With the hand of the maker becoming less central to the value of craft work as conceptual ideas gain importance, a new generation of craft practitioners are using imperfection in interesting ways. This post looks at work emerging from the Royal College of Art’s Ceramics and Glass course.
I recently had the pleasure of co-hosting a delegation of around thirty Chinese master craftsmen who were in London as part of a fact-finding mission. They informed me that the Chinese government has a two pronged policy to promote traditional crafts. One is to literally support the best makers directly through an annual stipend. The other – the reason for their visit – is to encourage makers to adapt their practice in order to open up new markets, including those in the West. While government patronage may restrict freedom of expression, these pro-active policies for keeping skills alive put our own market-forces driven approach to our traditional crafts to shame. It was heartening to see the cultural heritage of craft being recognised and supported, even in a country like China that is so immersed in its industrial revolution.
Each maker had brought along a piece of their work which included the most intricate jade carvings, lacquer and enamel ware, many of which had taken months to complete. As my colleagues and I explained the landscape of contemporary craft in the UK through lectures and visits, we broke the difficult news that the value-systems used to judge their work and ours were vastly different. Here it is no longer enough to render a traditional scene in a traditional material, albeit with supreme skill and using techniques handed down by many generations. Ideas are the main currency of our contemporary craft and as a result, workmanship is required only to the level needed to support and manifest those ideas effectively. I could see that many of the examples of work I was showing seemed crude to the masters but they took on board the ideas and were willing to begin a process of challenging their age-old ways. My argument to them was that, rather than being through want of skill, the imperfect nature of many contemporary craft works is about the intentional embracing of the imperfect and the unique for conceptual reasons – something highlighted to me upon visiting the Ceramics and Glass department of the RCA (fig.1 ).
The notion of perfection and imperfection as equally valid qualities in craft works suggests contrasting attitudes on the part of the maker towards their materials and processes. At one end of an imaginary spectrum we find the top-down imposition of form, texture, and colour, the maker intending to master techniques to the extent that they will be able to control precisely the end results. The unruly nature of ceramics and glass offer a particularly tough challenge that sets the enthusiasts’ pulses racing. In this context the maker has a predefined and fixed concept of the end result. Surprises are unwelcome and there’s no such thing as a happy accident. At the other end of the scale lies a bottom-up approach where materials and processes are explored and responded to. Forms, textures and colours are defined through development rather than in advance and the maker’s role is one of guiding rather than dictating. Here, the maker has a loose, overarching intention of what they are trying to achieve – it is not pure chance – but on top of this comes a secondary intention to try and make a specific piece. Hence a mistake or accident that does not achieve the specific goal can be analysed and may still fulfill the overarching intention. It is most often here that we find ‘imperfection’ embraced as the natural expression of what the material or process ‘wants to do’.
As I toured the RCA Ceramics and Glass department, there was a healthy plurality of approaches in evidence. The working contexts the graduating cohort place themselves in include fine or contemporary art, applied art or the studio crafts, and design for manufacture, and students would feature at points all along my imagined spectrum. However the more I saw, the more it became apparent that many are working to reveal the intrinsic qualities of their materials, whether ceramics, glass or anything else they care to use. One piece of Luke Rodilosso’s work involves slashing blocks of wax with a hot knife while Ellie Doney’s liquid-like glass sculptures incorporate ice-cream coloured expanding polyurethane foam in all its bubbling, chemical glory. Not all were about imperfection but it did appear to feature regularly.
Amy Hughes’ re-working of French eighteenth century decorative wares from Sèvres uses the hand of the maker to bring honesty and provenance to a genre of objects whose perfection, although revealing a mastery of technique, could be seen as cold and impenetrable (fig. 2). Her pieces, covered in obvious fingerprints, satirise the excess of the originals and provide a conduit to the discussion of taste and quality. Bethan Lloyd Worthington’s work placement at Crown Derby led to the design of a series of similarly subversive pieces that took the markings used in the factory to point out imperfections (gold handwriting and temporary spots of sprayed colour), and re-contextualised them as intentional details (fig. 3).
One of the enduring tensions evident at the RCA both in and beyond the Ceramics and Glass department is between the contexts of independent making and industrial production. As Peter Dormer pointed out in Meanings of Modern Design (1990) when making processes used for the mass-production of affordable everyday goods are superseded, they become primed for a new context (one might say a sort of productive retirement) in the studio crafts. For example, in ceramic production, as throwing on a wheel was replaced by slip casting, jigger-jollying and other such mould-based methods, the hand-made qualities it could achieve became more highly revered because they contrasted with the ‘perfect’ surfaces of the mass-produced. With the introduction of even higher technologies such as industrial powder-pressing, some of the mould-based techniques that displaced throwing have themselves been ‘retired’ from some areas of mass-industry and consigned to high-end serial production and the studio crafts. This presents an intriguing problem for makers because if used conventionally, there is no discernible trace of how the wares made using these techniques differ from their industrially made counterparts. However, just as throwers have a decision to make regarding whether or not to deliberately show the hand of the maker or to try and hide it (some see it as a cliché), Ian McIntyre is investigating ways that moulding processes, both industrial and studio based, can reveal themselves. In one project he is exploring the jigger-jollying technique for making concentric forms (a piece of clay is placed into a spinning female mould and a male profile is introduced, squeezing the clay between the two surfaces). Mould and profile either come together to make a perfectly finished piece or any excess clay squeezed out by the process is usually trimmed off. Seeing an opportunity to introduce imperfection and uniqueness, McIntyre uses either too much or too little clay, creating a series of cups, bowls and plates with rims that have rolled over the top of the mould or not reached a defined edge. The results are a fascinating mix of machine-made and ‘natural’ qualities – even after firing the edge detail captures the clay’s original plasticity (fig. 4).
In a similar way, for one of her designs, glassblower Hanne Enemark capitalises on the irregular surface created when splitting a bubble of glass from the blowpipe. The standard procedure uses a laser to define the line of the split and the uneven surface left on the rim of the piece is usually cold-worked to polish it flat. Enemark’s process sees her blowing very thick, almost spherical vessels and, upon splitting them, softening the rim with heat before covering it with gold leaf (fig. 5). Like McIntyre’s plates, it is the contrast between the perfectly regular surfaces and the thick, undulating gold rim that creates the point of interest in the work.
The same qualities can be seen in Dutch designer Laurens van Wieringen’s Crack series of ceramic vessels (2001) (fig. 6) and his latest work in plastic shown at the Milan Furniture Fair in 2010 (fig. 7). With the slip-cast Crack series, van Wieringen literally broke the moulds and made a feature from the usually trimmed “elephant ears” of clay that appear at joins of loose-fitting plaster moulds. The Crack series was completed during van Wieringen’s time on the Royal College of Art’s multidisciplinary Design Products course. His latest project sees him moulding recycled plastic in a range of colours to create extraordinary random marbled effects. Again uniqueness is being manufactured into precision moulded forms.
There is a sense of protectionism about some of these works. We can hear echoes of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the desire to carve out a territory that can be clearly seen as ‘craft’ in the face of the perceived encroachment of art and design. Attempts to use materials and processes in a ‘truthful’ way – revealing their intrinsic qualities – are very much in evidence. It could also be accused of being introspective – much of it is craft about making, and asks the viewer to share the maker’s interest in the processes involved. But there is a positive intention behind the slightly evangelical spreading of material understanding. In a world of spin and fakery and against the background of an industry in turmoil, these graduates want us to wake up and see what we are buying. There is an ethical position behind the sense of authenticity in their objects that is about re-connecting people with the act of making. Refreshingly it focuses attention on the process and away from the glorification of the maker’s skill or the designer’s form-making – something that can easily descend into an ego-trip if the work is not backed by sufficient depth of ideas. Most satisfying about this work however is the way that the embracing of the imperfect, the serendipitous and the naturally occurring, has parallels in the way we can choose to live our lives. They are a source of quiet reflection – an underrated but vital contribution to our turbulent world.