Decades of dining on minimalist dishes is giving way to ceramics with peculiar shapes and naive textures. Anya Georgijevic profiles the potters bringing handwork back to the métier. Photos by Stacey Brandford. Styling by Jason MacIsaac
Ceramics, at their core, are a uniquely human form. They're something we hold in our hands, created for us by someone else's hands. Ever since humans discovered what happens when clay meets fire, ceramics have been part of our daily lives, for both their functional and decorative values. But when the industrial revolution introduced mass-production through slip casting, the role of the artisan potter – and the more personal relationship to the craft of creating ceramics – began to fade away.
The last two decades of the 20th century churned out affordable modern dishware that spoke to the streamlined, minimalist aesthetic of the era. At the same time, the burden of practicality had been lifted and ceramicists were suddenly free to create work that is desired rather than needed. Now, with the resurgence of an appreciation for handcrafted objects, young ceramicists whose output no longer has to compete with the perfection of machine-made goods are discovering the value of their unique thumbprint.
"I think when you're making things on a wheel, it should look like it. I'm not trying to make something that's so perfect," says Brooklyn-based potter Clair Catillaz, who works under the moniker Clam Lab. She creates stoneware with minimalist restraint, but without the tedious symmetry of a mass-produced product. For the self-taught potter who studied public policy and urban studies in university, maintaining evidence of the maker's hand is of utmost importance, identifying the product as one-of-a-kind.
Her sculptural shapes reference the Mediterranean bronze age, a period that introduced the potter's wheel to the craft. Catillaz uses a combination of wheel throwing and hand coiling (a process where lengths of clay are built up to create a three dimensional shape) to form her stoic jugs. Her intricate glazing process results in an array of textures from milky smooth to naively crusty. "I'm trying to be honest in the way I'm actually making things," she says. While Clam Lab sounds like a multi-member studio, it is, in fact, a one-woman operation. When Catillaz set up her business, little did she know that her work would soon be in high demand through independent decor shops.
When an international retailer approached her with a collaboration offer, Catillaz turned it down. "I don't really think that customer is looking for something special, usually," she says. "Or maybe that's not a right way of putting it. I'm trying to go in a more high-end direction than that. And, for example, if I were to make a more consumer-based line, it would have to be a serious departure from the work I'm doing now." Catillaz doesn't feel the kind of pressure to grow her business in a way that might threaten her sense of creative integrity. "That's not really what motivates me at all. I like making one-of-a-kind special things."
Shino Takeda works with a similar ethos. "Most of my works are very personal: my history, my experience," says the New Yorker. Having grown up immersed in the ceramics community of Kyushu, a Japanese island regarded for its intricate porcelain, she recognized the important role tableware plays in food culture. But it wasn't until she turned 20 and relocated to the Big Apple that she began experimenting with clay herself. After enrolling in a pottery class in 2010, Takeda fell in love with the craft and joined a studio as a hobby. Soon after, she bid farewell to a career in dance and embraced her new calling full time.
Takeda's work is meant for daily use. Much of her inspiration comes from cooking and she enjoys seeing how the plating of different foods transforms her designs. "I want people to use and feel them. I want people to enjoy decorating them with food," she says. "But when they are not using them, I want to make sure that my work is interesting enough to be decorative." Takeda's earthy stoneware has an undeniably handmade quality, with its uneven shapes and expressionist glaze inspired by her adopted hometown. She sees beauty in New York's imperfections. "I want every piece to have its own personality. I'm hoping the strange shape will make people want to hold it in their hands." The so-called imperfections are an aesthetic choice, a response to ubiquitous mass-produced pottery. "A lot of people around me want to have less, but something original. And [they] also want to know where they are coming from, and the story behind it."
On the decorative side of the pottery spectrum, Toronto-based Julie Moon creates jaw-dropping earthenware sculptures. While studying fibre arts at the Ontario College of Art and Design, the artist discovered that changing mediums would liberate her from the two-dimensional nature of textiles. "I can build unique forms; I can still play with decoration," says Moon, who received her Master's of Fine Arts at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University.
Moon's botanical still-lifes are coil-built; she doesn't work on a potter's wheel. "Once I build the form, it's like an armature. Then I can start attaching petals or flowers," she says. Her floral vases often combine contrasting styles. Sometimes the vessel takes inspiration from the abstraction of Mexican fabrics, while the floral arrangement on top looks like a hyper-realist dream. "For a while, I was looking at Matisse a lot," she says. "When I started the still-life series, I was just trying to recreate some of the things I've seen in his paintings. He's always referencing fashion and plants and carpets – I almost feel like they were fashion editorials."
Moon's work can primarily be found in craft galleries, although she has explored working with retailers like Anthropologie on smaller decorative objects such as tiles. "It's hard to make money from ceramics," says Moon, who also runs a ceramic jewellery shop on Etsy.
The artist recently began producing small furniture pieces like stools and side tables glazed with bold colours and patterns. A revived interest in one-of-a-kind ceramics is on her side. "I think it's a reaction against digital stuff or mass-produced stuff," she says, dissecting the trend. "If you have a bit of the hand showing, there is humanity in that."