Marie Peppercorn's ceramics derive their inspiration from avant- garde Fifties art.
Marie Peppercorn is one canny designer. Two years ago, while studying for her MA in Ceramic Design for Production in Stoke-on-Trent, her antennae were finely tuned to the latest consumer trends. "Interiors then were becoming as trendy as fashion. People were starting to spend as much on their homes as on their clothes, and this gave me the idea to decorate my ceramics with furniture motifs," she explains.

In another shrewd move, Lancashire-born Peppercorn chose to concentrate on Fifties furniture motifs. If interiors are hip, then Fifties retro is at the height of Nineties' nest-building chic. To say nothing of the auction houses' thirst for flogging classic Fifties furniture and the recent proliferation of hefty coffee-table tomes on the subject, including Contemporary - Architecture and Interiors of the 1950s, by Lesley Jackson. "You can't pick up an interiors magazine without seeing a piece of furniture by Charles and Ray Eames or one of their contemporaries," says Peppercorn.

Previously a model, Peppercorn started her current career with a BA in Printmaking at the University of Central Lancashire. "My work was pattern- orientated and suited to 3D surfaces, so it was a natural progression to go on to do an MA in Ceramics," she says.

Yet she found the transition difficult: "A lot of people on my course had done ceramics for three years. All I'd made was a slab pot on a B- Tech course." But Peppercorn soon caught up, thanks to a work placement she did at Wedgewood in the potteries centre of Stoke On Trent.

Today, she has her own studio in Stoke, where there is no shortage of good suppliers for her raw materials. The switch to ceramics has more than paid off, and Peppercorn has had a busy year. In July, she was bombarded with enquiries and orders after showing at the New Designers In Business exhibition at Islington Design Centre and, earlier this month, her retro- chic ceramics featured in an exhibition at Mission, the hip west-London gallery.

Her dainty chair motifs, wiggly grids and softly geometric patterns are primarily reminiscent of fine art, so it comes as no surprise that Peppercorn lists such abstract expressionist painters as Mark Rothko and William de Kooning as strong influences. "My ceramics provide a canvas for my designs," she says and, appropriately, she produces "coupe" plates, with no rim, which are "more decorative than functional". "The idea came from the flat plates people hung on their walls in the Fifties," she says. "As wall-hung pieces, they're like an extension of my etchings - although they can be used to eat off, too."

Most of her work is produced as limited editions, because she believes that people are going off mass-produced products. "In the Eighties and early Nineties, people wanted a very slick finish, but now they're after more original pieces."

Arty perhaps, but Peppercorn is no besmocked, clay-under-the-fingernails potter: she doesn't hand-throw her ceramics, but uses moulds. What really excites her is how her earthenware vases or bone- china plates and cups and saucers are decorated and what colours they come in. For her basic glaze, Peppercorn sticks to five colours: white, lemon, aqua, mauve (a purplish hue) and lilac (more pinkish). But her motifs and patterns come in all shades - from autumnal greens to fiery magentas. Motifs are translated on to a silkscreen and screenprinted, using hand-mixed enamels and oxides. The transfers are collaged on to her ceramics and fired.

Some people have put it to pattern-happy Peppercorn that she should be a graphic designer. But she replies: "If I was, I'd be just another graphic designer, but because my ceramics incorporate graphic designs, they look different."

Peppercorn's zesty, Fifties-with-a-Nineties twist designs might look frivolous to some, but her ideas are culled from a sophisticated knowledge of avant-garde postwar design. Motifs include the Eames duo's LCW Lounge Chair, Hans Wegner's Butterfly Chair and Verner Panton's S Chair. Inspiration is also drawn from Lancashire-based firm, David Whitehead. Part of the euphoric enthusiasm for modernism in the postwar years, this experimental company employed artists such as John Piper and Henry Moore to design textiles and ceramics.

Peppercorn's own designs, however, hark back to the classic Fifties Homemaker tableware range, which came scattered with graphic illustrations of classic Fifties furniture by designers such as Robin Day.

Thanks to her clear sense of colour, Peppercorn's tableware can be harmoniously mixed and matched, and it is also reasonably priced. Clean-lined, quirkily decorated cups and saucers cost from pounds 10, coupe plates and ashtrays range from pounds 15 to pounds 18, while prices for her intricately patterned, more labour- intensive, vases vary according to how much work has gone into them. Predominantly magenta pieces are more expensive, she says, because reddish glazes are gold-based.

Ceramics are all the rage now, and pieces by popular new designers such as Peppercorn don't normally come cheap. Marie Peppercorn is currently exhibiting 40 of her pieces at "A Contemporary Christmas", a group show at The Charleston Gallery in East Sussex, which opened this month. You will also be able to see her work from 20 November, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and at "Ceramics Contemporaries Three", a touring exhibition which kicks off at the Royal College of Art in February.

Her work has appeared in magazines such as Marie Claire and Living Etc., and Nieman Marcus in New York is interested in including Peppercorn's work in a retrospective exhibition of 20th-century furniture to mark the new millennium. Now is the time to buy, it would seem - before the secret gets out.

Marie Peppercorn is currently seeking sponsorship. Anyone interested in backing her or wishing to buy ceramics directly can contact her on 01782 848805

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