Akiko Hirai: the ceramist
Akiko Hirai is stooped over a giant bowl on a potter’s wheel, so transfixed by her task she’s unaware of my presence until I’m standing right beside her. Her studio is a spare room in a Dalston building housing young creatives – a million miles away from the glamour of a fashion house such as Loewe, and yet her name appears on this year’s shortlist for its coveted international craft prize that champions excellence in modern craftsmanship. “I’m from Japan, where people are interested in the handmade,” she says, explaining her love affair with ceramics, which – although influenced by her heritage – began when she moved to the UK and felt the urge to do something “to relieve the stress of voluntary work with the homeless”. She studied at the University of Westminster and Central Saint Martins, which taught her the basics, but quickly developed her own aesthetic. “There’s a little wabi-sabi in my work. It’s slightly imperfect and off but there’s also a beauty about it, so the question for me is how to create that balance – that beauty in imperfection.”
Hirai draws inspiration from nature but is also a people-watcher. “I like studying their posture and how it expresses what they are feeling. For example, when they tilt their heads when trying to understand something,” she says. “I wanted to express that in clay without doing sculpture, as that sounded too pretentious. I wanted to make something that was ordinary. Domestic ware is constantly being touched and used – people become attached to it, which I like.”
Her work veers towards tableware and decorative art, which can be found among the online collections of Flow Gallery and The New Craftsmen. She describes her technique as spontaneous. “You imagine the shape first and may even make a drawing of it, but once you’re working with the clay it just happens,” she explains. “I like traditional Japanese kohiki ware, which is kind of layered and you can see the shadow of something underneath, but it’s more than that – there’s a skill in the work. You have to know how the material will react in the kiln and how it will emerge.”
Hirai hones her knowledge through experimentation, using materials she imports from Japan, as well as locally. “When I’m firing pieces in the kiln, I will always add a new test piece so I can gather information on how it reacts to the extreme environment,” she says. “Usually, the first ones don’t work, but if you repeat the process many times, it starts to form something else and you develop a new technique. My pots are organic but there is evolution.”
Hirai doesn’t work to commission – “if someone asks for a pink here or a blue there, then that’s not my work” – but will consider making a piece for those who love her creations and, perhaps, want a certain size, and can ship to most places in the world. “With ceramics, it’s the accidents that create beauty,” she says. “You don’t want to remove that by predetermining what will happen in the kiln. You have to offer something that you are happy with.”
Harry Morgan: the experimental artist
Manchester-born Harry Morgan is one of a new breed of young experimental creatives. He is interested in materials and the tension created by their paradoxical properties, while using traditional processes in new ways to push the boundaries of what they can produce. Based in Edinburgh – where he remained after obtaining a first-class degree in glass at Edinburgh College of Art – he shares a studio with a glassmaker: a utilitarian space filled with metal shelves and tables in Custom Lane, a city workspace for creatives.
But Morgan is no glassmaker. He uses the material in unconventional ways – fusing thin threads of glass that are pulled directly out of the furnace with concrete forms to create artworks that ask questions about fragility and strength, transparency and solidity and traditional and modern processes. At first glance, you are left to wonder how he came to combine such a fragile material with one so heavy and industrial, but this is how his work wrong-foots the viewer. “The glass is much stronger than you think. The individual strands are fragile but collectively they are strong – ultimately, it’s a solid piece of glass,” he says.
Morgan’s glass-pulling method is inspired by an old Venetian technique. “It’s pretty simple to do but takes a long time and requires a lot of patience,” he says. Once the strands are made, he builds a mould from silicone or timber, while the concrete elements of his larger artworks are cast hollow. “I first began experimenting with them in a factory in Cardiff and they were huge – they weighed around 250 kilos and I could barely move them,” he says. “So I began looking at ways to make the concrete hollow, and hence lightweight. As such, there’s an internal part of the mould that collapses away when I insert the glass. I then pour concrete on top, which binds everything together. The piece is finished with polishing.”
There’s a kind of brutalism to Morgan’s artworks that betrays his passion for architecture. “Concrete and glass kind of speak of architecture, don’t they? My pieces always start in the sketchbook, and that often involves lots of abstract sketching and architectural drawings.” This is also how a commission begins. “Because of the process, it’s impossible to make two pieces that are identical. There are a lot of accidents, which I kind of enjoy. But if someone likes what I do, it’s possible to do something similar.” Each piece usually has a lead time of six to eight weeks.
Morgan – like Akiko Hirai – found himself among the privileged few on the shortlist at this year’s Loewe Foundation Craft Prize. “It was incredible. I applied in the first year when few people knew about it but felt I shouldn’t have done so when I saw the winners – it included some incredible names. But the second year’s shortlist had quite a few young people in the mix so I thought I would give it a go, which proved to be perfect timing,” he says. “Unbelievably, they stay in touch, promote your exhibitions and invest in pieces.”
Understandably, perhaps, given his experimental approach, Morgan is already moving on from the designs that have brought him recognition and is exploring new materials and techniques. “I’ve done a couple of research projects with Design Exhibition Scotland, looking into sand-casting concrete – using an ancient technique used traditionally for casting metal. This year I’m looking at alternative aggregates – like using recycled plastic instead of sand,” he says. “Sand-mining is a huge ecological concern at the moment, whether that’s about where it is taken from or the way it is mined.” Morgan’s next project will see him create new pieces for a show that is being organised by Make Hauser & Wirth. “I’ll be looking at using local sands and a technical exploration into concrete as well as a more sustainable method. It’s early days but let’s see where the exploration takes me…”
William Hibbert & Samuel Baker: the furniture makers
“We didn’t set out to conquer the world of furniture. We started out as friends who both had an interest in nature and sustainability,” says William Hibbert, who, with business partner Samuel Baker, is behind the bespoke commercial-furniture brand Forest & Maker and its residential arm, Forest to Home. “We were working at a country estate in Wiltshire surrounded by beautiful countryside close to the village of Lacock, where they filmed Downton Abbey and Harry Potter. This inevitably sparked conversations about the issues we were passionate about.”
These shared values led Hibbert, whose interests were focused on the environment and business investment, and Baker – who began his career in building renovation and restoration before moving into carpentry – to form a serendipitous alliance. “At the estate, we began looking at ways we could use discarded materials destined to become fire timber to make furniture, and that led on to the idea of creating an honest venture where we would set strict rules for ourselves from the outset,” says Hibbert. “We wanted to focus on the beauty of natural materials but go much further, and set out to create a business that was more than a rubber stamp to sustainability.
Giving back to the environment – having reaped the rewards from it – became a priority for the pair. “That meant planting trees, so we created our own forest-preservation initiative, where we plant around three to every one used. In fact, in an upcoming project we are going to use around 50 trees and plant 500,” says Hibbert. “We also wanted to educate ourselves on sustainability, so brought in Charlie Law [of Sustainable Construction Solutions], who helped us put the right procedures in place. We were keen to invest in experts and really understand what being sustainable means.”
In line with this ethos, the duo plan to introduce as much ash to their clients as possible, so they can plant new trees to help combat the devastating effects of ash dieback disease. “At the moment, it looks like they will all be gone in a few years,” says Hibbert. “So we are trying to tell our customers the story of ash and the problems it’s facing. For us, it’s not just about buying from environmentally friendly sources around the world but learning what types of timber might be more sustainable.”
The pair’s business began with just five tables. “They were quite wacky and made from timber where we used glass to fill in the gaps left by rot or where the wood was naturally cracked. These river-style tables are quite popular now but not back then,” says Baker. Next came shelving and then a collection called Seasons. “This was less artistic and much more practical,” he adds.
At that time, Hibbert and Baker worked out of a rudimentary shed. But an order for one table – followed by more furniture – from the restaurant chain Nando’s was a turning point for their business. “We had to knock down a wall to expand,” says Hibbert. “It’s that classic start, where you are working from one laptop in a small shed that’s freezing in winter, but gradually we’ve built up the business and now craft furniture for offices, restaurants and hotels. We’ve taken on 10 people, from apprentices to skilled, university-trained furniture makers.”
Typically, the pair collaborate with architects and designers, and see themselves as an extension of their practices, offering skills and expertise in handmaking to realise their vision.
This month, their collaborative process will see the launch of a new collection of furniture for the home in conjunction with the London/New York architectural practice Michaelis Boyd. “It’s called Foresta,” says Hibbert. “We’re mixing oak with green marble and it will include a table, sideboard and side tables – but as each piece is made to order, we can offer different materials and sizes. So you can see the transition: we’ve gone from wacky tables to a clean-lined collaboration with a well-known architect – and there’s much more to come.”
Alexander O’Neill: the bladesmith
“Knives are something you use everyday of your life and should be perfect both aesthetically and functionally, which is a rarity these days,” says Alexander O’Neill, the artisan behind London-based Gorse Knives. His business – based in a small Kennington workshop – is the culmination of a creative career that began when studying fine art. He found a liking for the more technical aspects of the course and started designing and making jewellery, before going on to take a degree in silversmithing. “I made quite peculiar art jewellery – ceramic mushrooms and strange objects – so I had to make my own tools for that,” he recalls. “It’s really enjoyable when you are creating something as fussy as art jewellery alongside clean-lined implements. I’m not an amazing cook but I’m very enthusiastic, so then I started making kitchen knives – it all developed from there.”
O’Neill uses Japanese aogami (“blue paper”) steel, known for creating an insanely sharp edge. “It comes in a bar that we import from Japan. I hammer that out into the shape of a knife, put a bevel on it and then hammer out the handle,” he says. “Then it’s ground on progressively fine sandpaper grits, mostly by hand, before moving onto the wet stone and then the barber’s strop to get it really sharp.”
He often tests this personally. “I use the hairs on my arms,” he says. “I get some very weird looks on occasion – that moment when someone suddenly notices the perfectly square patches above my wrist – but it goes to show what you can do with steel with the right skill and attention.”
It is left to the customer to choose the wood for the handle but O’Neill prefers to work with olive. “It’s very sustainable – there are thousands of acres of olive groves and lots of furniture that is broken down for reuse,” he says. “But it also has a lot of resin in it, so you don’t have to fill it with plastic. Some companies take a very nice piece of natural wood and then infuse that with resin. It’s not technically plastic but possesses all the nasty things we dislike about it.” Instead, O’Neill uses a vacuum chamber to infuse his wood with a Danish finishing oil. “It’s food- and allergy-safe and fills any gaps, while ensuring the wood is glassy-hard.”
Bespoke designs, meanwhile, are all about personalisation. “Someone gave us the neck of a guitar, which we used for [their knife’s] handle. It had the fretboard running through the spine,” he recalls. “Another client asked us to do something with a broken church bench that had furnished their house. It was a really beautiful ancient oak that was almost black in colour due to years of waxing and, I presume, coats rubbing against it.” He used buffalo horn for the bolster – the part of the handle that meets the blade – because it’s incredibly hard-wearing. “The animals are not slaughtered for their horn but are raised for meat, so essentially it’s a by-product. It gives the handle added protection and weights the blade nicely.”
It takes around a week to complete a bespoke commission. “Many people are happy to order from the pre-made collection online, but chefs and professionals tend to come with bespoke orders,” says O’Neill. “Tom Brown of Cornerstone in Hackney ordered one of our knives early on, and there was another chef who requested a purpose-made charcuterie knife. It had an incredibly wide blade – around 7cm to 8cm with a very sharp tip, a single bevel and a very short handle – made for breaking down giant salamis.”
And O’Neill is considering expanding his repertoire. “Working with buffalo horn is very pleasant, so I’m thinking of moving on to spectacles and pens,” he says. “Things that are still everyday, but beautiful.”