Design: That Seventies show

Forget your sleek tableware – Helen Brown previews an exhibition that will have you dusting off your retro cake stands

Sunday 18 September 2011 22:46

Mushroom cap-shaped pendant lights in buttery beige, sprinkled with fairy-dust perforations; windchimes of delicately strung blossoms in zen hues of chalk and charcoal; sedimentary hunks of teabowls glazed with cave-moss greens. The Geffrye Museum's sixth Ceramics in the City fair, on for three days this month, trumpets the return to chic urban homes of the natural, earthy tones and crafty forms first popularised in the Seventies.

In the wake of the emphasis on home-grown, home-cooked and local, organic, artisan-sourced foods, it was perhaps inevitable that we would eventually turn from the anonymously mass-produced ceramics of the past decade in search of new home and tablewares that reflect the Noughties' food and lifestyle philosophies. If you're going to make soup with wonkily unique vegetables from the local box scheme, why serve it in factory-produced bowls from China? Welcome back, then, to the Surbiton kitchen of Seventies sitcom The Good Life, and a glass of Tom's best pea wine served in something Margo squeezed together at night-school pottery class.

"The Seventies saw a renaissance in craft," says Professor Emmanuel Cooper OBE, potter and editor of Ceramics Review. "Although ceramics were still unfashionable in the fine-art world, there was a reaction against conceptual art and a hunger for skill. Groundbreaking ceramic artists like Liz Fritsch, Alison Britton and Jaqueline Poncelet looked to Picasso's hand-built work rather than work thrown on a wheel. They felt they could be freer, more expressive, and ceramic art gradually began to attract more critical acceptance and higher prices.

The movement coincided with the birth of the Crafts Council, or the Craft Advisory Committee as it was then. Craft was brought back into the lives of the middle classes. They discovered the joy of making something to use – all those night school jugs and teapots. It was social, too. People made connections at those pottery classes, which are under threat and closing down across the country because it costs more to run a pottery class than a computer classes. There are more health and safety issues. And the government wants people to get qualifications." But the retired schoolteacher or busy professional wants to attend a pottery class to relax, to make friends and pots, not to get 3.5 points towards a diploma.

If the middle classes no longer have the kiln access they enjoyed in the Seventies, they can still support the growing number of skilled artisans who do. Karen Bunting, founder of Ceramics in the City, says that the trend towards studio-made ceramics coincides with a popular rediscovery of craft. "People are knitting again and finding the soothing satisfaction of the handmade. Dressmaking is having a resurgence." She's keen to point out that visitors to the Geffrye Museum show will be able to watch objects being made and meet the artists. "I do believe that there is an essential difference between the handmade and the industrially manufactured object. Having an opportunity to watch a pot come into being provides an insight into the intimate relationship between the object and its maker."

Bunting also says that there has been a cultural shift in how ceramacists bill themselves. "Even as recently as five years ago, students leaving college would have defined themselves more as 'ceramic artists', but now many are proudly calling themselves functional ceramicists, turning to tableware and decorative crafts." The 45-ceramacist show features hand-thrown porcelain tableware by Daniel Smith, who describes his work as "honest" and "elegant", and stresses the unique weight of the handmade object and the pleasure of using it.

Elsewhere, visitors can relish boldly painted red earthenware oil-pourers by Irena Sibrijns, run their hands over zebra-esque fruit bowls by Ryujiro Oyabu, enjoy the simple domesticity of watery-glazed cake stands by Linda Bloomfield, and the gourd-shaped, lidded pots by the Japanese-born, Hackney-based Yo Thom that look exactly like the sort of thing my mother sprinkled about our suburban windowsills when I was a child in the late 1970s. Unlike the "look but don't touch, Sunday-best china" of their youth, my parents wanted their kids to be able to enjoy the tactility of tableware and ornaments.

As part of a generation that fetishes nostalgia and spends its evenings haunting eBay for childhood mementos, I was unsurprised to see the prices of original Seventies ceramics shooting up. On the retro-ceramics speciality website I found the reassuringly boggy tones and gloopy forms I'd been seeking, with items such as a Briglin swirl-pattern coffee pot going for around £40. "Briglin studios, set up in 1948 in London by Brigitte Appleby and Eileen Lewenstein, were incredibly fashionable in the Seventies, and famous for their rustic pottery and wax-resist glazes," says Harris. "Because Appleby had a long affair with the Hollywood actor Herbert Lom, the studio had hugely influential showbiz connections. Ginger Rogers and Peter Sellers threw pots there." Harris has seen an upsurge in interest in Seventies studio pottery. "People want that sense of almost muddy cragginess," she chuckles, "of crustiness and homely originality."

Bunting says that "whereas people are often intimidated when it comes to buying original paintings or sculpture, they're pleasantly confident when it comes to making decisions about functional ceramics. It's a world in which they feel comfortable in their own taste, in assessing what's suitable and desirable. It's also incredibly cheap. At Ceramics in the City, visitors will be able to pick up original pieces by up-and-coming artists for as little as £10-£15 for a small piece. Even the most expensive pieces are only priced around £300 to £500."

Fans of both the organic world and a good bargain should make a beeline for the delicate porcelain lamps of Brighton-based Amy Cooper, whose work is largely inspired by coastal life, as well as taking the natural themes of the Seventies into the 21st century with her emphasis on the microscopic biology of pollen, spores and seeds. Her work, recently featured in the V&A's surrealist exhibition, Surreal Things, is almost absurdly priced. Her beautifully pinpricked sea-urchin lamps are tagged from £50, and her luminous Pollen lamps from £60. You could stare at these for hours – the tactile tesselations of the pollen grain's glowing surface could be the tectonic plates of some distant, molten planet. In their infinitely more subtle and intricate way, they're the lava lamps of the new millennium.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments