Hubert Burda Media

Why ceramics have us all fired up

A new generation of ceramicists is reinvigorating that ancient medium. We talk to four from around the world.

Ben Medansky in his Los Angeles studio

Ben Medansky

“I grew up always playing with silly putty and making mud pies with the desert dirt in Arizona,” ceramicist Ben Medansky remembers. “That early exposure influenced my deep connection and attraction to working with malleable materials, and during high school I was introduced to more permanent materials like ceramic.”

Medansky is now based in Los Angeles, where he runs his eponymous brand with a team of five.In his downtown studio he makes everything from abstract sculptures (which are often inspired by architecture) to bowls and mugs. “Half of my work is functional and the other half sculptural,” Medansky explains. “I think it’s important for users to enjoy the piece any waythey choose. If the piece is more traditionally functional, then I love to hear of people using it for everyday use. But if they prefer to enjoy the piece as an art object on a shelf, I respect that too. Ceramics are an interesting place where design and art can meet.”

All of Medansky’s ceramics (even the mugs) are made individually on a potter’s wheel and feature a selection of the same subdued colours. “I like to use a limited colour palette in order to draw attention to shape, rather than hiding my work with a bunch of ugly glazes,” Medansky says. “I’m really excited about the new series of structural pieces I’ve just completed. The work is part of my ongoing exploration of aesthetics employed by the industrial world. Influence for these pieces comes from objects such as posts, filters, air vents, shower drains and aerospace parts.” 

Medansky’s varied practice earned him the attention of The New York Times, who dubbed him one of four American “new ceramicists”. Gwyneth Paltrow is also a fan and recommends his work on her blog, Goop.

Middle Kingdom

A selection of Middle Kingdom ceramics. Photo: Bo Jia

Neither Bo Jia nor Alison Alten, the husband-and-wife team behind porcelain brand Middle Kingdom, ever formally studied ceramics.Instead, as Alten explains, “we embarked on creating a new brand from China that would represent the  best of traditional skill with a modern interpretation. And one material that could not be misinterpreted as appropriation from any other culture was porcelain.” 

That dream led the couple to founding Middle Kingdom and establishing a kiln in Jingdezhen, a provincial town colloquially known as China’s “porcelain capital”. Alten and Jia now design everything from small, brightly coloured bowls to large, curvaceous vases – all of which draw upon ancient Chinese aesthetics and manufacturing techniques. “Our design inspiration comes from the purest expressions of ceramic artistry from the Song and Ming dynasties,” Alten says. “We feel we’re creating modern examples in this great tradition, updating the family tree with modern colour interpretation as well as with our own design input.” 

One of Middle Kingdom’s most talked-about collections is the Bottle Vase range, a series of porcelain recreations of cheap plastic bottles that would normally contain washing-up liquid or other cleaning products, which was created in collaboration with Dutch artist Foekje Fleur van Duin. “[She] came to China to look for a production partner and very fortuitously shared a taxi with Bo,” Alten remembers. “We hadn’t yet collaborated with a guest artist, but Bo recognised in Foekje the same creative and perfectionist drive and proposed that we could be collaborators.”

Middle Kingdom’s ceramics have appeared in the pages of Vogue and Architectural Digest, and they’re also in the collections of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. If you fancy some for your own home, Middle Kingdom vases are available at Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. 

Keramiker Inge Vincents

Inge Vincents. Photo: Boasson Photography

Copenhagen-based designer Inge Vincents has ceramics in her blood. “I’ve played with clay since I was five years old,” she reveals. “The material just immediately appealed to me. My grandfather was an accomplished hobby sculptor, and my mother also loved clay, so it runs in the family.” 

That childhood interest became a career for Vincents, who has made a name for herself with her minimalist, paper-thin cups, bowls and vases. Some of these are designed to resemble crumpled bags, and others are so thin thatthey’re translucent – making them perfect tealight
holders. 

Although her ceramics look incredibly delicate, Vincents hopes they play a part in her customers’ daily lives. “Pieces that are used are seen and touched more,” she ponders. “It somehow makes sense to me to make functional pieces, perhaps because it connects to my practical side. It also allows me to use a broader range of skills.”

Each of Vincents’ pieces – from the smallest tea-light holder to the biggest bowl – are made by hand without the help of moulds. These unique ceramics can be shipped all around the world, but true fans make the trip to her shop and studio space in the Danish capital’s trendy Nørrebro neighbourhood. 

“I enjoy being in very close contact with my customers, discussing my work with them, hearing their comments,” Vincents explains. “It’s probably not for everyone to have people right in the middle of their production, but I like the social aspect and would not thrive alone in a shed in the countryside.”

But, she adds, “If you’re coming from far away,please call in advance to make sure the studio shop is not closed!”

A selection of Xie Dong's ceramics

A selection of Xie Dong's ceramics

Xie Dong

“Flowing, floating, weightless,shapeless” are the four words that Xie Dong uses to describe her work. The Beijing-based ceramicist works only with bone china, which she uses to make elegant tableware and lighting inspired by air, light and water. 

Xie works on four main collections, all of which are equally ethereal. She started the first of these, which she calls Wrinkle, after she was mesmerised by the reflection of light off a metallic chocolate wrapper that she left in the sunlight. “I suddenly realised how beautiful the wrinkles were on the little sheet of tinfoil reflecting the light. I wanted to preserve its beauty, to keep it forever,” she remembers.

Xie’s ambitions have grown since those early days and with her Flowing Water collection she hopes to achieve just that: the seemingly impossible task of capturing the appearance of flowing water in a series of vases. Even if the final products don’t quite look like running water, they do look as if they’ve been shaped by it – a little like shells on a beach.

Xie’s milky-white creations are stocked by Lane Crawford in Hong Kong and in design stores around the world. Her work also caught the attention of fashion designer Kym Ellery, who designed a capsule collection for Lane Crawford that was partly inspired by Xie’s ceramics.