Sunday 22 July 2018

A mug for pottery

Artisan-look ceramics are having a moment in the spotlight as our dining habits become far more casual

Flower jugs and vases, round mirror and plant holders, ceramics and furniture all Marks & Spencer
Flower jugs and vases, round mirror and plant holders, ceramics and furniture all Marks & Spencer
Owen Quinlan studio portrait by Cristian Barnett
Patterned tableware from Heatons

To me there's something special about handmade ceramics. They make me feel connected to the person who made them and to the world beyond. It's a magical feeling and I'm always happy to pay a bit more for something that's going to give me that sense of connectedness. It's a bit like eating organic, locally produced food.

I also want to keep the thing going and make sure that the people who make it have bread on their own tables too.

Not everyone shares these values.

"There are people who are sensitive to handmade things and people who aren't," the potter Rosemarie Durr explains. "It's always been like that. I'm very fortunate that I can make my living making things that people use, and that the people that I deal with have a regard for craftsmanship. They like to use things that have been made by a person rather than a machine. For other people, it doesn't matter to them so long as it goes with the curtains."

Owen Quinlan studio portrait by Cristian Barnett
Owen Quinlan studio portrait by Cristian Barnett

Durr's work is unassuming, easy to live with, and she strives to keep her prices low. A cup or a mug, for example, would set you back between €16 and €19, which is more than you'd pay for a mass-produced one, but not a whole lot more. She's committed to bringing handmade ceramics to the attention of people who wouldn't normally notice it, especially visitors who drop in to her studio in Castlecomer Estate Yard, Co Kilkenny, as part of a day out. She also sells through the Irish Design Shop and the Ardmore Pottery, Co Waterford, which has a great selection of handmade ceramics from different makers across the country.

Interestingly, Durr has found that Irish tastes vary across the country. "It's nearly location-based. I make a stacking range that's very contemporary and minimal. It's probably more of an urban look and it sells really well in Dublin." Her other, more traditional range is blue. "That sells much better in my own shop and by the seaside. Maybe that's because it's blue!"

Not all potters will stick to making the same pots over time, but Durr feels that it's important that her customers can replace pieces that are part of a set. "When I started off I decided that I didn't want to be one of those potters who are still making the same pots in 10 years' time. But I have done that. People like collecting it. If they break a piece it's essential that they can replace it." That said, the pieces that she makes now won't be an exact replica of the same range a few years back. "I don't change consciously but sometimes the shape evolves or the glaze changes. There's a little bit of organic sway to it."

For Owen Quinlan, ceramic artist and lecturer in ceramics at Limerick School of Art and Design, the way that we use ceramics in the home is a reflection of changes in the way that we live. "It's part of the Dermot Bannon-style thing of breaking down walls. In traditional Irish culture, the Good Room was for impressing people. You'd have the Waterford crystal and the Belleek all shut away behind glass. It was like having an idealised version of yourself in the house."

People still like to display their ceramics, but there's now more of a connection between display and use. "We're more into holding things now, not just looking at them through glass, and we probably curate our houses much more than we used to. People like the idea of expressing their personalities through objects."

Many people prefer to mix and match different textures and qualities too. "It all comes down to personality. There might be one cup that you pick up, and you can follow the movement of the maker's hand as you move it around, and you know that's the one for you." That said, just because a piece is handmade doesn't make it good. "It all comes down to intention," Quinlan says. "You can have something mass produced with conceptual qualities or something handmade with very little thought put in to it."

Even among pottery nerds, households without any mass-produced ceramics are rare. It's more usual to find cherished handmade pieces mixed in with the cheaper stuff. And, if the real thing is too pricey, a lot of this season's crockery is designed to look as though it's handmade (even though it's not). "People like the feeling of bespoke ceramics but they can't necessarily afford them," says Yvonne Nugent, head of homeware in Harvey Norman. Its new Artisan range isn't handmade, but it looks the part. "It's all mismatching and we strive for each piece to be imperfect, but it also has to perform," she explains. "It all needs to go in the dishwasher." Dinner plates come in dusky pink, cloud blue and stormy grey, either round or oval and cost €10. "Dining in Ireland has become so much more casual. Fewer people are laying the table and sitting down to dinner in the way that they used to."

Other mainstream retailers are rocking the artisan look too. The Marks and Spencer Bistro range has a speckled glaze and an unglazed rim. Expect to pay €8.25 for a dinner plate and €6.75 for a cereal bowl. At Next, a set of four Reactive pasta bowls costs €31. Reactive glazes, which react to the firing process in such a way that each piece is slightly different, is another way of achieving a handmade look. And, at the affordable end of the spectrum, Heatons' Unbranded range (€1.79 for a mug) has a cheerfully wonky print decoration.There's definitely a homemade vibe going on.

The irony of it is that, while the mainstream producers are seeking the artisan look by making ceramics that look imperfect, the real craftspeople are coming up with clever contemporary designs. Take Durr's stacking range for example. To make attractive ceramics, regular enough to stack neatly into each other, takes skill. And they're grand in the dishwasher too. And the oven. And the microwave. Just saying.

See rosemariedurr.com, irishdesignshop.com, ardmorepottery.com, harveynorman.ie, next.ie, marksandspencer.ie, heatonsstores.com

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