Written by Mary Rean
A resurgence of interest in traditional handcrafts like ceramics is understandable in a busy world where technology increasingly dominates our lives, and mass production of everything from coffee cups to cars is chipping away at individuality. Even those in the “creative industries” are likely to find themselves stuck behind a computer screen all day long.
In the search for a more fulfilling lifestyle, people are now voting with their hands, picking up their tools, and finding their way back to more traditional skills – but, of course, with a modern twist. Taking the time to sit quietly at a potter’s wheel and shape a lump of clay into a new form can be very therapeutic.
For Grey Lynn potter Kirsten Dryburgh, a short walk down the garden path takes her from home to studio to begin the working day. Kirsten has been potting intermittently over 20 years and is still inspired to try new ideas, new glazes and new designs.
Similarly, Titirangi ceramicist Rachel Carter has been behind her wheel since the early 2000s when she came back to Auckland after living overseas. About four year ago she took the big leap and set up her own studio.
Artisans like Kirsten and Rachel are benefitting from this craft renaissance as they explore different art forms, and find there is a genuine interest in their work from architects, interior designers, homeowners, retailers and restaurateurs.
Rachel says she has noticed a shift in attitudes towards pottery and ceramics, with more people interested in buying and using handmade homewares, and in trying it out for themselves.
Shops, studios and galleries, hidden in unexpected places around the city and suburbs, are filled with handmade new and vintage items, showing there’s a real enthusiasm for the likes of pottery and ceramics, and handmade products, recycling and reusing are increasingly seen as cool.
Sarah Lods, stylist for interiors magazine NZ House and Garden and an interior style consultant who works with private clients, agrees. She is seeing huge and expanding interest in ceramics for interiors, and ceramics from Japan or pieces with a Japanese aesthetic are today’s stars.
“Because a lot of shops are creating beautiful window displays for their stock, displaying their items like artworks, people want to achieve the same look at home – so they are curating their homes to look like mini art galleries,” says Sarah. “But the pieces they are using aren’t just beautiful artworks, they are also practical and made to be used every day.
“When pieces are displayed beautifully in shops, they appear very desirable. These are art and artisan pieces; they are one-off, hand-made items, which gives them a sense of history and a story. It’s a bit like keeping your granny’s old salt pig on the kitchen bench – you love it because it reminds you of your childhood. But it also looks good, and adds a subtle layer to your home.”
The beautiful, earthy, natural tones of ceramics are very effective when they’re set against the crisp, clean lines and white or neutral background of a modern interior, she says. “We’re also seeing feature walls finished in soft terracottas, soft, pale pinks and dusty tones because these colours work well as backgrounds for ceramics.
“The idea of displaying utensils like artworks – making them look like designer objects – is very cool; it adds colours and layers and interest to your kitchen, for example. When everything is shut away, the result can be very bland.”
Ceramics slide easily into most kinds of interiors, whether you have a lovely collection of favourite items or you’ve fallen in love with one piece – like a huge fruit bowl or a vase or lamp base, says Sarah. “If you have an eclectic look, your ceramics definitely won’t be out of place. A beautiful piece sitting on a wooden table looks fabulous, or it can look just as impressive on a stainless steel bench – it will add a natural warmth to an industrial look.”
Handmade pottery that is both practical for daily use and aesthetically pleasing is trending now, says Rachel. “There’s a lot more appreciation for using pottery every day. People are looking for coffee cups, serving bowls, dinner sets, things that they can enjoy looking at, but also use.
“Or if you want to display your pieces decoratively, two or three similar objects or a collection of pieces with different heights and forms but the same glaze look good when they’re grouped together,” she says.
“Earthy colours seem to be popular, and people love the look of modern Scandinavian and Japanese aesthetics,” she says. “I make pieces for architects and that’s the look they are after. They want items that look handmade, definitely not mass produced.”
For Kirsten, the popularity of homewares isn’t a new thing. She has been working intermittently for more than 20 years, mainly producing domestic pottery – bowls, plates, cups, mugs, and tableware. “My pleasure in potting comes from the constant variation in process and the opportunity for experimentation. At present I’m enjoying the contrast of minimal designs sitting beside more loose and fluid forms with an emphasis on texture and surface,” she says.
Kirsten enjoys the hand-on, contemplative nature of pottery making, although it is also technical; what comes out of the kiln depends on a lot of factors, she says. “The clay is really important and every different type must be tested for shrinkage, how it glazes, whether it’s safe for food. So there’s a lot of experimenting with clay, colours and glazes before you can finalise a new design.”
She buys in most of her clay, but does sneak out into the back garden occasionally and digs up a spade or two to experiment on. “Grey Lynn has bright orange clay, Remuera has ochre colours, Te Atatu, where they dug the motorway, had clay in a French vanilla colour – Auckland is an amazing place, really, with incredible materials.
“I do a lot of experimenting to find glazes I really like; I love the pastel shades – browns, deep green, soft pinks and terracottas – they go nicely with food. I’m always looking for new colours, new glazes, new ideas,” Kirsten says.
“The work being produced at the moment is really lovely. People are rediscovering processes, and there’s a lot of variation and experimentation.”
It’s not only on the domestic front where ceramics are enjoying a revival. Rachel works with several Auckland chefs who are asking for handmade dinnerware for their restaurants. “They want the individuality of colour and design that you can have with handmade ceramics to showcase their food. They come to me with an idea and we work out the best sizes and forms and colours to complement their new dishes.”
Both Rachel and Kirsten say they can hardly keep up with the demand for their work, and they have also noticed more interest from people in learning to work with clay, themselves.
Rachel began teaching in 2010 at Auckland Studio Potters and now, with another potter, runs workshops from her Titirangi studio, teaching students to use the wheel and to handbuild with clay. “Other courses are being set up around Auckland, too. The interest in learning is certainly there.
“When I first began teaching at night school, most of the people coming along were just looking for a class that would give them an enjoyable evening away from home, but quite quickly, more creative people started coming along, and they still are.”
Making pottery calls for patience, says Rachel. From finding the right clay, to mixing up and testing the glaze, to forming the item, drying, glazing and firing it, can be two or more months, especially in the winter. If you don’t take the proper care along the way, your items are likely to come out of the kiln in various states – from much smaller than you expected, to cracked or completely broken.
“I think for creative people, like graphic designers and interior designers, they are spending more and more of their days working on their screens, so they enjoy coming to a pottery class, slowing down and making things, using their creative skills and their hands,” she says.
“People are keen to get away from plastics; they are drawn to the idea of the handmaker, and crafts are really popular again, not just pottery, but other handcrafts as well,” says Kirsten.
A Potted History
Most New Zealanders over a certain age remember eating their dinner every night from one of a variety of easily recognisable Crown Lynn Potteries’ dinner services.
Some of the company’s designs are sought after by collectors today, and other well-known ranges include Crown Lynn’s once-popular white, swan-shaped vases.
New Zealand pottery maker Crown Lynn Potteries began life in Hobsonville in the 1850s and 1860s making clay pipes. By 1925, the factory had moved to New Lynn where the clay was of a better quality, and the range of products was extended.
In 1940, during the Second World War, a ban was placed on importing crockery to New Zealand, and Crown Lynn began producing thousands of coffee mugs and plates for the American forces in the Pacific, and for NZ military and domestic use.
After the war, Sir Tom Clark, who ran the company, encouraged employees to develop different styles, set up a design studio, and took on local artists and staff from England and Europe. More product ranges were added to the collections and mass production saw the company become the largest producer of household pottery in the southern hemisphere.
Crown Lynn changed its name to Ceramco in 1974, and over the next few years struggled to compete with imports of cheap, mass-produced tableware. In 1989 the company was sold to a Malaysian company.
You can take a trip down memory lane at the Crown Lynn museum, open on Saturdays.