Food & Drink: Design - A fine romance

Hand-thrown porcelain tableware bears as much relation to chunky, factory-made crockery as Schubert does to the Spice Girls. John Windsor meets five potters whose mission is to make art that you can eat from. Photographs by Steffan Hill
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In this touchy-feely decade, people who care about real food seem no longer content to eat their home-made soup out of machine-made crocks. They want tableware with soul. But sophisticated, too. A small group of studio potters has created a market for simply designed, hand-thrown tableware in porcelain. That's the high-fired, translucent stuff that the ancient Chinese invented and posh Meissen is made out of. Its look and feel is as remote from slip-cast factory crockery as it is from the chunkily hand- crafted. They have taken studio pots out of the kitchen and into the dining room. Yes, it's art. Art to get to grips with.

And if it seems extravagant to eat off vessels costing pounds 75 a go, reflect upon Sir David Attenborough's dishwashing machine. Almost daily, it blasts with piping-hot water cups and saucers thrown by Britain's foremost studio potter, the late Dame Lucie Rie. A Fifties cup and saucer of hers can fetch over pounds 600 at auction. They do get chipped. But the Attenborough family believes Rie wanted them to be used.

Three leading throwers of porcelain tableware - Julian Stair, Edmund de Waal and Joanna Constantinidis - will be showing together at the Anton Gallery in Washington in April. Constantinidis, aged 69, began experimenting with porcelain compounds that could be thrown thin without warping and cracking under high firing in the Fifties. Stair, 42, and de Waal, 33, who share a studio in Camberwell, south London, are the highly vocal leading edge of what amounts to a movement to legitimise tableware as art.

The concept of tableware as an artform for everyday use - though embedded in Japanese culture, and one of the unrealised ideals of Bernard Leach, grandfather of British studio pottery - is something new in the West. But it is catching on. Porcelain by Stair, de Waal and Constantinidis sells out whenever it is put on show. Ilse Crawford, editor of Elle Decoration, explains: "In the Nineties, the visual is no longer enough. With ceramics you come to love them by feeling them as well as looking at them."

The new mood means that tableware by Takeshi Yasuda, 55-year-old Japanese- born professor of Applied Arts at the University of Ulster, is coming into its own. Handling his creamy earthenware can be like having a conversation with it.

"Food is a wonderful analogy in introducing our art," says Yasuda. "Whereas fine art needs to be understood, food, like the pottery you eat it off, has to be experienced. Until now, potters sought to earn respect by identifying themselves with established reputations in the fine arts, the visual arts. But all we earned was neglect. Now, I think we have a fantastic future."

If that sounds like polemic, you should listen to Julian Stair, probably the most versatile thrower of porcelain tableware and an indefatigable writer and lecturer on tableware as a functional artform.

"Pots are too difficult for many fine artists to appreciate," he says, deprecatingly. "Just look at the conceptual art in Saatchi's Sensation show at the Royal Academy. It's banal.

"I chose to make tableware because I find the ideas interesting, and, frankly, radical. Visual art may be pre-occupied with the body, but tableware does that by default. To make a cup of tea, you brew, you pour, you put in milk, you drink. It engages the whole tactile dimension through our bodies. Isn't that time-based art? It's incredibly complex."

Stair points out that in the Twenties and Thirties, it was potters rather than fine artists who pioneered abstract forms. Potters and fine artists were exhibited together. Since then, pottery has lost ground. Stair is leading a charge in a different direction.

Retail stockists: Contemporary Ceramics, 7 Marshall Street, London W1 (0171-437 7605); Contemporary Applied Arts, 2 Percy Street, London W1 (0171-436 2344); Egg, 36 Kinnerton Street, London SW1(0171-235 9315)

Takeshi Yasuda

The creamware of Takeshi Yasuda (right) asks to be touched. Its plump and sensuous curves have a fluidity, as if still wet from the wheel, and his ornamental, foliate handles squeezed into rims feel, well, sexy.

"What do you do with your tea cup," he asks, "when you are deep in thought or perhaps just daydreaming? I know what I do. I explore and play with it. I trace the rim round and round with my fingers, I stroke the handle, fondle and caress the bowl. I lift up the cup and run my finger round the base. Or I simply cup the bowl with my two hands to feel the warmth of the tea. Usually, I am not aware of this. I hardly acknowledge I am doing it. And I wonder how much this unwillingness to acknowledge such tactile engagement is bound up with correctness of behaviour."

Correctness of behaviour worries him. Personal touching, he says, is seen as having to do with sex, power - and harrassment. So any kind of touching has become tabboo.

Like de Waal, Yasuda sometimes inserts a dimple in a vessel for fingers to play with. There is sometimes a subversive side to his designs that makes them "just a little dangerous" to use - his platters raised on legs have no rim, so food can fall off. His carving plates dip towards the centre but also lack rims. It's a game to coax the jaded sense of touch back into use. "I like the user of my pots to come up with an unexpected way of using them," he says. "I want them to enjoy their own creative participation."

Takeshi Yasuda (01225-334136). Prices: milk jug set, pounds 55-pounds 60; sauce boat, pounds 55-60; platters with handles, pounds 160 and pounds 240; bowls on foot, pounds 250 and pounds 280; bowl with handle pounds 280

Julian Stair

Like other students at Camberwell School of Art and the RCA in the Seventies, Julian Stair was taught to make ceramic sculpture, but decided that "plates are pretty fundamental" and devoted himself to his distinctive tableware - strong forms with minimal decoration. "People say my plates are heavy," he says, "but weight is part of the aesthetic. When I pick up an industrially made plate, it feels mean and insubstantial.

"I use porcelain not because I regard it as precious, or for its translucency, or to demonstrate my skill or charge higher prices. Apart from personal and probably quite irrational reasons, I like it for its whiteness, which is the fabric of the pot, and a perfect ground for colour. It vitrifies in the kiln, and the fusion of body and glaze gives a beautiful, physical integrity - it is a pleasure to eat and drink from."

Some of his shapes are reminiscent of French octagonal coffee cups and have the same hefty charm. "I'm not sure how I arrive at my shapes. I look at everything from Minoan pottery to Pyrex dishes."

Julian Stair (0171-701 2034). Prices: jugs pounds 60-pounds 90, according to size; dinner plates pounds 55; side plates pounds 35; bowls pounds 35

Edmund de Waal

Edmund de Waal's tall, blue-glazed lidded storage jars, slightly irregular in shape and with dents and Oriental-style impressed seals, have become sought-after acquisitions. Their style may be mannered to those of austere taste, but can also be more generously judged as a playful liberation from standard forms.

"There is a strong element of play in most making and use. Anyone who considers a cup to be no more than a machine for drinking should watch how it is turned in the user's hands, how a handle is used as a prop, how it carries consolatory warmth with it. This is a rich vein to mine. Sometimes handles are not needed. A small pourer or jar can be gently dented for a thumb to fit. Recently, I have started making small cups that just carry a vestigial fin to stop a thumb or for a hand to investigate quietly.

"But I don't think one should be evangelical about using hand-made things. That's a dead end. It's just too expensive and doesn't reflect the way we live. I think we can live with good studio pots and good factory wares side by side. Be like the Japanese. Nothing matches. Different courses are served in pots from different kilns, different makers."

On his kitchen shelves, de Waal has Stair espresso cups, Ethiopian plates and David Mellor factory plates. "My favourite word, these days," he says, "is hybridity."

Edmund de Waal (0171-701 2034). Prices: beaker, pounds 80; espresso cup and saucer, pounds 150; teapot, pounds 240

Joanna Constantinidis

Joanna Constantinidis is the pioneer of hand-thrown porcelain. Hers has the most simply refined shapes and the most exquisite finish. It is relatively inexpensive, compared with her individual pieces - which she would rather be making - but each piece is a product of the same intense and private process of mental preparation.

Constantinidis throws against a metal kidney-shaped blade, so that by the time the vessels are leather hard, their surface is smooth, as if machine made. "I use the clay much harder than anybody else I know," she says. "The throwing lines come to life again in firing. They are a sign of vitality. I value that."

Among her most characteristic individual pots are tall lustred stoneware vases with extended rims and leaning lustred stoneware bottles. "I do tableware as an alternative to individual work. I'm only doing tableware now because of forthcoming exhibitions. I get interested in it when I start, then I want to move off on to something else. It's too repetitive.

"I hate the idea of my pots being associated with food. I do like eating and drinking from them. I like their clear, clean-looking lines. But I don't like this cosy, domestic thing. I find it precious. As far as I'm concerned, food on plates is merely decoration. And I hate to think of chunks of steak and kidney pie going on mine. Perhaps I should sell only to vegans and vegetarians."

Joanna Constantinidis (01245 471842). Prices: cups and saucers (her most popular tableware), pounds 62 each; beakers, pounds 50; bowls, pounds 58; mugs, pounds 52; tilted mugs, pounds 60; dinner plates, pounds 70; serving dishes, pounds 300

Rupert Spira

Rupert Spira, aged 37, studied under Bernard Leach's No 1 pupil, Michael Cardew, at Wenford Bridge Pottery. But the stoneware he makes today at his farmhouse in Bishop's Castle, Shropshire, has none of the earthiness of the Leach tradition. It is sturdy without being chunky and is often brightly coloured - green, blue, red, copper.

True to his lack of sentiment for country ways, he makes dinner plates using a mechanical jigger and jolley. Some of the new wave of hand-throwers of tableware regard this as heresy, but he roundly defends it. "This area called crafts," he says, with a touch of vehemence, "still clings to the notion that whatever is hand-made must be better. It simply isn't true. Why cling to an outdated idea that was itself a reaction against industrialism? I'd rather eat from a jigger and jolley plate than a wobbly one made by hand." He began using the machine when a Japanese store in New York asked him for 100 extra-large 13in dinner plates. "It was too much. I was faced with losing the order. What I did felt completely natural. I've no qualms."

Rupert Spira (01588 650588). Standard prices: dinner plates, pounds 23.50; bowls, pounds 25-pounds 50; tea cup and saucer, pounds 50; mugs, pounds 30-pounds 35, beakers pounds 25-pounds 25, jugs pounds 25-pounds 40, teapots pounds 220-pounds 370

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