Colourful Clay

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words Anna Bates

"We got a small map, we took a shovel and bucket and we dug," says Nadine Sterk, of Dutch design studio Atelier NL. Sterk and co-founder Lonny van Rijswijck have taken a very raw approach to mapping the landscape. They dig up clay from different patches of land, and then make something from it. The colour of the piece tells the story of the land's mineral composition, while its use relates to the function of the land; a tulip vase is made from earth the flowers grew in and potatoes are served in the clay that bore them.

The project started out of curiosity "to see what is in the ground," says Sterk. Initially the Netherlands' farmland wasn't particularly exciting: "Everything we dug up was grey-brown," she says. "When we opened the oven we were so surprised - there were so many colours in there."

So the studio zoomed in further, documenting Noordoostpolder, a region in the middle of the Netherlands made up of land reclaimed from the sea. In the north of the polder, on seemingly samey land, they found tulips and onions growing in chalk-rich, yellowy clay. A few hundred metres south, where the potatoes and carrots grow, the soil is rich in iron oxide, producing a deep orange clay.

"Is it because of what they grow in it, or was it always like that?" asks Sterk. The diversity of the area's clay has interested farmers and geologists alike. But 60 years ago it wouldn't have surprised anyone - there were clay factories all over the Netherlands extracting the material. Atelier NL has re-discovered this lost knowledge and is using it to subvert the generic, assembly-line perfection of the "man-made" clay we are used to.

Atelier NL's findings and products are currently on show in Drawn From Clay: Noordoostpolder at Gallery Libby Sellers in London. The pottery is combined with pewter, ceramic and glass additions made by local manufacturers. Much to the designers' delight, Dutch ceramics company Royal Tichelaar Makkum, will be producing limited-edition and production pieces based on their concept.

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