The Porcelain Room at the Palace of Aranjuez, just outside of Madrid, is a wonder to behold. Aside from the floor, which is a mosaic of vibrant marble, ceramic sculptures encase almost every inch of the Rococo space. Parrots and monkeys flit between palm trees on the walls and ceiling; mini statues of Chinese porcelain merchants, some toting beautiful parasols and fans, can be spotted amongst the vibrantly coloured flowers.
The room, a former games parlour for princes and princesses, was built in the mid-18th century as a testament to porcelain’s importance to the Spanish royal court. During the Age of Enlightenment, the country’s ceramics were so prized and were such a valuable trading commodity that the techniques of local manufacturers were considered official state secrets.
To modern eyes, all the finery, in its unabashed baroque glory, begs a big design question: whatever happened to opulence? It’s easy to walk into a ceramics store and feel that today’s pottery is either rustic, minimal or sappily sentimental. But a group of young porcelain artists are using technology like 3-D printing to explore unexpected themes from sex to climate change through bold porcelain pieces well-suited to contemporary interiors.
Toronto’s Lana Filippone is one such practitioner. At first glance, her pieces have a Victorian quality. The Under the Rose series features bunches of flowers framed by the kind of delicate, carved molding common in 19th-century mansions. When you look closer, though, Filippone’s macabre – even occult – sensibilities have more in common with the fashion collections of Alexander McQueen than the historic pieces filling the table for a state banquet at Buckingham Palace. The centres of the roses feature unblinking eyes and the petals support giant, gold-dipped bees, tiny skulls and obelisks.
In addition to a gothic aesthetic, her objects also have a distinctly modern purpose. A few years ago, at the Louvre in Paris, Filippone unveiled new pieces drawing attention to Canadian species at risk. One wall hanging, a sumptuously rendered relief of an owl in a gilt frame, is both gorgeous and ghostly, underscoring the sad idea that one day soon, the only place to see such majestic creatures might be in museum shows, not nature.
Filippone’s interest in the natural world is echoed by other, much larger porcelain producers. Spain’s Lladro, long famous for dainty figurines (often, men and women swooning in each other’s arms), recently released a domed table lamp covered in silver dragonflies. The fixture elevates the importance of the insect to the level of art. Similarly, if more abstractly, American designer Ted Muehling has collaborated with Nymphenburg, one of Europe’s longest-running ceramics houses, on his Tortoise collection, tableware whose undulated forms are patterned after reptilian shells.
The spirit of subversion is a main-stay of Toronto’s Pansy Ass Ceramics. The studio is run by partners Kris Aaron and Andrew Walker and produces the kind of tchotchkes any grandma or grandpa would love: white bowls and vases adorned with pretty floral patterns. What makes their wares a little less old-timey, though, are the not-so-subtle references to carnal pleasures. A bunch of roses might be painted next to gilded ball gags popping out of a sculpted mouth that, Dali-style, protrude uncannily out of nowhere. Some of their vases take their shapes from sex toys.
“In the past, porcelain collections were seen as symbols of status and wealth in a patriarchal society,” Aaron says. “We thought it would be the perfect avenue to approach under-represented ideas on gender and sexuality. We work with themes like homo-erotic pleasure, fetish and shame and try to represent them in beautiful ways. We like to think we’re creating objects that people can display proudly in their homes.” Clearly many people agree. Pansy Ass counts actor Amy Sedaris and singer Elton John as fans.
Japanese artist Hitomi Hosono is another emerging designer whose work is part of high-profile collections. Her obsessively detailed, hyper-realistic ceramics can be found at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum in London, as well as the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Her international dealer, Adrian Sassoon, regularly sells out of her work despite the steep price tags (a small box might cost close to $4,000).
Among ceramic, her work is perhaps the closest in detail to her baroque forbearers. There’s no apparent irony, just a sense of the surreal, as though the bowls and vases are somehow bursting to life, sprouting foliage like a well-fertilized summer garden. Achieving that dynamism isn’t easy. Even the smallest vessels can take three or four months to hand produce.
Hosono’s labour intensive approach might be one reason that ornate ceramics fell out of favour. It takes an extremely special artisan to maintain such incessant focus in a world where faster is deemed better. Some designers, however, are embracing new technologies to bring back historic intricacy.
For his Curves:Stacks series of vases, American ceramicist Bryan Czibesz uses a 3-D printer he built himself to extrude the kind of mind-bending shapes that would be hard to achieve otherwise – complex curves that organically fold in and out, a bit like sea coral or a Frank Gehry building.
Likewise, Turkish artist Emre Can also uses a 3-D printer to produce complex pieces. His Seljuk series is based on traditional Turkish latticework, and the interlocking star patterns found in Middle Eastern architecture of the 11th and 12th centuries. Yet instead of pure homage, he’s abstracted the reference by twisting and skewing it, and washing it with ombres of blue.
“The most important thing in these pieces is to combine the past and the future,” Can says. “The Seljuk star is a traditional motif, but I added new shape to these forms. I didn’t know what the forms would look like. I wanted to do something completely experimental.”