Object Factory at the Museum of Arts and Design

Crafts Magazine, July/August 2009, Review

As the digital world continues to invade our everyday, it’s made itself more friendly by adopting the aesthetics of the old world. So our computers let us delete files by throwing them in the paperbin, our software offers us scissors to cut with and brushes to paint with and our state-of-the-art mobiles can be made to sound like old bell-ring telephones. One of the cuter new-as-old designs is the plastic music cassette that opens up to reveal a USB memory stick, a harking back to the days of the mixtape with all its romantic connotations.

There’s a nostalgic USB stick in the latest show at MAD, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. This one, by designers Insa Doan and Cora Gebauer for Mokkatanten, not only comes in a doily-lined tin with a knitted cover in teacosy colours, it’s also made of porcelain.

In recent years, the ailing ceramic factories have been bringing in new designers, often from different mediums, to revamp their collections, and to put just this sort of modern spin on an ancient material. To move away from the pink rosebud tea sets and mantelpiece figurines, to broaden their appeal and avoid the fate of firms like beleaguered Waterford Wedgwood.

In Object Factory, MAD explores this trend, taking in the work of goldsmith and jeweller Ted Muehling for Nymphenburg, of Marcel Wanders, Jurgen Bey and Studio Job for The Royal Tichelaar factory in Makkum Holland and of Peter Schmidt for Arzberg Porzellan. As well as injecting long-established firms with a fresh aesthetic, these designers have also brought with them a knowledge and excitement about new technologies and manufacturing techniques.

Describing the show as a survey of contemporary ceramics, curator Marek Cecula – a ceramic artist whose own work appears in the show – has also included a related collection: the work of independent artists manipulating factory-made ceramics to create one-off pieces.

Although the show’s two strands come at the problem from different directions, what they share is an eschewing of the studio tradition, pioneered by the likes of Bernard Leach in the ‘60s with its doctrine of the hand-made and its rejection of mass production.

That Object Factory explores this position is no accident.  In 2002 the museum dropped its previous identity, American Craft Museum in New York, which had become weighed down with associations with amateur quilt-makers and basket-weavers, and changed its name to The Museum of Arts and Design. As its chief curator David McFadden, in a marvelous example of marketing doublespeak explains, they were attempting to re-appropriate the word “craft” by distancing themselves from it.

MAD is now trying to carve out a place for itself as the champion for what it sees as a more vital creative space – the intersection between art, craft and design. Object Factory is only the second show in MAD’s recently completed, bespoke exhibition space in Manhattan’s Upper West Side and as such speaks loudly of this new mission.

The show begins with Altered States: artists’ deconstruction and reinvention of traditional factory ceramics. There are lots of plays on Willow and the other classic blue patterns. Burning cows and traffic jams are the subjects for Paul Scott’s modern English pastorals on his plates entitled Foot and Mouth and After the By-Pass. Caroline Slotte has cut into the landscape patterns on second-hand plates leaving on one a windmill, another clouds, another a ring of flowers and piled them on top of one another to create delicately beautiful 3-D scenes like an old-fashioned model theatre.

With Hidden Wealth, Khashayar Naimanann has designed an upside down dinner service which takes the manufacturers stamp – on any piece of factory ceramic its seal of authenticity and key to its value – and placed it on the top of the plates, putting the patterns underneath. It’s charming, but does rely on a glass dining table with a mirror shelf beneath to see the patterns and get the joke.

There’s any number of variations on these themes of recombination, distortion and reappraisal. Many are surprising, witty or pleasing, like Kjell Rylanders cluster of broken cups reassembled into a single vessel, or Cecula’s standard factory pieces made unique but also dysfunctional by wetting sections of the clay before firing to create holes and other imperfections. Others though, feel a little obvious, a little repetitive and hardly ground-breaking.

In Collaborations, the show moves on to commissioned designs for leading ceramic manufacturers. Among the more successful are a Karim Rashid tea set and Guilio Iacchetti’s lemon squeezer shaped like St Peter’s, Rome. (The juice represents the people gathering in the square, we’re told, the pith on the dome is the papacy). Ionna Vautrin and Guillaume Delvigne’s Panier Perce would be any young girl’s dream. It’s a simple porcelain pot, pierced with a grid of small holes to act like an embroidery cloth and comes with coloured wool and needle.

But the final section, New Technologies is where the really fun stuff is. It’s where clay is put to high tech purpose. Tristan Zimmermann’s Phonofone II, an earthenware Ipod dock and speaker system shaped like an old-fashioned phonogram, promises to become a modern classic.  Ami Drach and Dov Ganchrow’s +/- Hot Plate, a series of porcelain plates printed with conductive metal that when plugged into the mains heats the plates, is likely to be much copied.

Some are inspired by the latest manufacturing methods, but still rely on traditional skills, like Tavs Jorgensen’s Contour Bowls created through a combination of rapid prototyping and hand building. While others simply draw on the aesthetic of digital technologies. Guillaume Delvigne’s porcelain lamps in pixelated relief patterns come in three versions, the most extreme called 72dpi, the more intricate 144dpi and the perfectly smooth, 300dpi.

At times, the use of porcelain can feel gimmicky; Dutch designer Dick Van Hoff’s brown retro desk lamp is clay pretending to be bakelite. But at others, delightfully surprising. Who would have thought twice-fired ceramic, in this case zirconium oxide, would not just be strong enough for a knife blade but twice as hard as steel. Where the use of ceramic also makes perfect sense is as an insulator. Porcelain, of course, has been used in telephone wires for years so how sensible to apply it to a toaster or a kettle.

But for all this techno wizardry and ironic reappraisal, best in show goes to British artist Barnaby Barford for his Global Service – a set of plates that appear as softly coloured abstract patterns when seen on their own but when laid out together form a map of the world. It may not be saying anything radically new about the intersection of art, craft and design but if the ceramic factories are looking to stay afloat it will be beautiful, modern designs like those that will save them.