Design Notes Archive

Functional Ceramics

Functional Ceramics

Last month we found ourselves immersed in London Craft Week as more than 750 exhibitors displayed their wares in venues across the city. If ever there was an excuse to step away from the office for a few hours, this was it! Being surrounded by so much creativity got us to thinking about ceramics in all its myriad applications. Beyond tiles and tableware, makers around the globe are using the medium to craft fixtures and furnishings that bare a uniquely artisanal quality.


Canadian ceramicist Jordan McDonald discovered this firsthand, while studying illustration at Sheridan College in Ontario. “Going from one class to another, I would cut through the Crafts building. As I was walking through the long hallway, I would see everyone from the Crafts & Design program eating lunch off these fabulous handmade pots and sitting on these cool handmade benches in the hallway and it just seemed way more interesting. That’s what got me into ceramics,” he says. Today McDonald is based in the US, in Philadelphia, and makes a medley of functional objects for the home, including architectural fixtures like ceramic door pulls, wall lights, soap dishes and even a bespoke sink for a local designer’s powder room. We are particularly enchanted with his ceramic framed mirrors, left, which begin as tubes of clay pressed through a hopper (think a Play-Doh shape maker for grown-ups). You’ll find a selection of plain and embellished versions on McDonald’s website in colours inspired by historical lead glazes (but not lead themselves of course). He’s happy to take custom orders, including larger sizes (the largest thus far has been about 109cm). 

Creating ceramic furnishings was a natural progression for English multihyphenate Anna Karlin, who decamped for New York and took up product design after working in set design and creative direction in London. “It’s how I see furniture and lighting, as pieces of usable sculpture in a room,” she says. Among her many projects, she’s currently working on bespoke ceramic pieces for various clients including bedside tables, cabinets, and a bar—all of which build on a kind of common visual language. “I see it as my alphabet, it's a series of glyphs that start off as sculptures and then sort of work their way into the work in different ways,” she says. Take the drinks cabinet Karlin released last fall, centre. It’s columnal shape and tile-clad exterior were inspired by traditional Swedish stoves, called kakelugnar, but she embellished the tiles with her signature glyphs, heightening the cabinet’s sculptural quality. Inside, cerused oak shelves and antique nickel rails are designed to keep glasses and bottles in place—though being handcrafted, the entire piece can be customised for alternate uses.

You could say New Zealand-born, Australia-based ceramicist Ben Mazey embraced the idea of functional ceramics out of a confluence of need and opportunity. Having spent 15 years as a fashion designer, Mazey found himself in Melbourne at a crossroads during the early days of the pandemic. “I wasn't working, had no furniture as all my stuff was still in Shanghai, where I had been living. I decided to treat it as some sort of self-directed artistic residency and set out to make stuff to furnish the apartment,” he says, having ordered a take-home clay kit from Ceramiques to get started. (Like many businesses during that period, they were pivoting to drop off/pick up projects to keep finances—and creativity—flowing). For Mazey, he was also giving himself a chance to live out an alternate version of a childhood fantasy, where’d he arrive clothes-less at a country house to find sewing machines “and heaps of fabric” and be able to just make whatever he wanted to wear. These ceramic table lamps, right, are a result of that DIY decorating endeavor and boast a charming cartoon-like quality that Mazey loves. “It's a very ubiquitous lamp shape, almost as if a child drew it,” he says. The collection includes solid coloured and trompe l’oeil pieces in striking hues. “I have a deep love of using one colour at a time, but I'm pretty loose in what that colour is. Things like Dansaekhwa [a Korean monochromatic art movement], and how Le Corbusier or Ellsworth Kelly would be very intentional with their blocks of colour, have emotionally resonated with me for years,” he says.  Next on his fantasy list? Creating an enormous ceramic fountain should a commission ever present itself. In addition to his own pieces, there are collaborations afoot, stemming from his first with Mal Wood Foundry on a ceramic, iron, and bronze console table. And a new solo exhibition of his artwork at C. Gallery in Melbourne opens 25 July.

Speaking of galleries, should you find yourself in Kensington, do pop into 8 Holland Street, one of our favourite design curators in London. They’re currently hosting an exhibition of sculptural ceramic lamps by Nicola Tassie that’s a must-see (on view through 25 June). We also love the restrained stoneware Sugar Cone pendant lights by ceramicist Rich Miller through The New Craftsmen; and absolutely everything at Spartan Shop in Portland, Oregon—just type 'ceramic' into the search bar and you'll find stools, lamps, and tables by the likes of Danny Kaplan, B Zippy, Re Jin Lee, and more. Online purveyor Atelier LK is also brilliant, and full circle, they have a few side tables by Jordan McDonald.

Photos: Jordan McDonald, Johnny Miller courtesy Anna Karlin Studio; Ben Mazey