Design & Shopping: Earthenware: a new brew

Can it be true that Walter Keeler has abandoned his signature salt-glaze stoneware for `the joy of the commonplace'?
There's a great sense of excitement and expectancy in the ceramics world at the moment. No, it's not the announcement of the Jerwood Prize for the Applied Arts. It's being awarded to furniture this year. The trepidation centres around Walter Keeler's latest one-man show which opens in London next Friday. Rumour has it that the old sea dog has abandoned salt-glazed stoneware, the medium he has pioneered over the last two decades, and is about to launch a radical new collection made from - shock, horror - earthenware.

Are the rumours true? Well, yes and no, Keeler told me when I spoke to him. Yes, he will be exhibiting pots inspired by the dainty creamware and mottled tortoiseshell-glazed tablewares made by potters such as the young Josiah Wedgwood during the 18th century. But no, he has not sloughed off his crusty old salt-glazed stoneware carapace entirely. "I'm exploring the two materials in parallel," he explains, "making groups of works in batches. My salt-glaze pots have a more austere quality. They're darker in colour and weightier in form and physique. Very much in the Modernist tradition: severe, cool, robust, architectural. My creamware, on the other hand, is more delicate and subtle. It's a gorgeous warm material with strong sensual qualities, and I can use it to explore other qualities such as proportion and fine detail."

As Keeler points out, he has been potting for a good many years now, and one of the pleasures of working in the 1990s is that there are no rules anymore. Potters can do whatever they want. Back in the early post- war period, it was rather different. Then, the Anglo-Oriental tradition promoted by Bernard Leach was the prevailing influence, but try as he might, Keeler never felt comfortable adopting this model for his own work. Instead he discovered that his natural affinity lay with the semi- industrial pottery made in Staffordshire during the 18th century. "My pots are hybrids," he confesses. "Through reading Leach's A Potter's Book, I absorbed the idea that there was a right and a wrong way to make pots, and that basically they should be as simple as possible. Leach taught that you shouldn't go over things twice or attempt to refine them. But what I have tried to do is to reconcile the ethical approach I learnt from Leach with the lyrical qualities I instinctively appreciate in early industrial pottery."

Stoneware, the material with which he has been associated to date, is much tougher and more resilient earthenware and has traditionally been used for making functional wares, anything from wine bottles and beer mugs to water filters and underground pipes. Appropriately, therefore, when Keeler began working in salt-glazed stoneware, it was utilitarian artefacts such as tin cans, buckets and milk pails that inspired the forms of his pots, albeit reinterpreted in an offbeat way.

"Today, we are overloaded with stimulation of all kinds, and there is great pressure on people to live life at a high voltage," he says. "What I am trying to do is to bring people back down to earth again, and to alert them to the joy of the commonplace."

For his latest collection, though, Keeler has gone upmarket for his inspiration. In the language of retailing, he has upgraded from the local hardware store to Harrods; or in museum terms, from the humble agricultural museum to the lofty portals of the V&A.

In a sense, this is literally true, because what has prompted his recent change of direction has been a series of visits made with his students to handle ceramics in the collections at the V&A. This renewed contact with early industrial pottery seems to have fired his imagination afresh. Gradually Keeler found himself becoming more and more preoccupied with capturing the essence of 18th-century lead-glazed earthenwares, their lively contours, the warmth of their glazes, their quirky feet and handles, and the sheer craziness of their imagery. "I'm trying to find a way of celebrating the pleasure that I experience in looking at and handling 18th-century pots, yet at the same time to reflect the fact that I'm living at the end of the 20th century. I want to bring the earlier genre alive, and my way of giving it relevance today is by adding an element of wit and surprise."

Keeler is not interested in pastiche, however, and his approach is a very personal one. An essential difference between his work and that of his Staffordshire forebears is that Keeler's vessels are thrown, while the early factory-made pieces he admires were often partially or entirely moulded. "I want to retain the thrown quality but defy the thrown process," Keeler says. In other words, he wants to have his cake and eat it. To judge by the results, it looks as though he has.

Walter Keeler's exhibition is at Contemporary Applied Art, 2 Percy Street, London W1P 9PA from 17 September-30 October. There will be a gallery discussion between Walter Keeler and Tanya Harrod on Thursday 16 September at 1pm. To book, phone 0171-436 2344