Credit: Ashraf Hanna/Zetteler Collection

Rise of the rebel potters

A new wave of inventive designers is revitalising ceramics. Dominic Lutyens meets the young subversives who are bringing a fresh approach to an ancient material.

Too much on-screen activity, a desire to learn a craft involving patience not instant gratification, and an almost primal attraction to messy, malleable clay  —  these are some theories mooted to explain a major resurgence of ceramics in recent years.

At Collect: the International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects, held annually at London’s Saatchi Gallery, which also showcases textiles, furniture, glassware and bookbinding, there were, at this year’s event, more ceramics on display than ever. “We’ve seen a growing interest in the history of British studio pottery, whose 20th Century exponents included Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie,” says Annie Warburton, creative director of the Crafts Council, “with recent ceramics exhibitions at the Yale Center for British Art in Connecticut and Tate St Ives.”

Ceramics are fetching higher prices than ever at auction. Last year, a mustard-yellow bowl by Rie sold at Sotheby’s for £125,000 against an estimate of £8,000 to £12,000.

We live in an age of shiny screens where almost everything is done at the touch of a button ­— people are desperate to make something — Tom Morris

“Ceramics have seen a huge renaissance in the last five years,” says Tom Morris, author of a new book, New Wave Clay: Ceramic Design, Art and Architecture, published by Frame.“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we live in an age of shiny screens where almost everything is done at the touch of a button. People are desperate to make something. Making things out of clay takes time, effort and practice. People are taking up pottery in droves. Places like Turning Earth and The Kiln Rooms in London – open studios run like private members’ clubs with year-long waiting lists – are expanding fast.”

According to Morris, buyers are fuelling the trend, too: “Ceramics are quite an easy, relatively affordable way of bringing unique pieces with a tactile appeal into the home. Shops like Liberty are full of them.”

Then there’s the rising profile of ceramicists such as Grayson Perry and Edmund de Waal (also author of bestselling memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes). “It helps that Perry and de Waal are great communicators,” says Annie Warburton.

What’s more, ceramicists are being more adventurous, less purist in their use of techniques and materials, often departing from traditional glazes and methods such as hand-building – pinching, coiling and slab-building – and throwing pots on a wheel. Dutch designer Olivier van Herpt, for example, uses 3D-printing to make functional vessels, while Chris Wolston fashions robust furniture from terracotta – a material many designers are rediscovering. He drags his fingers through it, leaving impressions that form a random pattern, which draws attention to the furniture’s hand-sculpted quality.

“One reason for the appeal of clay is that it’s protean but becomes permanent when fired,” says Warburton. “Glass is similarly malleable but only at temperatures that make it impossible to handle, which partly explains why clay is popular.”

With so much experimentation going on, it’s not surprising that many contemporary ceramics look eccentric — and it’s not always clear whether they are functional or decorative.

Form, function and fun

Walter Keeler, one Collect exhibitor, represented by Ruthin Craft Centre in Wales, who has worked as a potter since the 1960s, rebelled, he says, “against the Oriental path famously followed by Leach, who was greatly influenced by Japanese, Chinese and Korean pottery. I loved mudlarking as a child and found old Staffordshire creamware, which inspired me, as did Greek and Roman pottery. Teapots originally came from China and I love the way English potters emulated them, adding crabstocks — branch-shaped spouts and handles.”

I like the way my teapots are slightly challenging. People say to me, ‘Does that teapot actually work?’ — Walter Keeler

The handles and spouts on his own teapots in sulphur yellow or blue resemble these. They are made using a clay extruder with serrated dies that produce a rough texture. “I like my teapots to look precise and geometric but also have an expressionistic element.”They often look exaggeratedly asymmetric but there is an unexpected logic to this: “Teapots aren’t symmetrical as they have a spout on one side and a handle on the other,” he says. “I like the way my teapots are slightly challenging. People say to me, ‘Does that teapot actually work?’”

Ranti Bam, who exhibited at Collect with London gallery 50 Golborne, handbuilds her often colourful vessels. She applies slips (liquid clay) on to a slab of clay — usually terracotta but she also uses porcelain — then deploys what she calls a “collaging” technique. “I cut the embellished slab then freely attach pieces to a base I’ve thrown on a wheel or formed by hand,” says Nigerian-born Bam, who has been inspired by beaded textiles created by Ubuhle, a South African collective of four craftswomen. “I’m sometimes influenced by a word, for example ‘the sea’, which prompted me to use blues, greens and coral pinks. Metaphorically, ‘sea' might make me feel relaxed leading me to create patterns I think communicate a relaxed vibe. The colours are created by adding powder stains — dyes — to the slips.”

Belgian Piet Stockmans, who showed at Collect with Brussels gallery Spazio Nobile, aims to push boundaries with porcelain. “I combine traditional craft with a contemporary approach,” he says. “The porcelain is fired at the highest possible temperature of 1,400°C rather than at 1,200°C, which it’s often fired at. This renders it imporous and you don’t have to glaze it.” Delicate though it looks, his wafer-thin tableware is dishwasher and microwave-safe.

Ashraf Hanna, meanwhile, exhibited his tall, slender Petrified Forest and undulating vessels at Collect with London gallery Cavaliero Finn. His labour-intensive method requires a lot of patience. “I start by making a pinch pot from a lump of clay,” he says. “Using my fingers, I pull up the walls. After the base has dried sufficiently, I build up the form using soft slabs. The process is slow: I have to allow the work to dry enough before adding new layers. After the main form is completed, I begin the time-consuming refining process, firing the piece, coating it with layers of fine slip, then thinning the walls using scraping tools.”

Another key trend in ceramics is for subverting traditional genres. Chris Antemann, who exhibited at London’s Cynthia Corbett Gallery, reinterprets conventional 18th-Century porcelain figurines in a contemporary way that unexpectedly takes on board modern sexual politics. “I’m interested in the way these figures normally impose gender roles and rules of ‘polite society’.”

Accordingly, in collaboration with long-established German porcelain manufacturer Meissen, she creates her own figures, recasting them as amorous characters.“I remove the figurine from her pedestal and place them in a party or banquet in what I call my narrative work. I give women dominance.” Sly wit it seems is another way that ceramicists are challenging age-old traditions in ceramics.

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