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How a new breed of ceramics is taking over the design world

A new appreciation of ceramics is booming across the world, and it’s happening at both aspirational and mainstream levels.

Annual London craft fair Collect showcases the ceramics of such British galleries as Vessel and Cynthia Corbett, while amateur pottery buffs are joining pottery classes and open-access studios in droves – from Turning Earth in east London to Clay College in Stoke-on-Trent. Malaga and Barcelona are centres of pottery in Spain – not surprisingly, given its tradition of inventive ceramics dating back to Antoni Gaudí and Pablo Picasso, while in New York, there’s Brooklyn-based pottery studio BKLN CLAY.

Founded in 1999, Vessel challenged the perception of ceramics as fusty, recasting them as covetable and cutting-edge. One of its early exhibitions was a show of hand-thrown pottery by American designer Jonathan Adler. Adler studied art history and semiotics at Brown University in Rhode Island but spent most of his time making pots at nearby Rhode Island School of Design. Back then, Adler – more hip than hippie, and whose influences included Coco Chanel and hip-hop – sported Lacoste polo shirts, not clay-smeared potter’s smocks, while toiling at his potter’s wheel.

Soon after, globalisation temporarily halted ceramics’ transformation from craftsy curio to covetable object. Vessel’s co-founder Angel Monzon says: “Twenty years ago, there was a thriving ceramics industry in Europe. Bitossi in Italy, Rosenthal in Germany, Arabia in Finland and several potteries in Stoke-on-Trent invested in artists and designers, creating new forms and shapes. Then many brands began sub-contracting work to the Far East as they chased lower price points. This resulted in them losing talented makers.”

We like to take an artist and inspire him or her to take an artistic U-turn – to make something different to their existing body of work.

Angel Monzon, co-founder of Vessel

One consequence of this was the rise of the independent designer-maker that gradually revitalised the sector. “Their hand-made work was full of character and innovation,” continues Monzon. “There’s a renewed interest in ceramics now, and many British makers successfully supply UK-based and international galleries. British ceramics is now in a strong state. New brands are investing again in Stoke-on-Trent.”

Vessel represents high-profile ceramicists including Barcelona-based Nicholas Arroyave-Portela – whose hand-thrown pots are fired multiple times, cumulatively acquiring many tones and finishes – to Gloucestershire-based Vivienne Foley, whose sculptural porcelain pots feature elegantly elongated necks.

“Ceramics have seen a gradual process of growth in the past decade,” says Ashley Thorpe, author of new book Contemporary British Ceramics: Beneath the Surface, (The Crowood Press). “Artists such as Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal have made the public aware that ceramics are a varied practice, while there’s been a renewed appreciation of 20th-century makers such as Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, as more of their work has emerged at auction. The success of the UK television show The Great Pottery Throw Down has drawn attention to the skills ceramicists need to have.”

Thorpe is a ceramics collector. “Some of my favourite artists, featured in my book, include Richard Slee, Alison Britton, Carol McNicoll and Tessa Eastman.” He adds that there’s a growing collectors’ market for “challenging postmodern work that emerged in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – hailed as a golden age of studio ceramics, not just in Europe but in the world.”

Ceramic composition ‘Efflorescence Series’ by Vanessa Hogge for Vessel Gallery

Ceramics appeal for being a versatile medium. They encompass myriad techniques – hand-sculpted pots and slab pots as well as pots made from coiling or pinching pots – or using plaster press moulds. Once these techniques are mastered, there’s plenty of scope for experimentation.

As amateur potters discover, pottery is a hard-won craft – there are no short cuts to acquiring this skill, which requires immense concentration. For many, this appeals as an antidote to the tyranny of online communication: the messiness of clay forces enthusiasts to put away mobile phones and tablets. This escape from staring at screens can feel meditative and therapeutic.

There’s a major irony here: millennials have become hooked on pottery via social media. Videos of potters demonstrating their dexterity have proved an Instagram phenomenon. Young makers also derive satisfaction from ending up with a practical piece they can use at home – a refreshing alternative to bland, high-street crockery – which explains why many produce functional tableware. The clichéd perception of pottery as a middle-aged activity is now outdated. Young potter Florian Gadsby, for example, has over 530,000 Instagram followers.

Ceramics’ strong showing at the London Design Festival this year is symptomatic of its burgeoning popularity. Ceramics brand NKDWare held a pop-up exhibition, Centring the Clay, where the public could take part in pottery workshops. It also displayed its hand-crafted Lift collection created by former scientific researcher Dr Linda Bloomfield, comprising a breakfast bowl, plate and mug, as well as vases whose imperfections are seen as an integral part of their appeal.

‘Dehydrated Forms’ by Barcelona artist Nicholas Arroyave-Portela (Vessel Gallery)

Established ceramicist Lubna Chowdhary is showing her wall, floor, large-scale and plinth-based work at Erratics, an exhibition held by east London arts organisation Peer until November 20. This is made using a combination of water-jet cutting, an industrial technology, and hand-applied glazes. Her pieces highlight ceramics’ lusciously glossy surfaces, gorgeously saturated hues, and their potential to be used as monumental, architectural elements.

Milanese architect and designer Cristina Celestino is also known for using ceramics in interiors. In 2020, she revamped the city’s 28 Posti restaurant, warming up white walls with terracotta tiles inspired by its contemporary take on Mediterranean cuisine.

Group works together to create still-lifes, but make sure they relate and tell a story. Never overcrowd them.

Angel Monzon

Monzon has some suggestions for how best to arrange ceramic pieces in the home: “Group works together to create still-lifes, but make sure they relate and tell a story. Never overcrowd them. Sometimes, a big bold piece is better than several works, creating a strong statement. If the piece isn’t that big, display it on a bespoke plinth to add height. Position ceramic so that as much daylight falls on them as possible, as you would with glassware. This enhances textures and glazes.”

Another way to create a dramatic display, he says, is to opt for a wall-hung composite piece. A good choice of ceramicist to achieve this effect is Jo Taylor, who is inspired by the ornate mouldings on the ceilings of Georgian houses in Bath. Her porcelain wall-hung installation Cincture comprises ornamental elements resembling leaves swirling in the wind. One of the wonders of ceramics is its fluid, unpredictable nature, which Monzon nurtures: “We like to take an artist and inspire him or her to take an artistic U-turn – to make something different to their existing body of work.”

Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, ceramics are hugely popular because of their multisensory qualities. Whether felt as raw, wet, malleable clay or as a smooth, glazed surface, ceramics have a warm, tactile quality that is proving irresistible.

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