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Great wall of China

After a long absence, decorative plates are gracing our walls again, but their startling – and sometimes subversive – new designs are a far cry from the dishes of old, says Jenny Dalton.

January 30 2011
Jenny Dalton

A friend who just moved house has in the process rediscovered her collection of Poole Pottery plates. She has decided that in her new home, rather than sitting in the loft, they will be displayed on the living-room wall. It seems like a revelation. “I’ve just felt it was too old-fashioned to display them in that way for years now,” she says. “But something’s changed. Now it seems so modern.”

Wall plates are indeed shrugging off the associations of a previous generation (or two). My own red-and-orange abstract Poole Pottery plate – inherited from my grandmother – is now up on the wall, the third of a nascent collection, alongside a Fornasetti calendar design and a cutout example by the artist Rob Ryan. They look perfectly at home with my modern furniture.

In east London, Luca Bomio, owner of Milk Concept Boutique, says that his stock of Fornasetti wall plates forms the crux of his business: “They’re one of our bestsellers.” Meanwhile, Emily Chalmers, owner of Caravan, another fashionable Shoreditch shop, says her assortment of beetle, bug and animal-covered decal wall plates by designer Lou Rota have become so popular, “the bird plates almost literally fly out of the store”.

And Liberty’s homeware buying manager, Michelle Alger, has just added Andrew Tanner’s silhouette wall plates to the current stock of Fornasetti and Phoebe Richardson plates: “Wall plates are becoming popular due to the beautiful styles that are on offer.” In short, wall plates are making serious art and design waves again.

Ceramic artist Peter Ting is displaying a dinner service of one-off plates in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design called Eat Drink Art Design (until February 13 2011). Entitled Constellation Manhattan, it was hand-made and decorated at Royal Crown Derby’s UK factory (part of an 86-piece set, £62,040).

Although the plates may be used for eating, Ting felt it was important to display them vertically on the 32ft wall, as a continuous panoramic artwork: “I always envisaged them being hung like that. I combine the great Chinese scholarly tradition of putting special objects on a stand on a shelf, and the British tradition of displaying silverware on a sideboard, which is about connoisseurship and not wanting to hide your best items away in a cupboard. These are art pieces.”

Ting also has plates by South African ceramicist Hylton Nel on his walls at home. “The first time I saw Nel’s work – which is very naïve – I was hooked,” says Ting. “They are painterly and really interesting and sometimes political – and when I see an object that’s so ‘Wow, that is incredible’, I absolutely want to hang it on the wall. Just because they’re ceramic doesn’t necessarily make them automatically useful objects.”

Paul Bishop is funding a deliberate renaissance of decorative-plate-making in Stoke-on-Trent, via his company The New English. For him, the everyday use of the plate is what makes it an interesting art subject for a new generation: “Plates are so ubiquitous, and occupy such a central place in our lives, yet we take them for granted. Their shape really lends itself to decoration – they are like mini canvases.”

One of The New English’s projects, Tectonic Plates, showed how important this aspect is. “We experimented with a completely flat disc, because we thought it would be a better way of presenting an image. But in fact it lost its ‘plateness’. It became a ceramic canvas. You ask yourself, ‘What’s the point of that?’ You might as well just have a canvas. And so there is a curve. It’s shallow – but it’s unmistakably a plate. If you remove the fact it’s a plate, it ceases to have that connection with people.”

Although The New English produces ceramic dinnerware for everyday use – decorated with striking images such as anatomical chart motifs (cake plate, £49.50) – the Tectonic Plates series best reflects Bishop’s claim that plates lend themselves to “unusual forms of decoration”. Bishop asked more than 100 artists worldwide to design a limited-edition plate (£71.25 each). As a result, there’s something for everyone, from the suggestive and sensual courtesy of Camila Prada to the almost X-rated cartoons of Vlad Quigley, via cutesy Japanese graphics by Kanako Anahara.

But it is the emphasis on modern art that, Bishop says, is making this new kind of decorative plate relevant again: “The whole idea behind art and contemporary imagery is that they come in many shapes and sizes. More people are connecting with urban art than ever. It seemed highly appropriate it should feature in our work.”

“It’s definitely not just about pretty plates on walls,” agrees graphic artist Lou Rota, whose dishes – both her vintage, reworked designs and brand-new English bone-china numbers – are adorned with realistic flora and fauna motifs (£25-£50). These decorations were inspired by the science and natural-history programmes she made during 15 years as a TV producer. “I think we’re almost moving into surrealist territory with them.”

Indeed, unusual current bestsellers include Phoebe Richardson’s black-and-white bone-china plates, which are decorated with silk-screen-printed skulls (£25) and skeletal hands (£16). Likewise, People Will Always Need Plates features outline drawings of the Blaenavon coal mine in Wales and Gasometer No 8 in King’s Cross as a swansong to British industry of the 20th century (from £25).

And Maxim – the MC from band The Prodigy – has created a limited-edition range of ceramics for The New English (from £95). From afar they resemble colourful butterfly studies, but on inspection the insects’ heads are macabre skulls and some are even wielding swords.

“I love that you have to look quite closely at them to see what’s happening,” says Maxim, who created a series of similar paintings before deciding he wanted to work with ceramics. “The whole world of ceramics is changing. I’d been to a German art show and seen ceramic hand grenades and machine guns. Ceramics are being taken to another level. I think in this day and age many people like me spend a lot of time searching the internet for the ultimate present for their friends. Things they’ll think ‘Gosh, where did you get that?’ about. And I think my plates do that.”

Less shocking but equally unusual is Paula Juchem’s Coco collection for Limoges porcelain specialist Non Sans Raison (€1,000 for the set). These plates can be used on the table, but are designed to hang together; each hand-painted round forms part of a large bird – a beak on one, feet on another. The company even delivers instructions on how to hang them with the correct spacing. Similarly, on several of Peter Ting’s designs, the pattern continues from one plate to another – sometimes even on the back of the objects.

Although somewhat subversive or teasing subject matter is a given with the new designs, the motive behind collecting wall plates again is very sincere. At Milk Concept Boutique, Luca Bomio finds that Fornasetti plates (which have never gone out of fashion) are popular with not just the original collectors, but a new audience of students, City workers and the hipsters of Shoreditch who weren’t previously familiar with Fornasetti’s pioneering decorative arts.

At Shop at The Savoy, the London hotel’s boutique, managing director Simon Thompson offers a ready-made “edit” of The New English’s Tectonic Plates (five in all) and a selection of Maxim’s plates as an introduction to the art. “We know our demographic,” says Thompson. “This group likes to collect. They’ve acquired wealth and like to acquire things with it – but things that are different. The collections we’ve put together are an introduction to a world they may not know yet. These people don’t have the opportunity to go down back alleys to find things, so we’ve done it for them.”

“People are treasuring things again,” confirms Ting. “They’re thinking, ‘I’ve worked hard for my money and I want something I treasure and value for the future rather than something that will be thrown out. People definitely come back to buy more than once.” Even those on limited budgets, says Rota, frequently return for another design, building a collection slowly, just as she buys her sister another Astier de Villatte ceramic each Christmas.

All this and we’ve barely mentioned the shape of the plate. Unlike traditional canvas art that reflects a rectangular “window on the world”, the circle, says Ting, brings new challenges for both the artist and the viewer. “What I love about the round is that when you group plates together they never butt up. There’s always space between and that space is as important as the rounds. When you see them together, there’s a rhythm – there are ebbs and flows. I love the motion of it.”

If, like Lou Rota, you’ve “never really liked paintings”, it could be that for now, there are several reasons it’s hipper to be round, not square. After all, says Paul Bishop, “We live in a pixelated world where everything – from posters to images on screens – is right-angled. The plate – usually a round – is a breath of fresh air in a world that’s predominantly made up of little squares.”

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