developments in the design world, the origins of this latest phenomenon can be traced to a certain well-known Dutch design group. Droog delight in challenging the sacrosanct – in the case of porcelain, the intrinsic fragility and preciousness of the material. Frank Tjepkema’s perverse Do Break vase, designed in association with Peter van der Jagt in 2001 as part of Droog’s Do Create collection, pushes this idea to the limit: a porcelain vase that only assumes its true character on being deliberately smashed. The twist is that a layer of rubber lining the interior holds the fragments together so that the broken vessel remains watertight. “Every vase eventually breaks,” observes Tjepkema. “This vase gains in beauty as the cracks multiply to form a unique pattern.”
It was under the auspices of Droog that Marcel Wanders first turned his attention to ceramics. His bizarre Egg and Sponge vases, produced by Moooi, were originally conceived as a Droog project in 1997. The Egg vase derives its lumpy bulbous shape from a condom stuffed with hard-boiled eggs. With the Sponge vase, a natural sponge soaked in slip serves as an ephemeral mould, burnt away during the firing.
Droog’s penchant for ironic inversions has licensed a free-for-all among ceramic designers. Banal everyday objects or rare historical artefacts are now routinely appropriated and turned on their head. In 7 Pots / 3 Centuries / 2 Materials, Hella Jongerius undertook what she has characterised as a “postmodern restoration project” for the Boiymans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, creating a series of new vessels from medieval pottery shards glued together with epoxy resin. Arguably the most influential contemporary designer working in ceramics, Jongerius combines an overtly tactile, hands-on approach with ambitious intellectual aspirations. “I amalgamate images from both high and low culture,” she explained in her recent Phaidon monograph. “I stack one idiom on another.” Wilful imperfection is her leitmotif, epitomised by the B-Set dinner service, in which each piece is deliberately sub-standard. It took months of technical experimentation to achieve the kind of “flaws” Jongerius wanted. “Somewhere in every home there is a chipped and broken plate that exudes memories,” she notes. “Ultimately it is the damaged plate with its imperfections and idiosyncrasies that is treasured, rather than the dazzling, pristine service.”
Jongerius’ ceramics are defined by incongruity. She often fuses “conflicting” materials or adopts “inappropriate” techniques, such as a porcelain plate embroidered onto a tablecloth. To create her Delfts Blue Jug, a bronze handle was strapped to a porcelain vase with plastic cable ties. Even more overtly iconoclastic are her designs for Nymphenburg, which include shallow dishes with hyper-realistic animal figurines (a hippo, a rabbit and a snail) marooned awkwardly in the centre. In another set of designs she mischievously relocates utilitarian marks from the bottom of the plate to the top, jumbling them up with exquisite hand-painted motifs.
Jongerius’ pioneering partnership with Royal Tichelaar Makkum has paved the way for other designers to work with the company, most recently Studio Job. Its Still Life series, launched at Milan last year, consists of ceramic versions of five self-consciously banal domestic objects – a clock, a jug, a candlestick, a squirrel-shaped money box and a ribbon-tied box – adorned with fantastical, quasi-surreal printed motifs.
Apart from the wealth of Dutch design talent, another reason why ceramics are flourishing in the Netherlands is because of the European Ceramic Work Centre (EKWC) at ‘s-Hertogenbosch. EKWC is an international workshop where anyone with a professional interest in ceramics – artists, designers and architects, as well as practising ceramicists – can explore the artistic and technical possibilities of the medium. Subsidised by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, and working in partnership with design schools, museums and the ceramics industry, EKWC runs courses, masterclasses and residencies. In 2003 Studio Job participated in an EKWC project called Dutch Souvenirs along with 40 other invited designers and artists. It was at EKWC that Jongerius developed her B-Set dinner service, and Damian O’Sullivan created his weird ProAesthetics range of ceramic neck braces (see icon 019).
Closely linked to EKWC is a progressive company called Cor Unum specialising in high-end ceramic art made from glazed earthenware. Latterly under the art direction of Droog’s co-founder, Gijs Bakker, and now under the creative leadership of respected designer and teacher Ed Annink, Cor Unum has collaborated with many leading international designers, including Ron Arad, Ross Lovegrove, Richard Hutten and Konstantin Grcic. In addition to its production designs, the company creates signed limited edition pieces for the collector’s market.
Although the Dutch have surged ahead, other countries are now waking up to the creative potential of industrial ceramics. Porcelain is central to the current renaissance of Czech design. Maxim Velcovsky, its most vigorous champion, has developed a humorous and provocative range of domestic accessories called the White Collection, which challenges traditional perceptions of porcelain by, for instance, using casts of plastic cups and Coke bottles. His Republic box in the shape of the Czech Republic was inspired by Alvar Aalto’s Savoy vase. This is Velcovsky’s interpretation of a “meaningful” post-Soviet era souvenir. His Digi Clock co-opts the scrolling rococo form of a traditional clock case, but implants an alien digital face. “This relic continues to satisfy clients who long for something beautiful and luxurious,” says Velcovsky. “I cleaned the shape of its cobalt ornament and left it monochrome in its original nakedness.” The digital display evokes the idea of an “aesthetic bomb, something that might damage your taste.”
Gitta Gschwendtner, a furniture and product design specialist, has recently been enlisted as a tutor in the Ceramics and Glass Department at the RCA. “Since I’m not from a ceramics background, my input is not really about the material as such, but more about discussing ideas and approaching the material without preconceptions,” she points out. For years it was assumed that the gulf between studio pottery and industrial ceramics was unbridgeable, but now, fortunately, these artificial barriers seem to be breaking down. “I tend to view the object in its own right,” observes Gschwendtner matter-of-factly. “If it translates into industry, that’s great. If it remains a one-off, a three-dimensional expression of an idea, that’s good too. The great thing about ceramic is its broad application.”
Barnaby Barford, a recent RCA ceramics graduate who makes unique figures as well as designing for production, agrees: “I feel there is currently a shift away from fine art, decorative art and design as separate entities to a broader creative outlook.” Barford is at the forefront of the current vogue for ceramic recycling. His one-off pieces – assemblages of second-hand vessels and knick-knacks – are openly cartoonish, sometimes laddish, and often a touch macabre. In Psycho Bunny, a cute rabbit escapes from a nursery plate and goes on the rampage. In Dear God, a little girl is seen praying to a rabbit. “I use humour as a way to engage people,” explains Barford, “but in many pieces there is a serious undertone.”
Sweden’s Kjell Rylander is another ceramicist who prefers to manipulate off-the-shelf tableware rather than raw clay. A carpenter by training, he slices up cups and plates, then glues them back together in intriguing new formations. This trend now seems to be spreading. Berlin-based Icelandic designer Hrafnkell Birgisson perches dainty porcelain teacups on top of wine glass stems. British design group Committee creates precarious, eye-catching standard lamps from stacks of crockery, while for Moooi in Holland, Constantin and Laurene Boym have constructed composite candlesticks on similar lines.
Although humour and irony pervade design today, there are individuals, such as German-born, London-based tableware designer Bodo Sperlein, who take a more serious and purist approach to ceramic design. “Designing ceramics trains your 3D thinking,” asserts Sperlein, who acts as a consultant as well as producing his own lines. “In my opinion it’s the best platform for a career in product design.” His softly sculptural tableware is as refined as top-rank factory fair but is, in fact, hand-crafted. Sperlein specialises in bone china, the distinctive English alternative to porcelain. “Bone china is a very fascinating and difficult material,” he notes. “It naturally lends itself to decoration, but I prefer not to cover up the beautiful white canvas.”
Other designers, such as Barnaby Barford, enthusiastically exploit the current vogue for decoration. Barford’s Stamp Cups, co-designed with Valeria Miglioli, feature raised scrolls on the footring. The idea is that, if you spill your drink, at least it will leave a pretty pattern on the table. “There is ornament and decoration on just about everything at the moment so it’s an obvious progression in ceramics,” says design entrepreneur and retailer Thorsten Van Elten. “But just as ornament has come back into fashion, plain undecorated items are still very strong.”
The beauty of ceramics, from a designer’s point of view, is that they are both an indulgence and a necessity, thus offering huge creative scope. Even their fragility is an advantage. Sooner or later they are bound to break, meaning they have to be replaced. “Ceramics are one of the oldest materials. Anything you do automatically has thousands of years of history,” enthuses Barford. “I like the idea that in a thousand years some archaeologist might dig up one of my pieces.”