In Australia, ceramics is under siege. Since the boom of the 1970s, the number of courses available have rapidly declined. For today’s iphone generation, the dedication required by clay-making poses a significant lifestyle challenge – it threatens to disconnect you from the ‘clouds’ of text and image that give meaning to the day. Of course, as craft advocates we perceive the danger that this will lead to a closed system, where our cultural ecology loses the language of the material world outside. In ceramics, we have a particularly primordial understanding of the ground on which we stand. Without this ‘earth’, we risk a cultural short-circuit.
Thankfully, Janet DeBoos has been successful in adapting ceramics education to this new generation through her model of the ‘distributed studio’. Sustaining this is a new audience that she has discovered which is deeply appreciative of Australian ceramics. But it’s not the white knight of the American collector, willing to pay thousands for a unique work. Rather, it is the Chinese factory owner who can see in the Australian ‘hands-on’ ceramic style something of great value to his growing middle class market.
Janet seemed destined to work in China. She first encountered Chinese ceramicists in the mid-seventies, when a delegation came to East Sydney Tech. In 1996, she received an invitation to be part of the First Western Yixing Teapot Symposium, where she was introduced to Zisha-ware. This was followed in 2001 with an invitation from The Chinese Ceramic Industry to attend and speak at the International Forum on the Development of Ceramic Art in Zibo, Shandong province.
On the strength of her presentation, DeBoos was invited to return and make work with the factory. She has subsequently made work in collaboration with Prof. Zhang Shouzhi in which she produced the form and he provided the decoration. Shouzhi’s design is based on a traditional Ding-ware, though it is applied with a decal rather than traditional hand-carving. The company produce only for internal market as they prefer to make work of high standards rather than cut costs as would be demanded for export. 250 sets were made and subsequently all were sold at the Zibo ceramic Industry conference and expo at the end of 2007. They sold for twice the price they would attract in Australia.
Janet’s experience reminds us how important it is to be open in dealings with businesses in China. While Australian craft has traditionally looked north (to the ‘developed’ countries in Europe, Japan and North America) to gauge its progress, the horizon needs to be broadened to engage with the emerging economies. In the case of China, the depth of appreciation for ceramics is something that a country like Australia could do well to import.
Karl Millard is a Melbourne metalsmith whose work has gained high profile, particularly in the Transformations exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia. He has mastered a particular method of combining metals in a patchwork pattern that is quite unique and highly regarded. As part of his interest in artisanship, he has also travelled to India where he resided in Tamil Naidu village specialising in metal casting.
Last year he was invited by the Indian silverware company Ravissant to design and make prototypes for silver tea sets. Ravissant was established in 1992 after regular visits by a Dutch silversmith developed a local industry in this medium. One of their designers saw Karl’s work on display at an exhibition of RMIT metal that travelled to the Australian High Commission in Delhi. Karl’s ‘multi-metal’ technique appealed to their interest in colour and pattern.
Technical drawing of water jug
Two Ravissant workers developing a mock-up
The mock-up ready for inspection
All hands on the bench, ready to fill orders
So they invited Karl to spend four weeks at their factory where he would design new tea sets. When Karl arrived, they were in the process of setting up their own casting and enamel departments. Karl found them very easy to work with, ‘You can realise a piece from a drawing quickly. It takes only four days to go from drawing to mock-up in metal.’ It was up to Karl to produce technical drawings for each of the designs that would enable them to be made on commission whenever required.
The silver and ebony tea pot that will be display in the World of Small Things.
The ebony handle insert was unusual for Karl, who had never used wood before. But there needed to be heat protection for the hand, and Ravissant had a policy never to use plastic. Karl was also impressed by the way their casting was based on a non-central axis, which contrasted with the Western value of symmetry. He enjoyed making more fluid forms. That’s something he take more advantage of next time.
According to Karl:
The culture of metal in India is so strong. The use of metal in tea pots is like our ceramic teapot here. Their silver tea pots are about everyday use, not about hiding it away in a cupboard. They buy it as a family gift: older people buy a set for daughter or son who is about to be married, or New Year’s Day gift giving.
The growing Indian middle class market provides Karl with an opportunity to make work at a scale and quality he’d rarely find in Australia. Here, his classic pepper grinders are sold only as works of art, for collections rather than use. At Ravissant, they have 122 silversmiths at work, who are able to turn an order for a whole tea set around in a week. For Karl, ‘it’s not based on supermarket or fashion cycle where you have to make 2,000 to make it work.’
Karl’s work represents a new cycle for craft and design in Australia. Rather than a designer commissioning handmade product in a poor country for Western consumption, an Indian company buys the designs themselves, makes them with craft labour, and then sells them to their own middle class. Here’s an opportunity in Australia for seeing our own talent realised, albeit by someone else.
Jonathan Baskett is a Canberra-based glass designer who works in collaboration with Nouvel, a glass studio in San Andrés Atoto, Mexico
Born in Canberra, Jonathan Baskett first encountered glass blowing as glass assistant at the Isle of Wight Glass, England. He eventually took up glass at the Canberra School of Art while working occasionally in New Zealand, England, Germany, Denmark, Italy and Sweden.
In 2001 Jonathan got a call from Michael Kramer, to whom he’d been an apprentice in Germany. Kramer had been employed as director for the Mexican glass company Nouvel Studio. In 2003 Jonathan started making his own work at Nouvel, then returned in 2005 to work with them as a designer. He is back there right now helping with their research and developing his own work.
For Jonathan, there’s nothing like Nouvel Studio in Australia. The Mexicans cater for a broad range of techniques, from hand-craft to full-automatic. Jonathan’s role in the research team is to find a way of taking designs from paper, through initial manual production eventually into automated processes through CAD designs—‘I’m the guy on the floor exploring particular techniques’.
On the floor of Nouvel Glass Studio
While this may seem a step away from pure craft production, Jonathan sees this as a reality of contemporary glassware. Even Swedish companies that previously prided themselves on handcrafted products, now are operated by robots behind closed doors. Whereas at Nouvel the handmade still has a place, with 9-10 artisans devoted to craft processes.
My role is to work with the designers and the glass blowers. I interpret the designers’ ideas and relate them to the glassblowers sought of a go between. We work as a team and ideas are shared. The director is interested in texture and colour; it was my idea to use glass frit on the outside of the pieces. I also suggested the use of wire to make instant moulds however the execution of the pieces was left to the designers as I was then working with the glass blowers on technique.
Jonathan is currently working on a series of tequila bottles, to be sold for $2,500 each. With colleagues, he has been experimenting with textures, which lead to the use of frit that will feature in the range of his own bowls that he has on display in the World of Small Things. He enjoys the creative environment. The director is continually setting challenges—‘It’s like art school, you’re always experimenting.’ While there are some subtle class differences between the designers and workers, Jonathan finds little sense of hierarchy and certainly no colour prejudice.
Rolling the glass in frit
Resulting texture in bowls
While glass is not a traditional Mexican material, Jonathan finds that Mexicans have a creative flair —‘Everyone you meet will have an opinion about whether or not they like that particular colour or combination.’ Pragmatically, producing from Mexico gives Jonathan access to the USA market. Thanks to Nouvel, his work is now stocked at Moma in New York.
Jonathan’s work in Mexico leads us to question how craft techniques might survive not in opposition to industrial processes, but alongside. And even though glass is not a traditional Mexican material, when we look at Jonathan’s work do we think of the exuberance and colour of Mexican folk culture? Is there a particular style of working that makes Australians well-suited to operating between designers and makers?