Pioneering new approaches to porcelain

Experimental ceramicists are creating pioneering porcelain that pairs radical techniques with shapeshifting aesthetics – and it’s firing the imagination of art and design aficionados. Nicole Swengley reports

Ashraf Hanna ceramic Petrified Forest vessels, from £6,000 for an installation of 10
Ashraf Hanna ceramic Petrified Forest vessels, from £6,000 for an installation of 10

It’s 2017 at the interior design show Decorex. Curious visitors are gathered around Future Heritage, a showcase of contemporary British craft, as ceramicist Lauren Nauman unveils her graphic Lines vessels. They ask if they are made of metal, wood or even leather – and interest soars as she reveals the fluid forms are actually porcelain. Several pieces are snapped up – even though it’s not a selling show – and bespoke commissions follow. “People said they’d never seen work like it before,” she recalls.

Nauman graduated from London’s Royal College of Art in 2016 and typifies the new generation of ceramicists literally breaking the mould as they push technical boundaries to create innovative forms. “The artists think with their hands and use clay to express something wider than their own emotions – an atmosphere, a feeling, a social or political comment,” says Future Heritage curator Corinne Julius.

Nauman’s work (from £380) is currently on show at The New Craftsmen gallery in Mayfair, where it has been met with equal fascination, according to managing director Natalie Melton. “It’s not immediately obvious that her vessels are ceramic so people become intrigued by the material and process,” she says. 

Matt Davis Hi-Res Twist vessels, from £240
Matt Davis Hi-Res Twist vessels, from £240

In this craft, more so than most, chance and spontaneity are instrumental to the outcome – and Nauman’s cage-like vessels developed from experimentation during her MA in ceramics and glass. “I was inspired by metalwork and the shape of wire baskets to create a similar effect in porcelain,” she says. “I start with a plaster mould but instead of filling it with slip [clay], I drip the lines in. The pieces start as upright cylinders and during firing the porcelain sways and twists.” This reliance on the kiln’s transformative power means Nauman often makes 10 pieces to achieve one perfect vessel – she is currently developing ceramic lighting using the same technique.

The narrative underpinning ceramicist Leah Jensen’s vessels (£3,000) has proved similarly intriguing to collectors. “Most people assume her pieces are 3D-printed as the precise lines are so geometric. Once they hear they’re handcarved they are completely drawn in,” Melton says, citing Jensen’s 2017 debut solo show – the fastest-selling ever for The New Craftsmen. “The first piece sold to a New York collector just 10 minutes after we posted a pre-show email – others sold a few days later to a buyer who commissioned further pieces.” 

Jensen graduated in contemporary crafts from Falmouth University in 2014 and has pioneered a remarkable technique whereby she deconstructs Renaissance paintings to reveal the hidden geometric structures that reside beneath. She places images of the painting onto the unfired clay surface and inserts pins at strategic points. “The holes left behind dictate where I carve,” she says. “Once the vessel is complete, the narrative is hidden – just as it is in the painting’s structure before it.”

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She handcarves her pieces in the traditional manner, creating interest with textured contrasts – rough scorched wood bases are fused with silky white porcelain, for instance. “Handcarving is a very slow and meditative process and collectors respond to the risk and sacrifice that goes into the work,” she says. “People suggest ways I could cut corners but this misses the point. The endurance of making these pots is really important to me and I’m constantly testing out new clays or patterns, material combinations or variations in scale. Something I’m really excited about is working on groups of vessels that could represent triptychs or altarpiece panels.” 

Experimental ceramicist Matt Davis uses porcelain craft traditions to create a futuristic aesthetic in his hyper-real vessels (from £240; his high-end collection starts from £1,300). His approach seeks to unify analogue and digital worlds and earned him the Emmanuel Cooper Award at Ceramic Art London in 2017, while three of his pieces feature in the permanent collection at Stoke-on-Trent’s The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

“As technology is now so pervasive, people have come to recognise what is ‘digital’ in a tangible form. My work is based on archetypal vessels developed using several stages of computer modelling and digital processing,” says Davis, who began his practice in 2016 after graduating with first-class honours from the University of Brighton. “I follow this with physical exploration using traditional ceramic techniques, involving much trial and error.” Moulded and slip-cast in bone china and black porcelain, his vessels test limits and require complicated setting components to prevent them from collapsing during firing. 

Lauren Nauman porcelain and brass Lines vessels, from £380
Lauren Nauman porcelain and brass Lines vessels, from £380

Form also preoccupies Ashraf Hanna, an Egyptian-born British artist based in Pembrokeshire, whose work appears in the National Museum Wales. His elegant vessels are slab-built by hand, achieving a seamless relationship between sharp lines and soft curves. 

Hanna grew up in El Minia surrounded by traditional Egyptian pottery, which took on new relevance during his studies at the city’s Fine Art College. He moved to London in 1991 and began working with clay in 1997, later honing his craft on the RCA’s MA in ceramics and glass where he began analysing how scale, colour, texture and material apprise our perceptions of form. 

“Recently, I’ve explored the relationship between line and space by cutting straight lines through the curves of vessels and altering the dynamics by repositioning and manipulating the area cut,” he says. Cleverly, a semblance of the original structure is retained in his elegant Cut and Altered series (£2,200). He continues to explore colour in the subtle, earthy shades of his tall, slender Petrified Forest vessels (£6,000 for a 10-piece installation). “I strive for authenticity and innovation. It’s a key part of my relationship with collectors as they’re interested in my journey,” he says. “Each acquisition is a unique, handbuilt object – a thread in an ongoing story in which they become an important part. Ultimately, it’s a creative conversation through objects.”

Hitomi Hosono porcelain English Daisy, Nadeshiko and Rose vase, £10,600
Hitomi Hosono porcelain English Daisy, Nadeshiko and Rose vase, £10,600

Collectors are also stimulated by the recent alignment of ceramics with contemporary art at shows such as Art Basel, Frieze and Masterpiece. During Design Miami last December, eight of the 10 craftspeople represented at A Future Made – a Crafts Council-led show in collaboration with The New Craftsmen, Craft Scotland and Ruthin Craft Centre – were ceramicists. “People gravitated towards Hanna’s pieces specifically because they’re very delicate and the undulating forms are easy to place in a residential setting, either singly or in groups,” says Melton. 

“This new generation of experimental ceramicists is building on the groundbreaking work of a radical group of late 1970s RCA graduates such as Alison Britton, Carol McNicoll and Jacqueline Poncelet, who treated the vessel as an abstract form,” enthuses Crafts Council trustee Beverley Rider. “Collectors understand they are buying something unique from a living artist, several of whom are already in museum collections.” Rider’s own collection is a case in point and includes work by Julian Stair and Kate Malone, along with Nauman’s Lines vessel and two pieces by Hitomi Hosono – whose intricate creations (£10,600) can also be found in the V&A and the British Museum. 

Hosono’s vessels are embellished with tiny petals and fragile leaves ¬and require infinite patience as she handcarves the raw clay with a specially modified dental tool. A recent piece adorned with chrysanthemums and camellias – each placed and shaped by hand – took three months to complete. “I pay attention to the smallest detail, down to how a 1mm leaf-tip should move. I don’t like to compromise,” she says. “Seeing the clay take form is exciting and when it emerges from the kiln – sometimes 14 months after I started the work – it’s always a thrill.” 

From left: Ashraf Hanna ceramic Black Cut vessel, £2,200. Leah Jensen porcelain and scorched oak The Magdalen Reading vessel, £3,000
From left: Ashraf Hanna ceramic Black Cut vessel, £2,200. Leah Jensen porcelain and scorched oak The Magdalen Reading vessel, £3,000

Hosono interned at Wedgwood in 2008, while studying at the RCA, and developed her own version of the traditional technique of “sprigging”, in which tiny ceramic reliefs are applied to clay surfaces. Experimentation led to the elaborate, lace-like botanical ornamentation on her own matte-finish vessels. Subconscious images are reawakened as she works. “As I touch the clay my memories of nature, abstract and uncertain in my brain, come back through my hands – plant shapes emerge along with new ideas,” she says. “Porcelain clay has a character like a person. It struggles to adjust to new shapes and sometimes refuses by cracking during firing. I’ve had to learn to listen and tune into its character.”

Hosono continues to coax clay into remarkable forms. The carved and pierced porcelain sprigs of her recent Komorebi bowl “express the beauty of natural light filtering through forest branches”. Kathleen Slater, director of Adrian Sassoon’s Knightsbridge gallery, which represents the artist, says, “Collectors are in awe of Hosono’s incredible technical expertise and the impossible delicacy of the pieces.” 

Thanks to the remarkable creativity of Hosono and her fellow artists, Rider is optimistic about the future of contemporary ceramics. “An exciting energy and momentum is happening now we’re freed from the idea of ceramics being purely about pots,” she says.

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