Design: Sharp urban potters

Potters have left their remote cottages behind and traded in the hippy aesthetic to lead professional careers in the city.
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The Independent Culture
When Bernard Leach chose remote St Ives for his pottery back in 1920, it was because he felt he could be more creative living in the country than in the city. Most pioneer studio potters followed his example. It wasn't until the arrival of Lucie Rie from the Continent in 1938 that the association between craftsmanship and rural living was challenged.

Rie came from Vienna and brought with her an urban aesthetic influenced by the Bauhaus. London was her natural home, and she had no thoughts of leaving it. With the rise of the hippy movement during the late Sixties, craftspeople once again became allied with back-to-the-earth living. If you were starting up as a potter in the early Seventies, the likelihood was that you would go and live in a cottage in a remote part of Wales with a few goats, half a mile down an unmade track.

In the entrepreneurial Eighties these assumptions were questioned. Young arts and crafts makers became aware of the need for their businesses to be economically viable, which meant being close to major centres of population. Now the trendiest place for a maker to be is at the heart of the city, preferably in an unprepossessing, post-industrial building where the rent is low, but the artistic kudos is proportionally high.

Thirty-nine-year-old Kate Malone, one of Britain's leading potters, rests on the cusp of these two movements, with one foot in the hippy camp (she and partner Graham make a pilgrimage to India almost every year), but the other firmly rooted at the nexus of the London contemporary applied art scene. When she was studying ceramics at Bristol in the late Seventies, one of her tutors was Wally Keeler, at that time a prime exponent of the back-to-the-earth movement. But in 1983 Kate moved to London for three years at the Royal College of Art and, although the urban experience was disorientating, she soon found it exhilarating and creatively liberating.

Dressed in her tailor-made tweed dungarees, Kate still carries vestiges of an earlier hippy aesthetic, but the apparently laid-back exterior belies a sharp business mind. There is nothing dreamy or amateurish about the way she manages her life and her career. She is respected throughout the crafts world as a consummate professional.

I first met Kate back in 1988, two years after she had graduated from the RCA, when she was working in Arts Council-subsidised studio space under the railway arches beneath Hungerford Bridge. Even then she was one to watch, and she already had ambitious plans for a workshop of her own.

Kate and her partner Graham Inglefield, a craftsman-builder, had recently purchased a dilapidated house in Hackney which they were renovating. Instead of establishing a studio in the basement as many potters do, the plan was for Graham to build a large two-storey workshop on a strip of land at the back of the house, which Kate would then share with a group of potters, using the rent to cover the mortgage and the overheads.

By 1992 Balls Pond Studio was up and running, complete with artist-designed, wrought-iron balcony and door by Stephen Forster. From this date Kate's career flourished, too. Her pots got larger, her glazes got richer, and the studio went from strength to strength. Much to her satisfaction, she was not alone in her success: everyone who worked there benefited from the momentum and the critical mass.

A long narrow building with a pitched, top-lit roof and a spiral staircase at one end, Balls Pond Studio is large enough to accommodate eight potters at any one time, although by adopting a time-share system, 12 potters can enjoy the studio's facilities. There are two kilns, one extra-large for firing major commissions. Although the basic construction is no-nonsense concrete blocks, Graham was meticulous about the interior detailing, installing cantilevered workbenches, lots of built-in shelving, low-voltage spotlights throughout - so that the studio can double up as a gallery - terrazzo flooring on the ground floor, and wooden floors upstairs which can be sanded and repolished. Decoration has since been added in the form of a ceramic tile mosaic on the stairs designed by Martin Moore. Kate is quick to point out how privileged she and her fellow potters are to enjoy facilities of this quality.

The first floor houses a small display area, and twice a year the entire building is converted into a gallery for a special open studio exhibition over a long weekend. Each individual is free to exhibit independently at any time, and as people's careers take off, it is accepted that they may move on. One of the original aims of the studio was to act as a seedbed for potters embarking on their careers, providing high-quality facilities at an affordable rent (a mere pounds 26 per week, inclusive of heating, lighting and cleaning) and enabling individuals to tap into joint marketing initiatives.

All the potters who have passed through Balls Pond Studio have benefited from Kate's dynamism and creativity; she is renowned for her generosity in helping others, technically, personally and professionally as well as aesthetically. She sees herself, too, as a "gardener of pots". Her latest exhibition is called "The Allotment" and, along with plump pumpkins and prickly pineapples, it contains a sumptuous array of vessels inspired by pods, seeds nuts and berries.

Last year baby Scarlet popped out of the Malone/Inglefield greenhouse, which has prompted a few changes. Having spent the last 10 years nurturing the studio and the people in it, as well as creating her own ceramic cornucopia, Kate is anxious to secure a future for the enterprise. The latest plan is for a group of potters from Balls Pond to set up a new communal studio nearby. This would allow Kate the much-needed space for expansion. She is enthusiastic about the idea of Balls Pond Studios spawning another workshop of similar quality. The more, the better, as far as she is concerned.

`The Allotment' opens at the Midland Arts Centre, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham on 14 November and runs until 3 January 1999, followed by a national tour. Balls Pond Studio is open by appointment at 8B Culford Mews (to the rear of 157 Balls Pond Road), London N1 4DX (tel 0171-254 4037; fax.0171- 275 0401). The next studio open days are 5-6 December, 11am-7pm