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The Artists and Stories Behind Handmade Ceramic Artwork

When I started Emilia Ceramics (eight years ago!) my motivation was to discover amazing artists handcrafting beautiful work. While that goal is still important to me, I’ve also developed a strong attachment to the handmade ceramic artwork itself. I love to find original pieces that are useful, but also have a rich story to tell.

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That’s why each piece in the Emilia Ceramics collection is handmade and hand-painted by an individual artist with his/her personal influences and motivation. The added benefit of the piece’s handmade origins is that it carries with it a rich tradition of the culture and history from which it comes.

The origin of each piece says a lot about it: Ceramic techniques differ from one country to another, as do the mindsets of the artists making them. They craft their work with specific cultural uses in mind and they approach the business of making and selling ceramics in unique ways.

Cultural & Historical Uses:

I sell a number of products that are very specific to the cultural traditions that have inspired them (whether or not they’re actually used in the way intended). The most popular of these are ceramic jars (whether called urns, ginger jars, or canisters), made up of pieces from Italy, Spain, France, and Mexico. Our Italian jars are probably the closest to resembling their true “ginger jar” functionality, i.e. using these jars to keep spices and other ingredients. However, the Italian canisters are also the most colorful and detailed in their glazing, making them seem more likely to be used as beautiful decorations for the kitchen than actual spice holders.
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Above: Rinascimentale Canisters by Ceramiche Bartoloni >>

italian_fruit_canisterAbove: Frutta Venezia Canister by Ceramiche Bartoloni >>

From the Spanish artists at Ceramica Valenciana, we have a few unique canisters that really speak to their cultural origins. The “Ajos” Canister (for keeping garlic) is 5.75″ wide x 8.5″ tall. That is A LOT of garlic! Only Spanish people (and maybe Italians) use that much garlic. Another canister by Ceramica Valenciana that I love is the Garbanzos Canister. Of course you don’t have to use this canister for garbanzo beans, but it’s fun to imagine that at some point in Spanish history a jar filled with garbanzos was quite normal and/or needed.

black_and_white_canisterAbove: Ajos Garlic Keeper Canister by Ceramica Valenciana >>


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Above: Garbanzos Canister by Ceramica Valenciana >>

The most popular ginger jars in our collection are made in Mexico. On the Emilia Ceramics website we call these tibores because that’s what they’re called in Mexico. People ask me all the time what these are used for. I really don’t know if Mexicans ever really used them for anything. (If you do know about a use, please let me know!) As far as I can tell, their size, shape, and festive glazes make them perfect for decorating the home and patio. They have been adapted to make beautiful lamps, but a tibor on its own makes a great statement in any style of home.

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Above: Dolores Tibor by Talavera Vazquez >>

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Above: Small Black Striped Tibor by Talavera Vazquez >>

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Above: Black ZigZag Ginger Jar Lamp, by Talavera Vazquez >>

Cultural & Individual Business Practices

As I’ve worked to discover the most talented artists in Italy, France, Spain, and Mexico, I’ve encountered a variety of personalities and had to vary my business expectations constantly. The challenges of working with artists from such different backgrounds can be frustrating, but they are also a part of the job that I love and would never want to avoid. They demonstrate the humanity behind each work of art in the Emilia Ceramics collection. Not only are our products handmade, they’re also crafted and brought to life by real people who all have different values, goals, and artistic ways of life.

To read more about my business adventures with specific artists, check out the following blog posts I wrote while traveling:

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My first visit to Richard Esteban (pictured on the left) in Aigues-Vives, France >>

A visit with Sylvie Duriez in Pertuis, France in 2011 >>

The most recent addition to the Emilia Ceramics’ collection: Gialletti Giulio in Deruta, Italy >>

A memorable visit with Talavera Vazquez in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico >>

Behind the Scenes with Gorky Gonzalez in Guanajuato, Mexico >>

A visit to Ceramica Valenciana in Manises, Spain (right outside Valencia) >>

La Dolce Vita: A Visit to both Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia and Bartoloni in Montelupo-Fiorentino, Italy >>

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The Real Deal: How to Find Authentic Deruta and Spot Fakes

Deruta ceramics are justly famous. Their rich colors and intricate patterns also make this Italian ceramic style one of the most copied. Today seemingly every store sells Deruta and Italian style dinnerware, but most of it is not actually from Italy. So how can you avoid fake Deruta and get the real stuff?

Deruta ceramics

Buy handmade Italian ceramics

Many of the “Deruta-inspired” ceramics are labeled as such, but not all. Of course there are plenty of beautiful Italian handmade ceramics from other regions than Deruta. If a piece hasn’t been made by hand, it isn’t real Deruta majolica. Price can be an obvious give-away. If the price of a platter or pitcher seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Look for the mark

Genuine handmade Deruta should have a maker’s signature on the bottom of the piece, whether it was made this year or in the 1500s. This mark will often say the country of origin along with the name of the studio. Some pieces will even have the artist’s name or initials.

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Check out the glaze

Authentic handpainted ceramics have an unglazed foot at the bottom. This ring will look and feel slightly rough to the touch, like in the photo above. If a ceramic is completely glazed, including the foot, it’s likely been painted by a machine. Handpainted glaze will also have slight variations in thickness that you can feel.

Learn about pattern types

Deruta majolica has a fair number of named, traditional patterns. Some standouts: Raffaellesco (look for the dragon), Galletto (look for the rooster), Arabesco (inspired by Persian calligraphy), and Ricco Deruta (based on stylized wheat-shafts and scrolls used by early Romans).

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All are characterized by intricate details and rich colors. Deruta artists also create their own pattern variations, making for lots of options (sometimes too many!). Get familiar with what’s available, then mix and match to your heart’s content.

Find the brushstrokes and crazing

Even the most experienced artists have visible brushstrokes on their ceramics. Deruta’s intricate patterns can make these a little hard to see, but any large section of color will have visible variations. You’ll also likely see slight variations in the pattern from piece to piece. Any older Italian majolica ceramics will have crazing, little hairlines in the glaze, a natural result of the aging process. Be suspicious of anything that looks too perfect.

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Ask about the artists

Deruta’s artists made the region famous for majolica in the 1600s. If you can find out about the studio where the ceramics were made, you’ll be less likely to end up with something manufactured on an assembly line elsewhere.

 

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Can History Explain the Popularity of Italian Ceramics?

Deruta patterns

Italian ceramics are incredibly complex and time-intensive, especially the task of hand-painting, which is a precise skill that allows for no errors. So how has majolica been a ceramic favorite for over 500 years? Maybe looking at history will explain it all.

Italian ceramics waiting to be glazed

Before Italian Ceramics

The majolica process originated in Mesopotamia during the 9th century, though the white tin-glaze process wasn’t yet known by this name. Both practical and beautiful, the process traveled along major trade routes in these early centuries. The Moors brought majolica techniques with them to Spain and from there they made their way to Italy, usually by way of the port in Majorca (thus gaining their name).

Italian Ceramic Artists

Italian ceramic artist

In Italy, the conditions turned out to be perfect for the craft and Italian majolica pottery quickly took off. Faenza, Deruta, and Montelupo-Fiorentino all become production centers due to their location, natural resources, and talented artists. Italian ceramics proved extremely functional as both storage vessels and tableware — In fact, ceramic tableware actually changed Renaissance eating habits as people shifted from eating off common platters to using individual ceramic dishes! Among aristocrats, Italian style dinnerware becomes a sturdier alternative to porcelain and other more fragile ceramics.

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Beyond Italy: Majolica Around the World

Of course, majolica didn’t just get made in Italy during the Renaissance. Important Spanish and Portuguese ceramic centers were also in high demand. In the 19th century the technique became the basis of Wedgwood and other companies which manufactured in the United States and Britain. Meanwhile, Central American ceramics also adopted and adapted the technique, fusing it with traditional designs that are still in use today.

Technique and Talent

The five step majolica process hasn’t changed much, which is perhaps why it remains so popular. Artists have passed the traditions and techniques down through the generations: just look at historic examples of Italian ceramics next to contemporary creations. Ornate Deruta patterns make for hand painted dinner plates that truly stand out. Tuscan cheer endues pitchers and serving platters. Looking at the end results, I feel like Italian ceramic artists will be making beautiful ceramics for generations to come, no matter how arduous the process seems to an outside observer.

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Historic majolica image from Maiolica, Delft and Faïence by Giuseppe Scavizzi.

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What’s the Secret Technique for Hand Painted Italian Ceramics?

Italian ceramic artist
The intricate designs of hand painted Italian ceramics take hours of work that can be ruined with a single misplaced brush stroke. Whenever I visit ceramic artists in Italy, I always take some time to just watch the master painters at work; it’s simply mesmerizing. So how do they do it?

Painting is the fourth step in majolica’s five-step process (after shaping, the first firing, and dip glazing the piece in a white, fast-drying mineral oxide glaze). No matter how intricate the design, all this hand-painting is done freehand. That’s right: No pattern, no tracing. There is usually a pattern or example for the artist to follow, particularly for traditional patterns. But some artists have been painting the patterns all their lives and don’t even need an example to follow.

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One major challenge of hand painted Italian ceramics is the medium itself. The glazes are all soft, white-ish pastels that change into deep vibrant colors after firing. Shades can be difficult to distinguish, so an artist needs to keep track of what color goes where. Look at the incredible number of colors highly-detailed Italian ceramics require; this is definitely a task that requires lots of practice and a systematic approach.

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Often an artist will do a number of pieces with the same design at once, allowing them to get into a groove of lemons or roosters or flowers (see photo above of Gabrielle the head painter at Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia). But since glaze color and depth vary where brush strokes overlap, no two pieces will ever be exactly alike. (Thank goodness!)

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The istoriato style, made popular in the Renaissance, is an extreme example of how detailed hand painted Italian ceramics can be. These ceramics look like paintings and literally tell a story (like on the Harlequin Plate above). The level of detail continues in the Deruta region, where Italian hand painted ceramics are characterized by intricate, jewel-like designs (like the stacked Raffaellesco plates below). I can only imagine how long it takes an artist to get all those colors and details exactly right!

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So I guess the secret of hand painted Italian ceramics isn’t really a secret after all. Instead it takes dedication, practice, and plenty of repetition to bring these beautiful, functional works of art to life. And looking at the results, I’m certainly glad there are still artists who continue this tradition so that we can enjoy these Italian ceramics today and well into the future.

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Your Favorite Ginger Jars From Around the World

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Ginger jars are a global favorite. Stylish and stunning, they remain a perpetual favorite with Emilia Ceramics customers around the world. Here are some of your (and our!) favorite ginger jars.

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Mexican Ginger Jars

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These tibores combine classic Mexican style with a contemporary twist. People love black and white ginger jars from Talavera Vazquez, whether they feature chevron designs, stripes, or the intricate floral pattern of the Hidalgo tibor. Blue and white ginger jars are another popular category; I particularly love the small chevron tibor from this part of the collection.

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Gorky Gonzalez ginger jars have a different vibe, with a rounder shape and delicate handle detailing. The layered motif of this ginger jar has a distinctly tropical feel, perfect for casual decor.

Italian Ginger Jars

What is the line between canister and ginger jar? I think it has to do with the curve of the vessel’s sides; a canister tends to be straight on the sides, a ginger jar curved. But there are always exceptions to prove the rule. Take this gorgeous vasetto di zenzero from Ceramiche Bartoloni. Used as a vase, shelf decoration, or to hold your stash of ginger, it’s a stunning example of ceramic fusion gone right.

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Spanish Ginger Jars

A recent addition to the collection, this búcaro by Ceramica Valenciana is deceptively simple. People can’t seem get enough of its pure white glaze or graceful lines, let alone its three curving handles. It’s one of my new personal favorites too.

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Where do your favorite ginger jars come from?

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French Ceramics from Kiln to Table

Provence countryside France

Farm to table dining showcases the best tastes of the season, whether vine-ripe tomatoes or hearty greens. But in Provence, farm to table doesn’t just apply to food – just look at French ceramics! Rustic plates and dishware perfectly match local flavors, combining effortless French chic with a homegrown vibe.

Take Richard Esteban‘s tableware sets. His plates and bowls are a playful mix of motifs and patterns. Stripes, polka dots, animals, even race cars! I fell in love with these plates and bowls when dining with Richard and his family in France. Their outdoor table is typical; al fresco dining is de rigueur for the area when the weather is warm enough. I particularly loved the roaring outdoor fire and the sprawling tree that kept the table shady and cool on even the hottest days.

Outdoor dining at Aigues-Vives Provence

Richard Esteban plates and bowls

   Richard Esteban pottery

Like his farmer neighbors, Richard works with the land – though in his case, he harvests clay, not vegetables. This rich red clay body only shows on the bottom of his plates and bowls, though it’s the shining star of his new wine bottle holder. The vibrant mineral glazes also embody Richard and his team’s “kiln to table” philosophy, resulting in natural tones that are the perfect compliment to Provence’s rich, green countryside. The butter yellow base color for most of his plates makes these French ceramics easy to mix and match. Stack stripes with polka dots or mottos like vive le bon vin (long live good wine); the results are just as relaxed as Richard’s home and studio.

Richard Esteban pottery

Arnaud makes French ceramics

The rustic elegance of Richard Esteban’s French ceramics holds a certain je ne sais quoi that I think is uniquely French. Mix and match some decorative dinner plates, pour a bottle of wine in to a pitcher, slice up a baguette – see, you’re almost there yourself! Now enjoy a delicious meal, lingering to chat long after the food is finished for your very own Provence-inspired moment. Bon appétit!

French ceramic bowl

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Deruta Plates: Italian Dinnerware at Its Finest

Deruta has been famous for centuries and after a quick look at its ceramics (both old and new), it’s easy to see why. One of Italy’s largest ceramic production areas, there are more than 300 ceramic workshops in Deruta today. Just as with other historical ceramic centers in Italy, modern Deruta is home to a mix of traditional artists still crafting everything by hand and those now mass producing their work. What’s wonderful about Deruta in particular is that it’s still possible to visit the artists who are following the old ways, in their studios. I’ve visited many artists there over the years while looking for the perfect fit for the Emilia Ceramics collection. Finding the Gialletti family-run studio took a long time, but was definitely worth the effort.

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Ceramics have been made in Deruta since the 14th century. Classic patterns such as Raffaellesco, Arabesco, and Gallo Verde harken back to its Renaissance peak, with each piece of Italian dinnerware painted by hand. Artists train under masters for years, perfecting their technique since majolica is a completely unforgiving medium. You can’t erase the glaze if you paint outside of the pattern. With all those intricate details, I always hold my breath when watching the artists at work. I’m afraid if I make a noise I’ll ruin everything!

Deruta Italian dinnerware
Italian dinnerware

This video by Geribi underlines the epic nature of Deruta as well as shows examples of its long history. Some of the fragments look much like pieces made by Ceramiche Gialletti Giulio, which is quite amazing.

Want more Deruta? Check out the area’s history and incredible Italian dinnerware to see for yourself why so many people are just a little obsessed. Pinterest is also full of beautiful Deruta, though it’s a mix of authentic, handpainted pieces and imitation designs that have been mass-produced. With all these beautiful pieces of Italian dinnerware, I’m sure that Deruta will remain loved for centuries to come.

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Loving Sylvie Duriez!

I recently sent out a newsletter (what?! you don’t get our newsletter? Sign up here) entitled: “Unique is French for Awesome.” It was all about our most popular French artist Sylvie Duriez and her one-of-a-kind, totally original and totally awesome ceramic artwork. It’s difficult to describe Sylvie’s work… and nearly impossible to truly impart its beauty through online photos. You just have to see it to believe it.

Sylvie Duriez Collection
(While the new Sylvie Collection just arrived, I picked all these pieces out while visiting Sylvie back in June. If you want to learn more about Sylvie, here’s her bio: Sylvie Duriez — Or you can read the post from my last visit to her studio in Pertuis, France.)

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Sylvie throws each piece by hand, sticking to pretty basic shapes: tall cylindrical pitchers, little pitchers, bowls of various size and shape, and plates. The magic really happens after she’s fired these pieces and begins to decorate them. Sylvie dips each piece in a cream colored base glaze and then uses a fine needle to draw the outline of her subjects (birds, flowers, dogs, cats, bunnies, girls, and occasionally mice). This creates a cool effect by exposing the terracotta below the base glaze. She then uses subtle, yet beautiful glazes to paint within those lines (and often outside the lines as well) to bring her subjects to life.

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Her paintings are much like watercolors, they consist of only a few brushstrokes, delicately applied and sometimes smeared, but they come together to convey huge emotion and personality. Regardless of their color or size, her dogs, cats, birds, and people spring to life. Even the flowers jump off their ceramic canvas and become animated… so real you can almost touch and smell them.
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And that’s truly what I love best about Sylvie’s work — the plates don’t require a perfectly arranged meal… the pitchers don’t require the perfect bouquet of flowers… and the bowls certainly don’t require a beautifully-tossed salad. Each piece makes it’s own statement, all on its own. Regardless of whether it is displayed on a shelf or set on a table, used for food, full of flowers, or left empty, the piece itself is the art and it imparts beauty all day long, everyday. I guess I could say the same about each piece in the Emilia Ceramics collection. After all, I choose each one individually because it inspires me and I believe it will bring joy and beauty to the home where it ends up. They are all handmade lovingly to be used and enjoyed… but mostly enjoyed. Sylvie Duriez, however, really ups the anty. Her pieces are true works of art. Each one an individual. Each one conveying its own unique story with its own unique personality and beauty. And that’s why ‘unique is French for awesome!’

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What Makes Deruta Patterns Unique Among Italian Ceramics?

Deruta is one of Italy’s historic ceramic centers, known for intricate designs and truly amazing Italian ceramics. Vietri dinnerware is famous for its animals, Tuscan majolica for its nature motifs of flowers and fruits. Deruta patterns are intricate and detailed, often combining organic and abstract motifs. The results are similar to the patterns in a kaleidoscope: ever-changing and always beautifully striking.

Italian Deruta

 

Deruta is especially famous for hand painted dinner plates. Patterns go back to the Renaissance when the area manufactured ceramics for popular demand (Faenza catered to the aristocrats and Montelupo Fiorentino to trade outside of Italy). The geometric motifs continue with today’s Italian ceramic artists, many of whom use the same colors and techniques as their predecessors.

Looking at the plates from Ceramiche Gialletti Giulio, I see a rough divide in motifs: organic flourishes and stylized geometry. The organic-inspired plates are what many imagine when they think about Deruta patterns: arabesques, plenty of colors, and whimsical figures (like the dragons on these hand painted dinner plates in the traditional Raffaellesco pattern).

Raffaellesco Deruta plate

These Italian ceramics are full of personality and whimsy. Every time I look at the Raffaellesco and Fogliame (inspired by waving leaves) I find something new. The Fogliame design makes me think of waves and breezes, not just curled leaves.

fogliame Deruta plate

The Deruta patterns with stylized geometry have an almost Art Deco feel. Though inspired by natural phenomenon as their names suggest (Nevicata is “snowfall,” Alba is “sunrise,” and “Il Sole” is “the sun”), the patterns feature more angles and repetition.

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The contrast with deep jewel tones and bright gold also makes these geometric plates stand out. Although rooted in centuries of tradition, this Italian style dinnerware feels quite modern.

Deruta patterns definitely stand out from other Italian ceramics. They also mix well with less intricate motifs, like these boldly striped plates. Much as people did in past centuries, layering Deruta plates is a wonderful opportunity to mix patterns and colors to create a table fit for your most special occasions. And since Italian majolica is quite sturdy, you can use these gorgeous Italian ceramics for every meal, adding elegance to your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s no surprise that people can’t get enough of their favorite patterns for plates, serving ware, and table accessories.

Deruta Italian plate

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Italians and Their Coffee: Centuries of Love and Espresso

The legends surrounding coffee are vast. From goats eating coffee beans and jumping around in Ethiopia to the over 2,000 coffeehouses in 17th-century London, coffee’s past is as dynamic as it’s energizing effect.

A merchant from Venice introduced coffee to Europe in 1615 after having some courtesy of the Turks, says National Geographic. Coffee has been smuggled on ships across the Atlantic, was at the heart of colonization efforts (starting in Java, home of the first European-owned coffee plantation), and is even made into beauty treatments at exclusive spas. Not bad for a little bean full of a lot of caffeine!

hand painted Italian coffee mugThe Italians have honed their coffee over the years and drinking a coffee at even the most remote roadside café is a delicious experience. But beware: drinking coffee in Italy is quite different than we do here stateside. Here’s a run-down of what you should know about drinking coffee in Italy, inspired by this post by Anna Maria Baldini.

First off, caffè means espresso. American-style drip coffee is hard to find in Italy, though a caffè Americano (espresso with hot water added) comes close. Italian coffee mugs are more likely to be espresso cups, though you’ll find larger cups holding morning cappuccinos (espresso topped with hot, steamed milk). Don’t want that much milk? A caffè macchiato has just a dash of hot milk on top. Italians never order a cappuccino in the afternoon or evening, some say the amount of milk is bad for digestion. Stick to this treat early in the day unless you want some raised eyebrows from your server and surrounding café patrons.

Just as with most of Europe, in Italy the price of coffee changes depending on where you sit. The cheapest and fastest coffee is drunk right at the bar; sitting at a table means that you can watch the world pass by, but you’ll pay premium prices for the privilege. If you do order your drink at the bar, be prepared to order and pay first, then show your ticket to be served with your delicious drink. If you order sitting at a table, like these people at Caffè Florian in Venice (Italy’s oldest café), you’ll pay afterwards.

Caffe Florian in Venice, ItalyPeople rightly can’t get enough of Italian coffee, which is one of the reasons I think the hand painted Italian coffee mugs in the Emilia Ceramics collection are so popular. I know that every time I use one I feel like I’m back in Tuscany. Although my stovetop espresso maker isn’t quite the same as a full-fledged Italian machine, the combination of it and an Italian coffee mug still does the trick until I go back to Italy myself. What’s your favorite Italian coffee drink? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

Italian coffee mugs

Italian espresso maker and grinder image courtesy Jonathan Rubio.

Caffè Florian image courtesy Son of Groucho.

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The Perfect Mexican Ceramics to Celebrate the Day of the Dead

Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) was last week, so it’s no surprise that I have had Mexico and Mexican ceramics made by my favorite Mexican artists—Talavera Vazquez, Gorky Gonzalez, and Capelo—on my mind.

day of the dead skullsThe Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 1 and 2, right after Halloween. The purpose of Día de los Muertos is to remember and celebrate one’s ancestors and friends who have died. The celebration has ancient roots in Aztec, Purepechas, and Totonacs traditions as well as links to the Catholic All Souls Day. Its two days of celebration are full of feasting, traditional foods, and lots of skulls. You’ve probably seen the joyful skeletons, especially the iconic couple of Catrina and Catrin. These dandy skeletons have a long tradition in their own right and are found in all kinds of art from sculptures and dolls to Mexican ceramics.

Mexican ceramicsOne of my favorite expressions of the Catrin figure is on this tile hot plate by Gorky Gonzalez. This smoking skeletons might be associated with the Day of the Dead, but he will bring Mexican charm to your kitchen all year round.

hot_plate_smoking_skeletonThe sugar skulls, cookies, and chocolates made for Day of the Dead celebrations are more than just eye-catching. By eating these sweets, people take a symbolic “bite of death” to rid themselves of the fear of death. Intricate altars are another important part of the holiday, decked in yellow and orange marigolds or chrysanthemums, food, sweets, photos, and religious amulets. Traditionally people also journey to their relatives’ graves on November 1 to decorate them with flowers and candles, then picnic there in celebration of the dead.

Day of the Dead skullsAll parts of this Mexican holiday blend the dead with the living. Maybe next year I’ll host my own Day of the Dead celebration… Invite people over to feast on my favorite Mexican dishes and share our memories of loved ones who are no longer alive. A playful Mexican ceramic skeleton bowl or trivet adds the perfect Day of the Dead touch. I especially love the effect of mixing these special Mexican ceramics with more oridinary dip bowls, serving platters, and pitchers of drinks. Felicidades!

skeleton bowlCandy skulls image courtesy of Glen Van Etten.

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The Nostalgia of Blue and White

Remember when you were a kid visiting relatives and how wonderfully different their homes were from yours? Or when guests would come over and suddenly there would be an entirely different set of dishes to serve dinner? My favorite was my grandmother’s etched glassware, which I actually now have and use whenever I have guests over. It always transports me back to her house and the iced tea she made in the sun each day.

blue and white tea partySimilarly, there’s something wonderfully nostalgic about running into plates and bowls that remind you of your childhood. Whether it’s the fact that your parents still have and use the same dishes or coming across a blue and white bowl at a friend’s house, restaurant, or antique shop, the memories can be incredibly vivid. My parents had (and still use) small, delicately painted blue and white bowls — blue and white bowlthey served me soup when I was sick and  held ice cream when I was healthy. I think this is one of the reasons I was immediately drawn to Richard Esteban’s French coffee bowls. They have a similar feel and shape to the bowls of my childhood.

I think this is why people love blue and white ceramics so much. Blue and white is a classic color combination for fine porcelain, but those delicate plates, bowls, and cups aren’t really suited for the contingencies of everyday life. Sturdier ceramics that evoke the same associations are an ideal compromise. Although not every ceramic piece brings up a memory, the link between objects and experiences is definitely a strong one. I came across this intriguing blog post discussing the link between objects and memories if you’re interested in reading more about the phenomenon.

mug_sideIf you think about it, people do the same thing by collecting souvenirs when they travel. The word comes from the French “to remember” since having a thing makes the memory easier to access. Whenever I want to be reminded of my travels, I reach for an Italian mug or a French coffee bowl: suddenly I’m back in European rolling hills enjoying a drink at a little local café.

Of course, the easiest way to keep a link with the dishware from your past is to use it. This is why so many people pass down their porcelain table settings and fine serving pieces as well as other important objects. Having the creamer that sat on your great-aunt’s dining table or the crystal glasses used by your grandparents is a wonderful way to keep the people from your past as part of your present.
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What objects make you remember your childhood? Are there certain blue and white bowls, plates, cups, or other ceramics that connect you to your past? Souvenirs you try and use frequently? Leave a comment and let us know!

Tea party image courtesy of kevin dooley.

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Capelo Pottery, a Unique Take on Mexican Ceramics

Capelo's studio and countryside

Capelo’s dedication to Mexico ceramics makes him stand out from other traditional artists. Not only is Capelo himself a talented, multi-faceted artist (he also is an architect, oil painter, and mixed-media sculptor), his dedication to keeping things natural makes his ceramics practically luminescent. His studio is one of the smaller ones in the Emilia Ceramics collection but the ceramics definitely make a big statement. Capelo potterySo just how does Capelo and his small team of artists create the unique Mexico ceramics that have made them famous?

One major factor I think is the land itself. Capelo’s home is high on a hill outside Guanajuato, Mexico, which gives him an incredible panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. His almost daily horseback rides and constant contact with such beauty comes through in his work with the colors and shadings of his ceramics. True artists, Capelo and his team take their environment and make it portable through their pottery.

Capelo’s ingenuity is also reflected in the unique shapes he creates. Pitchers with unexpected cutaway tops, fluted bowls, delicately pulled handles, and a willingness to play with scale truly set these Mexico ceramics apart. I couldn’t resist Capelo’s massive serving dishes on my last buying trip—I fell in love with the rounded square serving dish and all its possible uses. The same goes for the fluted serving bowls and smaller plates with kaleidoscope-like designs.

Capelo pitcher

square serving dishCapelo plates

Although Capelo pottery experiments with shapes, there are two things that never change: the use of local clay and natural glazes. Capelo says that his glazes are different because they don’t contain additives like many modern glazes do, using only natural ingredients. Of course, this doesn’t limit his use of color. His Mexico ceramics are rich with deep blue, dreamy green, burnt orange-red, and soft yellow. The resulting majolica is a softer, more subtle Mexican ceramics, almost glowing from within. Add to all this the fact that all of Capelo’s ceramics are one of a kind pieces and you have a recipe for an artist who definitely stands out from the rest.

Capelo fluted footed bowl

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Gorky Gonzalez, a Lesson in Making the Traditional Modern

Gorky GonzalezWorking with artists that are practicing a craft hundreds of years old, I’m always amazed to see how modern their pieces can feel. It goes deeper than the idea that beauty is timeless. Mixing form and function with elegant shapes, rich colors and patterns has long been the hallmark of majolica ceramics. Just look at Gorky Gonzalez. He basically resurrected an art form that had almost died out, drawing on a mix of other ceramic traditions to make Mexican pottery that is as unique as the artists that create it. Instead of being a slave to tradition, Gorky Gonzalez is an innovator who is constantly thinking up new designs and new pieces with the help of his family and the other artists who are part of his workshop.

The Gogo Mexican pottery line is the perfect example of this new era of Mexican ceramics. Contemporary in shape and colors, the pieces still have the weight of tradition firmly behind them. I quickly fell in love with the serving platters, mugs, and colorful plates designed by Gorky’s son, known as Gogo. (And stay tuned because I just received a shipment with brand new Gogo pieces like fun pasta bowls and dessert plates). Based on our conversations together, here are three tips for taking tradition and making it feel a bit more modern.Gogo Mexican pottery

1. Repeat what works. This is a cardinal rule in business as well. As the saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For Gogo’s Mexican pottery, this means using the same local clay, gorgeous glazes, and firing techniques as more traditional Mexican ceramics. The similar colors make these pieces easy to mix and match with the more decorated ceramics Gorky Gonzalez is known for.

Gogo bowls

2. Keep it clean. Too many unnecessary additions can make a ceramic piece feel dated. For example, think about heavy baroque curlicues look today—completely overwhelming. That’s why Gogo’s ceramics don’t have much in terms of ornamentation in either glaze or shaping. Purity of line is much more likely to last, whether in ceramics, furniture, or clothing.

3. Take risks. Of course, you can’t be a slave to tradition if you want to innovate. The single dominant color of Gogo Mexican pottery feels classic, but the shapes are more playful (like Gogo’s espresso cups). Experimentation can lead to lovely design, so give yourself time to play.

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Mexican and Italian Roosters: Different Takes on an Old Tradition

For most of us, roosters conjure up ideas of an idyllic American farm in the country, with a red barn and welcoming atmosphere. But these proud birds carry a rich significance around the world, and one that goes beyond their status as an international alarm clock. Roosters are popular in legends, often symbolizing heroism and courage (such as the French coq gaulois, a symbol of France since Roman times). Unsurprisingly, then, roosters have made their way onto objects ranging from flags to plates to wine bottles, though what they stand for changes vastly with geography.rooster dip bowl

Take Gorky Gonzalez pottery, for example. This Mexican artist has almost single-handedly revitalized Mexico’s majolica tradition rooster platterincorporating Japanese, Spanish, Italian, and Indigenous-Mexican techniques with his studies of traditional Mexican pottery. The rooster, in many ways, reflects Gorky’s pride in his country and his craft. For example, strutting roosters often are featured on the silvered or golden botonadura (the buttons and chains that decorate a dress suit) worn by Mexican charros (horsemen) and mariachis, most likely invoking the tradition that roosters bring good luck. In fact, one of the traditions about white roosters in Mexico is that they bring good luck, so you should never kill them, though a rooster crowing at night is a sign of bad luck coming.

The roosters on Gorky Gonzalez pottery may be silent, but they still make an impact. His rooster plates feature proud birds, whether brilliantly multicolored or monochromatic, caught mid-strut or proudly crowing. On my last visit to Gorky’s workshop, I noticed a proliferation of these birds and was happy to add many of his one of a kind plates, bowls, and even ornaments to the Emilia Ceramics collection.

blue and white rooster tray

Roosters also bring good luck in Italy. A common manifestation of this Italian tradition is a rooster pitcher, often given as a housewarming present to protect against trespassers and danger. The legend goes that an assassination attempt on Guiliano Medici in the 15th rooster salad bowlcentury was foiled when roosters announced the attack. Medici had hundreds of rooster pitchers created by local potters to celebrate. Though the rooster is often found on pitchers, other Italian ceramics such as serving platters, bowls, plates, and mugs are also popular. Bartoloni’s roosters are vivid and lifelike, with rainbow colored tail feathers, and are always painted mid-crow. As I prepare to visit these Italian artists later this month, I will be on the lookout for more of their black rooster plates, another Chianti legend and symbol of the region.

From rooster plates to pitchers, mugs to bowls, these birds are certainly a great addition to traditional ceramics the world over. Do you know of any other traditions associated with roosters from around the world?

italian rooster pitcher

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Why are Ginger Jars so Popular as Decor?

Ginger jars may seem like the latest decorating trend, but these ceramics are truly steeped in history. Ginger jars originally were a way to ship and store spices, herbs, oil, and, yes, ginger, in China. While their exact origins are shrouded in mystery, the vessel became popular during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC–207 BC), Imperial China’s first ruling dynasty. Ginger jars became widely popular in the West in the 19th century, though their purpose changed from a functional shipping vessel to a decorative one for fine homes.

Somewhere along the way, ginger jars also became popular in Mexican ceramics. The gentle curves and playful designs differentiate these tibores (their Mexican name) from their Asian counterparts. Today few people use ginger jars to store dry goods or spices, turning these ceramics into decorative elements throughout the home instead. Dina at Honey + Fitz loves their statement piece appeal, particularly with bold chevrons. Natasha at My Luscious Life recently recommended ginger jars as a way to add timeless elegance to a room; with the wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors available they remain a popular choice for decoration.

However, ginger jars can be more than just decorative. Just take ginger jar lamps as one example. I’ll admit it, I’m currently a little obsessed with the decorative possibilities of ceramic ginger jar lamps, given our new arrivals. But I’m definitely not alone! Small accent lamps or large ginger jar lamps are ideal for bedrooms, offices, and living rooms alike.

Ginger jars also function well as vases, anchoring large bouquets beautifully. Bridelicious recommends using ginger jars as blue and white wedding décor, which I think is a great way to incorporate some stylish history on the big day. Ginger jars also work well to store potentially unsightly items out in plain sight. For example, a friend has a large ginger jar in her entryway that keeps a collection of plastic bags handy for when she walks her dog. I’ve also seen ginger jars lining kitchen counters holding flours, sugar, and other dry goods with style, just as they have for hundreds of years. Some design never gets old I suppose.

No matter where you use your ginger jars, you are sure to enjoy the results. What’s your take on these historic ceramics? Leave a comment and let us know.

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The Irresistible Charm of Blue and White Mexican Pottery

Blue and white pottery is steeped in tradition, going back centuries in China and the Middle East. Cobalt came from Persia to China in the 14th century, combining beautifully with the translucent white of porcelain. Just look at this plate from 13th century China; it looks like something you might find handpainted by a ceramic artist today.

Today’s blue and white serving ware is just as striking as the ceramics from the past. Though the antique feel of blue and white pottery continues to be popular for interior decorating, modern pieces also abound. Jonathan Alder, for example, creates playful designs on stacking porcelain platters with distinctly modern blue and white appeal.

With blue and white Mexican pottery, rustic charm meets modern aesthetics in the work of artists like Gorky Gonzalez. The playful patterns of these unique serving dishes mix well with other pottery platters, making your next meal or appetizer tray look even more appealing. The sloping sides of the El Mar oval serving dish are useful and the rounded corners of the rectangular Las Flores platter are unique.

These Mexican ceramics pair nicely with other pieces with the same border design or complement plain blue or white platters with ease.

Blue and white Mexican pottery by Gorky or Talavera Vazquez also plays with shapes. For example, the handles on Talavera’s blue and white serving dish make it simple to pass a roast. The curves on the end of this blue and white serving platter make it a piece that looks wonderful at the dinner table or decorating a console in the living room. Blue and white might be classic, but it is definitely still fresh in its appeal.

White on its own also gets updated in Mexican ceramics. Take our new chalk white square serving plate, part of the Gogo collection. This white platter is stunning in its deceptive simplicity. Other pieces in the same warm white – the long platter, oval serving dish, and dinner plate – further demonstrate how white platters can be anything but boring. Paired with deep blue dishware or another favored color, it’s easy to see how these unique serving dishes can steal the show!

Whether ancient or modern, intricately patterned or deceptively simple, blue and white is sure to please. What kind of blue and white serving platters do you love?

Chinese 13th century plate image courtesy of World Imaging.

Stacked tray image courtesy of jonathanadler.com via Emilia on Pinterest.

 

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Truly Unique Handmade Ceramics: Our Favorite One of a Kind Pieces

handmade ceramicsEven though all the ceramics in the Emilia Ceramics collection are handmade and handpainted, some artists focus on one of a kind ceramics more than others. Sylvie Durez’s French handmade ceramics are a perfect example. For her plates and bowls, she etches an original design onto the piece without a plan or pattern — then hand paints the piece, with women lounging, serene landscapes, or whatever else she fancies.

handmade ceramics: bowlmodern handmade ceramics

Every time I visit her Provence studio, choosing from all the many options can be quite challenging; often I wish I could just take them all!

Capelo also specializes in one of a kind handmade ceramics. He and his fellow artists in his Mexican workshop craft pieces with unusual shapes and truly touchable glazes. I especially love his vases. Take the Hawaiian vase: with its floral motifs and range of colors, this piece is beautiful empty on a shelf or full of flowers.

Hawaiian vaseCapelo’s unique bowls and trays are also fantastic examples of his one of kind work. They also make great gifts—with these handmade ceramics, you can be certain you won’t be giving something already in someone’s home.

handmade ceramic tray

Other artists, like Gorky Gonzalez and Richard Esteban, mix one of a kind pieces in with their regular handmade ceramic collections. For example, Gorky’s Catrina plates and the amor plate allow artists to get creative with their designs. I particularly love the El Pajaro bowl with its cheerful songbird. These pieces blend nicely with the rest of Gorky’s collection. They’re incredibly detailed, sharing border motifs, color palettes, and style with his other handmade ceramics.

amor platehandmade ceramic bowl

Richard’s one of a kind French handmade ceramics are also tied together by color and feel. Whether it’s a striking black tall pitcher, quirky polka dot planter, or striped serving platter, these ceramics definitely embody the spirit of his country home with a modern edge. I love his tall teal vase and its etching; this is another example of a vase that looks wonderful empty or full.

tall vaseblack pitcher

Of course, the one downside to all these handmade ceramics is once they are sold, they’re gone. It can be hard to not fall in love with every one, but if I kept them all, I’d have no room left in my home. That’s why I’m always happy to share them with you as well as hear from people about their new handmade ceramics when they receive them. Have a story about some handmade ceramics you love and how you use them? Comment below and please share it with us all!

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The Staying Power of Fine Italian Ceramics, Past and Present

Fine Italian ceramics are nothing new. Dating back to the Middle Ages and beginning to flourish in the 1400s, the ceramic centers of Italy have been producing incredibly detailed ceramics for literally hundreds of years. I recently came across a little book discussing Italian and other European ceramics throughout history – Maiolica, Delft and Faïence by Giuseppe Scavizzi – and wanted to share some of its beautiful images with you. Just look at the inside of this “loving cup” from circa 1500 Faenza, used to celebrate engagements or as a gift for a beloved:

fine Italian ceramic loving cup

The detailed likeness is strikingly similar to work by Tuscia d’Arte, such as this Italian canister.

Italian canister

Another timeless piece is this plate of a solider from circa 1630:

Italian soldier plate

He looks so jaunty, reminding me of this contemporary Italian ceramic plate with a drummer at its center.

Italian ceramic plate

Italian ceramicsOne of the amazing things about hand painted Italian pottery is that patterns and techniques have been passed down through generations. Artists today hand paint using the same process as those centuries ago, following traditional patterns as well as adding some contemporary touches. Historically important areas for Italian ceramics have stayed pretty constant throughout the years, many of them in the center of Italy. One is Montelupo Fiorentino, outside of Florence in Tuscany. It’s where I get the fine Italian ceramics for the Emilia Ceramics collection. In a few months I plan to travel to Italy to visit both Tuscia d’Arte and Ceramiche Bartoloni as well as some potential new artists; I can’t wait!

Other famous centers are Deruta, Siena, and Vietri, examples of which are easy to find at Biordi Art Imports, also here in San Francisco. Biordi has a huge selection of typical Italian patterns that go back to the Renaissance; their walls are stuffed with dinnerware, decorative pieces, and exquisite tiles. If you find yourself in North Beach and want to see some Italian ceramics in San Francisco, check Biordi out.

No matter where hand painted Italian pottery comes from, I love how it connects to the artists that create it. Fine Italian ceramics are usually hand signed, a fitting recognition of all the time it takes to paint as well as form these pieces of art. Italian canisters, Italian utensil holders, or dinnerware pieces, these are all ceramics rich in history and tradition that make it easy to bring Italy to your home.Italian hand paintingWhat are your favorite fine Italian ceramics? Any recommendations for places in Italy I should visit this coming summer? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Behind the Scenes: Patrice Voelkel’s French Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.

Patrice Voelkel

I learned about Patrice Voelkel from a book on French ceramic artists that Sylvie Duriez loaned me many years ago. Since Patrice lived near where I was staying in St. Remy, I decided to check out his studio one rainy spring day. Thankfully it was clearly marked and easy to find – the French ceramics that covered the shelves are truly unique and unlike anything else in the Emilia Ceramics collection.

rustic blue pitcher

Patrice works with his wife Sylviane to create French ceramics with a modern sensibility that are deeply grounded in tradition. They use local black clay and create everything from design to finished product between just the two of them. Their dog Tina Turner keeps them company in their studio, known as Poterie Herbes Folles, which I think is named after the area’s wild and crazy grass. Patrice has worked with ceramics for over 33 years; he started making French ceramics near Lyon and then moved to the countryside and started Herbes Folles.

French ceramics drying in the sun

Poterie Herbes FollesThe Voelkels glaze their pieces with a variety of liquid-like colors, but I especially love their marbled blue and celadon pieces, as well as those in a contemporary chalk white. (Patrice himself seems to love blue – every time I visit the workshop he’s wearing some kind of blue shirt!) Patrice and Sylviane’s French ceramics are often large, heavy, and make a serious statement. The rustic grittiness truly reflects the little farmhouse and workshop where they are made. On my last visit, I saw pieces drying in the afternoon sun while Patrice worked on the wheel and Sylviane prepared ceramics for their final firing.

Patrice at work on French ceramics

I now have some new French ceramics by Patrice and Sylviane on the website. The one of a kind serving platter, rustic pitchers, and olive oil pitcher all in a rich indigo are ideal for bringing a bit of Provence to your home.

rustic blue platter

From spoon rests to prep bowls to serving platters, these French ceramics are stunning additions for any collection, reflecting so much of the people who made them with care and love. After working with Patrice for so long, I’m very happy I decided to take a detour in the rain all those springs ago.

white serving platter

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Rooster Ceramics from Around the World

What’s a motif you’ll find on ceramics almost anywhere in the world? Flowers are a good guess, as are geometric and abstract designs. But there’s another favorite design that might surprise you: rooster ceramics. From Mexico to France and Italy, proud roosters and sometimes chickens grace a variety of ceramics, both decorative and functional.

Italian roosters are probably the most refined of the bunch. Painstakingly detailed with realistic coloring, the Italian rooster pitcher by Ceramiche Bartoloni is a typical example of this rooster type.

Italian rooster pitcher

Even though this rooster looks almost the same on their rooster serving dishes and platter, the hand painting gives each piece a unique attitude with variations in the comb and waddle.rooster bowl

Mexican roosters, in contrast, are more fanciful than their Italian ceramic counterparts. Gorky Gonzalez’s colorful rooster plate is similar to the Italian rooster in details, but feels more like a watercolor sketch, with looser lines (though still definitely proud and tall!).

rooster plate

Then there are blue and white rooster plates, like this octagonal serving dish, which showcase a monochromatic bird on the strut.

blue and white rooster ceramic

Gorky’s three-dimensional rooster ceramics are definitely an excellent mix of fun and realism. The large blue and white rooster sits proudly on a shelf or countertop, and the rooster pitchers and creamers add whimsy and color to the table. Unlike the standard color palette of Italian roosters, these Mexican pieces often have a completely different color combination, making each rooster ceramic totally unique.

Rooster Creamers at Emilia Ceramics

In France, roosters are a mix of refined detail and playful whimsy. Quimper ceramics offer excellent examples of roosters, often in blue. “Le coq gaulois” is an important French symbol that dates back to Roman times and is used today as a sport mascot for French soccer and rugby teams. Some good examples of Quimper rooster plates can be found here and sculptural pieces here. French roosters are fighters and it shows, like in the proud rooster strutting below.

Choisy rooster

What are your favorite rooster ceramics? Are you a fan of chicken décor in general? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Crowing rooster image courtesy of hans s.

French rooster plate image courtesy of Patrick.charpiat.

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Behind the Scenes: French Ceramics at Poterie Ravel

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.

The most recent addition to the Emilia Ceramics collection, Poterie Ravel has been around since 1837. A fifth-generation family-run business, this French ceramics studio was founded in Aubugne, France, and made tiles and other terracotta products for the home. When Gilbert Ravel took over the studio from his father in 1935, he changed the direction of the company to make planters that had more modern designs. The focus moved to high-end interior and landscape designers; the result is a world-class workshop full of ceramic artists that handle 8 tons of product a day, most of it creating their famous large-scale pots. The next time you see a giant terracotta planter at a major hotel, airport, or other public place, look and see if you can find the Poterie Ravel logo – chances are you’ll find one.

Today two sisters, Marion and Julie Ravel, run Poterie Ravel. Their ceramics are definitely art, a process that begins with the clay itself, which is extracted from their own quarries. Small pots are thrown entirely by hand (including all the French ceramics in my collection), while the massive planters are molded by a ceramic artist using a plaster mold and a piece of wood. All the pieces big and small are finished by hand for a smooth surface and the terracotta pieces left unglazed. Other pieces, like the unique pitcher vases, platters, and serving bowls, are hand painted in vibrant natural glazes before being fired in one of their four gas ovens.

About 20 ceramic artists work at Poterie Ravel, including Etienne (pictured below) and Gil, who I met on my last buying trip to France.

One of my favorite parts about Ravel’s French ceramics is that every piece is stamped with the Ravel logo, date, and initials of the artist. After I had made my selections of these French ceramics, I found out that Etienne had made some of the platters, Gil some of the pitchers. I love how each piece tells a story; this kind of personal connection is definitely one of my favorite parts of working with local ceramic artists.

Poterie Ravel is one of the oldest ceramic studios in France, and the attention to detail is truly incredible. Anyone looking for centerpiece ideas needs look no further than one of their unique bowls or statement-making pitchers and vases. It took me four years to be able to offer their French ceramics as part of the Emilia Ceramics collection and I think it was certainly worth the wait!

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Ceramics Expert to Speak at The Shop!

IMG_1266

I started taking ceramics classes when I was in 3rd grade… learning to stack coils of clay together and then smooth the surface to build a vase. Soon after I was taught how to use a wheel and slowly form (usually lopsided) bowls. On my first solo trip to visit my uncle in Los Angeles (who is an artist and art professor at UC Irvine) I sculpted a miniature dog… I was pretty proud of myself! IMG_1238My mom, who’s now a fantastic oil painter (I sell her beautiful landscape oils in the Palo Alto Shop), always loved ceramics — she threw a clay tea set for my dolls when I turned 10. Later, I took ceramics in college, as a mental release from the reading and writing that often overwhelmed me. And when I moved to Spain after college, I took ceramics to make friends. I loved throwing bowls, plates, and cups as I listened to Spanish housewives gossip, gripe about their husbands, and worry about their children. Point is, long before I began importing ceramics, I loved creating it myself.

That, however, in no way means that I am an expert. When people ask me about firing temperatures, specifics on the clay composites, or why the glaze used by Gorky Gonzalez comes out looking different from that used by Richard Esteban, I really don’t know the answer. But, lucky for me, my uncle Gifford does! And this Saturday (as in TOMORROW), Gifford is going to be at the shop in Palo Alto to talk about the complex process of crafting and painting ceramics. He’s also going to talk about his experiences working with artists in Italy. Gifford introduced me to Ceramiche Bartoloni and Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia. He’s worked with both for the last 20 years. He’s especially close to the Bartoloni brothers (who he nicknamed the Blues Brothers).Screen Shot 2012-12-11 at 6.12.24 PM

Since starting Emilia Ceramics, it’s been really fun for Gifford and I to share our similar experiences meeting, befriending and working with such fun, creative artists around the world. And I am so grateful to have Gifford as a resource to go to with my nitty-gritty ceramics questions. I really look forward to him seeing this year’s pop-up shop — which I think is our best yet — and getting to share his comedic stories and knowledge with my customers.

Hope you can make it!

11:30 Saturday, December 15th
At Emilia Ceramics — Town & Country Village, Suite 10. For more information, visit us online or call us at 650-257-0292.

Here’s a little more about my uncle:

Gifford Myers is an artist who works with ceramic as well as many different materials and techniques; fiberglass, aluminum, bronze, steel, wood and found objects. The research of Gifford Myers is a continuous development of ideas and new experiences, without convention, utilizing wide vision that goes beyond the rigidity of conventional rules and restrictions.

Myers transforms the reality that surrounds him through wit, a free spirit and a strong capacity for observation. He is continuing his research, a synthesis of new dimensions that express results that are never the same, never repetitive. His work is always something new, something explorative, surprising for its variety, freedom and imagination; from large works to small objects, a form of self-portrait from the imagination of a unique artist that both surprises and draws the viewer in through the strength of expressive ideas.

http://giffordmyers-artist.com/index2.htm

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Behind the Scenes: Talavera Vazquez’s Blue and White Mexican Pottery

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.

Whenever I go to visit Talavera Vazquez I’m always sure I’ll get terribly lost — the streets in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico look so similar, I’m very relieved to arrive and see the smiling faces of Juan and Roberto Vazquez. They and their team of talented artists are the reason for the unique serving dishes, vases, tibores (ginger jars), planters and other lively Mexican ceramics produced by this family-run workshop.

While the blue and white Mexican pottery (like striped vases and zig zag ginger jars) might be some of my more popular Talavera Vazquez offerings, the workshop itself is an explosion of vibrant color. Juan Vazquez is the fourth generation of the Vazquez family to run this family business and his son Roberto is certainly poised to be the fifth when the time arrives. Not all members of the management team are related, but they still feel like a family. For example, Francisco, who is in charge of all the artwork and my liaison with the designers and artists, has worked with the Vazquez family for over 20 years.

The small team of artists at Talavera Vazquez takes care of all aspects of the ceramic process, from measuring the distance for the stripes on a wine bottle holder to loading the kiln with pieces for the final firing. The motto of this prolific studio is “Nuestros productos se fabrican y decoran a mano, la irregularidad que presentan acentúa su belleza,” (roughly translated as “Our products are made and decorated by hand, the irregularities present accent their beauty”). Every piece is formed by hand, then dipped into a “bath” of base glaze that turns creamy white after firing. When the base glaze has dried, the artists paint the vibrant geometric designs with crisp edges. Watching them work, I’m always amazed at the precision – there’s no way to erase a mistake or a drip of the brush. The results are unique serving dishes, pottery planters, and other Mexican ceramics that truly stand out.

Talavera Vazquez continues to flawlessly combine traditional techniques with modern design. I’m excited to have new zigzag tibores in yellow and gray, as well as more blue and white pottery planters. With all their wonderful Mexican ceramics, I’m never sure what new discoveries I’ll make on my next visit. But I’m always thrilled to be able to share them with you!

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Behind the Scenes: Gorky Gonzalez’s Mexican Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful handpainted ceramics come to life.

A visit to Gorky Gonzalez’s workshop in Guanajuato, Mexico is truly a feast for the senses. There’s color and creative genius everywhere you look, piled in ceramics both finished and in process. Considering the number of awards and international acclaim Gorky’s pottery has received, it’s no surprise that his development as a ceramic artist has international flavor as well.

An antique piece of Majolica pottery that Gorky found in the early 1960s inspired him to rescue this basically forgotten craft. After studying in Japan (where he met his wife Toshiko), he returned with a variety of techniques that have truly revitalized Mexican ceramics. The results blend past and present, creating Mexican ceramics that are unique and timeless.

Today Gorky Gonzalez and Toshiko’s son Gorky Jr. (known as Gogo) handles the daily responsibilities of the business, continuing the family tradition. On my most recent visit to Mexico this past June I was delighted to find all three members of the Gonzalez family hard at work with their dedicated team of artists. I visited with about six artists who were working on the wheel or painting these vibrant Mexican ceramics by hand. Whether dinner plates or mugs, each piece is treated with care through the multistep process that Majolica requires including multiple firings in the kiln.

With a workshop as large and bustling as this one it can seem like it might get old painting the same Mexican ceramics every day. However, there are always plenty of new pieces and designs being created as well as the continuation of old favorites. I talked with one artist who’s been painting Gorky pottery for nine years and still loves it. Each piece has a design guide that the artists follow, but they are encouraged to put their own individual stamp on it so in the end, no two pieces are ever exactly alike.

On this trip I was lucky enough to find some truly unique pieces to add to my Gorky pottery collection: dinner plates with the Catrina design (perfect for Dia de los Muertos), new creamers with owls and roosters, and even some fun new dip bowls. As Gorky pottery designs expand to include more traditional patterns as well as the modern Gogo collection, I’m always excited to share these amazing Mexican ceramics with you.

 

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Behind the Scenes: Tuscan Pottery at Its Best

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful hand-painted ceramics come to life.

It has been way too long since I last visited Italy! I LOVE Italy… the food (every pasta dish is cooked perfectly), the wine (even the house bottle is always delicious), the cappuccinos (consistently 10 times better than anything Starbucks can do), the people (so friendly, so open, so Italian), and of course the ceramics. It’s no surprise that some of the most beautiful, colorful, and high quality ceramics come from Italy… it was 13th century Italian artists, after all, that transformed the tradition of Majolica into the high art form we know today. From relaxed fruit and floral motifs to precise depictions of renaissance characters, fine Italian ceramics continue to set the standard for the craft the world over.

Five years ago when I went on my first buying trip to Italy, I had the good fortune of visiting two of the best workshops in Tuscany: Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia and Ceramiche Bartoloni, both of which are located in Montelupo Fiorentino, a small town right outside Florence that is famous for Majolica. I learned of both artists from my uncle, Gifford Myers, who’s a ceramicist in Los Angeles and has collaborated with many Italian artists over the years. Gifford insisted that Tuscia and Bartoloni were the best in Tuscany and would be friendly, fun partners for me to work with. He was so right!

On my first visit, I took the train from Florence to Montelupo and was met by David, who runs Tuscia. David brought me to the warehouse where 3 of 5 local artists were painting that day. 

Gabriel (seen painting above) started working with ceramics when he was 15 years old and is now the principal artist at Tuscia. He is responsible for designing and executing the most intricate designs, such as my favorite, the Square Plate with Oranges.

David gave me the grand tour of the workshop, which was packed with beautifully crafted and painted platters, pitchers, lamps, and planters. It was like a museum, showcasing all the styles, sizes, and designs they’ve created over the years. I took a ton of photos, which I still reference when I’m placing a new order.

Founded in 1982, the Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia building has an old, slightly warn-down charm — it is so picturesque set amidst the rolling Tuscan hills. Patrizio Bartoloni (on the left below) met me at Tuscia and drove me to the Ceramiche Bartoloni workshop, where he and his brother Stefano run their business. While slightly smaller in scale than Tuscia, Ceramiche Bartoloni is larger than life when it comes to the vibrancy of their glazes, the delicacy in their designs, and the pure personality they put into each ceramic piece. Their sophisticated Italian style is clearly evident in the Limoni, Blu Limoni, and Rooster pieces, which have always been favorites among Emilia Ceramics customers.

Patrizio and Stefano started their business when they were 18 and 20 years old, respectively. At the time, their “studio” was a wood shed with a dirt floor in Capraia, a tiny village bordering Montelupo. When they outgrew that space, they moved to their current workshop in Montelupo, about 10 miles outside of Florence.

Patrizio is more of the flamboyant painter and Stefano does more of the intricate designs and lettering. My uncle met them in 1987 in their “studio” in Capraia and has been friends with them ever since. He nicknamed them the “Blues Brothers,” which they think is really funny.

In my opinion, small Italian workshops like Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia and Ceramiche Bartoloni represent the best Italian ceramics and Tuscan pottery has to offer. In these close-knit, family-run studios, artists are not just reproducing traditional ceramic pieces; they are creating their own unique artwork in a style that their ancestors have spent 600 years perfecting.

I am thrilled to be returning to Italy this coming spring — partially because I miss the great pasta, wine, and cappuccinos so much — but mostly to immerse myself in the originality, vibrancy, and colorful creativity that personify fine Italian ceramics. I’ll visit Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia and the Bartoloni brothers, hopefully discovering some new and hidden gems to add to the Tuscan pottery in my collection. But I will also seek out new, undiscovered Italian artists in other parts of the country. My hope is to diversify the Emilia Ceramics collection over time, adding the unique abilities and cultural influences of artists from Umbria, Sicily, and the Amalfi Coast. What are your favorite Italian ceramics and where do they originate? Leave us a comment below and let us know!

                   

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Behind the Scenes: Richard Esteban’s French Ceramics

One of my favorite parts about my four years with Emilia Ceramics has been developing a rapport with ceramic artists all around the world. In this series of posts, I’ll give some insights into what happens behind the scenes to make these beautiful handpainted ceramics come to life.

Unlike the traditional French ceramic atelier in Vallauris where Richard Esteban apprenticed at the age of 16, he now has no need for a cane when inspecting his employees work. The two old women owners at Foucard-Jourdan used their canes to crush ceramic pieces on the potters’ wheel that showed any sign of imperfection. Perhaps that’s where Richard learned his attention to detail and developed his appreciation for the slightly imperfect. I love the friendliness of his Aigues-Vives studio, with a tight team consisting of his two employees Arnaud and Katia, his wife Sylvie, and himself. The Esteban family also has three young children with whom I’ve shared several meals over the years, communicating in a mix of broken French and English.

I last visited Richard in September 2011 with my friend Jess acting as a translator. As has become a tradition, we didn’t just get to pick out beautiful French ceramics, but also enjoyed Richard’s incredible hospitality, staying in his guesthouse for the night. When we arrived, Arnaud (pictured above working at his wheel) asked us with a smile, “Vous voulez du cafe?” (Do you want some coffee?)

“Oui, merci, si ce n’est pas un problem” (Yes, please, if it’s not a problem.)

“Vous avez traverser la monde pour nous voire, je peux faire du cafe.” (You traversed the world to see us, we can at least make you coffee.)

This is definitely a place where humor is appreciated (and the coffee delicious, though we had it in espresso cups instead of the fun polka dot mugs they make).

Not only is Richard a wonderful artist, he’s also a great cook, and our evening spent in the backyard with all the Estebans and Katia was a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Friendly and playful qualities surround Richard, invoked by himself, his employees, and expressed through his work. His stunning ceramic serving platters, lively polka dot mugs and bowls, and unique vases are just a few examples of his creative take on the French ceramic tradition.

Richard’s methods stay true to the old ways of Provencial pottery. He uses the rich red local clay, every piece is hand-thrown, and he even uses an antique kiln for firing. His love of tradition can also be seen in the museum he opened in 2000 to display his massive collection of glazed French pottery from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. This is definitely an artist devoted to his craft.

Whether it’s a large ceramic serving platter or one of a kind pitcher, Richard’s pieces are an ideal example of French ceramics with timeless appeal. I can’t wait to see what amazing examples of French ceramics he’s created the next time I visit — and then get to share them all with you.

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Just Opened: New Exhibition on French Ceramics in LA

Love French ceramics from the seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries? Then you need to check out the exhibition that opened last Saturday, October 6, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Entitled “Daily Pleasures: French Ceramics from the MaryLou Boone Collection,” it features over 130 examples of faïance, soft-paste porcelain, and hard-paste porcelain used in French daily life.

I found out about this exhibition months ago and wrote about it when comparing French ceramics past and present. For example, the curves of French country pottery pitchers mirror those of antique ewers which traditionally held water for washing in the morning. Other French ceramics in the exhibition include tablewares, tea accouterments, toiletry items, and even pieces used in times of sickness. The sugar bowl and spoon featured on LACMA’s blog is charming, with soft pink accents and a curiously slotted spoon.

Covered Sugar Bowl, 1780, Lunéville, France; and Sugar Spoon, 1775, Lunéville Petit Feu Faïence Manufactory, Lunéville, France; gifts of MaryLou Boone, photos © Susan Einstein

“This exhibition reveals and celebrates both the artistry that exists in the service of the utilitarian and the ability of this discriminating collector to bring together remarkable examples of that artistry,” said Elizabeth Williams, assistant curator of decorative arts and design at LACMA, in a recent press release.

Wine Bottle Cooler (Seau à demi-bouteille). Chantilly Porcelain Manufactory, Chantilly, France, c. 1730-1735. Soft-paste porcelain with glaze and enamel, The MaryLou Boone Collection. photos © Susan Einstein

I couldn’t agree more, especially looking at examples of handmade French pottery today, from French platters to the elegant curves of a French ceramic serving bowl. I was amused to see a French ceramic wine bottle holder circa 1730-1735 as a featured piece on the LACMA website. The Asian influence is obvious, as is the practicality of having something to keep wine cool. Unlike the porcelain jars for pomade, a wine bottle holder is a practical ceramic piece people still use today.

Many of these pieces look like they came from Asia because they were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford. Today’s French ceramics embrace colors, shapes, and textures of a timeless (yet contemporary) French aesthetic. French country pottery is a pleasure not only to see, but also to use, though the delicate artistic touches on Sylvie Durez‘s birds or the edging of Poterie Ravel’s French platters invoke the early examples of this tradition the LACMA exhibition highlights.

“Daily Pleasures” runs until March 31, 2013, so if I make it down to L.A. before it’s over, I’ll definitely check it out. Have you seen this exhibition or know of others that focus on French ceramics in your area? Leave a comment below and let us know!

“Daily Pleasures” images courtesy of LACMA.

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A Look at French Ceramics, Past and Present

Think you know French ceramics? Many people picture porcelain when they think about French ceramics, such as the famous Sèvres porcelain. Louis XV became the owner of this producer in 1759 and it was a major maker of French porcelain throughout the eighteenth century (according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Most of these early porcelains were imitations of pieces from Japan and China that only the very rich could afford, though there was plenty of French innovation once the new processes got traction. Because of a lack of essential materials to make a clay body that was the same as the Asian pieces, all of the French ceramics made before 1770 were soft paste porcelain, not hard paste. (For those that are wondering, soft paste porcelain requires a higher fire temperature and is much harder to form than the more plastic and malleable hard paste porcelain, which contains minerals like kaolin and quartz.)

Technical talk aside, these old French ceramics are certainly beautiful to see. If you’re in the LA area, an upcoming exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art will feature examples of porcelain from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France that have a whole range of style and function. What’s particularly interesting about this collection is that it also features faience, which is simply another name for tin-oxide glazed pottery… also known as majolica.

Flash forward to today where faience/majolica is still going strong in French ceramics. Sturdy, rustic, yet also refined, this ceramic tradition continues to grow with modern sensibilities while staying true to its roots.

Just look at the curves of the pitchers by Richard Esteban and Poterie Ravel. Simple and elegant, their rich glazes are enticing for hands and eyes alike. Compare a faience ewer circa 1700 (like the photo above) to Richard’s barn red milk pitcher – they have the same clean lines and visual appeal with tall, stately spouts.

Poterie Ravel’s fancy pitcher, stunning in mustard yellow or creamy ivory, also reflects shapes and function from the past that fits in with today’s aesthetics for French ceramics.

Then there are French ceramics like those by Patrice Voelkel and Sylvie Durez. Patrice does so much with colors like white or blue, creating pieces that are deceptively simple. His large serving dish has a delicate rim that exposes the black local clay of Provence, while the white irregular glaze gives it real character. Sylvie goes a completely different direction, treating her bowls, serving platters, and pitchers as canvases for playful animals, dreamy women, or pastel landscapes with a surreal feel.

No matter your style, the variety of French ceramics being made today are sure to be just as sought after in hundreds of years as those that were made in the 1700s. So which French ceramics suit you best?

French faience ewer image courtesy of Sean Pathasema/Birmingham Museum of Art.

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Mas de Mexico!

Capelo is the definition of a ‘Jack of all trades.’ Trained (and renowned throughout Mexico) as an architect, he now splits his time between teaching classes at the University of Guanajuato, managing the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, supervising a team of artists in his ceramic studio, and occasionally fulfilling some very special commissions — While I was visiting yesterday, Capelo showed off the gold ‘key to Guanajuato,’ which he was commisioned to make for the Pope during his visit to celebrate Mexico’s 200 years of independence. One copy of the key (which is made of gold and nickel) was gifted to the Pope and the other (which I held yesterday) will soon be exhibited in the museum. In his downtime, Capelo enjoys riding his horses in the beautiful mountains surrounding his home.

But enough about Capelo, let’s talk about his ceramics. There is something so unique and captivating, so soft and inviting about the glazes that Capelo uses… it really is difficult to explain. I asked him what it was about his glazes that made them so different. He said simply that he used all-natural glazes, without any modern-day additives, which we are more accustomed to seeing these days. Sounds almost too simple, but it fact it fits Capelo’s shy, old-school personality perfectly. Capelo has refused to compromise or change his glazes or technique over the years. He does things the right way, or not at all. He’s definitely much less interested in sales than he is in creating beautiful artwork. I still think there’s got to be something more to his technique — some secret that makes the colors run together like watercolor, with a glass-like sheen.

Whatever it is, I’m hooked. I couldn’t stop finding pieces I thought belonged in the Emilia Collection. I was especially drawn to some large vases and pitchers. Here are a few of the pieces I chose:

Because Capelo doesn’t deal with shipping, we had to fit my purchases in the cab I had hired. (Capelo lives and works about 15 minutes from Guanajuato, perched on top of a beautiful hill overlooking the city). But nobody else seemed concerned. Four helpers appeared out of nowhere to help us count, price, and wrap up my selections. And then we fit them neatly into the trunk and backseat of the cab. It all fit so easily, I wondered if I should have bought more!

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Gorky Gonzalez: Better Than Ever

I admit it… I forgot just how much I love Gorky Gonzalez’s pottery. I first visited Gorky over four years ago and have been importing more and more of his ceramics ever since. I sell a ton of Gorky’s work, I blog about it often, am surrounded by it on a daily basis, and when I’m at my parents’ house, I even eat off it! But still, I forgot the excitement of visiting Gorky’s workshop in Guanajuato and seeing all the creative and colorful genius spread in piles around me. I forgot the pure joy of looking through those piles and discovering the gems: A perfectly painted rooster or fish, a serving dish begging to be filled with fresh guacamole, a new shape or design that I know my customers (not to mention my mom) will love.

Mrs. Gorky Gonzalez met me at the door and brought me upstairs to the showroom. We exchanged pleasantries and I reminded her that we had met about 2 years ago (the last time I was here in Mexico). I asked about Gorky Sr., her husband who founded the business and is renowned for reviving the majolica tradition in Mexico. Gorky Jr. (or Gogo), who runs the business now, joined us a few minutes later. He took me on a tour, visiting about 6 artists, either working on the wheel or painting. I spent a few minutes talking with one young man who said he’s been painting for Gorky for 9 years and still loves it. I was slightly disappointed to learn that he does not use Gorky pottery in his own home!

Then is was back to work… I spent more than an hour digging through each stack in every corner of Gorky’s showroom, selecting on the best plates, bowls, pitchers, and even a few gravy boats I could find.

All I can say is this: Get excited, get very excited! I’m pretty sure these new pieces will remind you just how much you love Gorky Gonzalez pottery. That is, in case you had forgotten.

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My Obsession with Majolica Dinnerware, Fine Italian Ceramics, Spanish Pottery, and More!

My love of Spanish pottery and fine Italian ceramics is long-standing and one of the reasons I began Emilia Ceramics. While living in Southern Spain, I saw gorgeous pieces of pottery (plates, cups, and bowls were only the beginning) being used everyday that were just as unique as the people using them. I realized that I couldn’t use all the pieces I thought were beautiful, but knew that there were others who would love them too. And thus Emilia Ceramics came into being.

Now my collection includes fine Italian ceramics, Tuscan pottery, as well as ceramics from France and Mexico. I’m excited because it looks like I’ll be adding Spanish pottery (by Ceramica Valenciana) to the Emilia Collection by the end of the summer (crossing my fingers about how shipping times work out). All these pieces emerge from the same roots and display similar techniques — resulting in majolica dinnerware and accessories that have distinctively “fat glazes,” vibrant colors, and unique designs that vary not only from region to region, but also from artist to artist.

But while I love these new pieces being produced today, what about vintage pottery? Collectors of Quimper, Fiestaware, majolica from Deruta and Faenza, as well as other fine Italian ceramics know what I’m talking about. A friend sent me a link to some Portuguese pottery she’d found made by SECLA (this espresso cup was my favorite piece) and it got me thinking about how designs and glazes have both changed and stayed the same for all these years. Just look at these Portuguese pottery tiles, ashtrays, and vases designed by Ferreira da Silva. Most of them are from the 1950s, yet their modern lines and fun designs could come out of an artist’s studio today.

That’s one of the reasons I love all kinds of pottery – they hold timeless appeal. Fine Italian ceramics become heirlooms, whether it’s a plate or a lamp. Majolica dinnerware graces the table for decades since its sturdy construction holds up quite nicely to the rigors of daily use. Not only does Tuscan, French, Mexican, and Spanish pottery look great, it’s functional and stylish. No wonder I keep finding artists whose pieces I love to add to the Emilia Collection!

Portuguese pottery image courtesy of R.Ferrao.

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The Italian Legend of the Black Rooster

I hadn’t been importing ceramics for long when I got what seemed like a strange request: Do you sell any black roosters?! The answer was no. I had colorful Italian roosters on plates, mugs, bowls, and pitchers, as well as tons of  blue and white roosters decorating Mexican pottery, but not one “black rooster” in the collection. While I was a little thrown off by the request for a black rooster, I did have a faint memory of a story related to the black rooster from when a friend and I tasted our way through the beautiful Chianti wine region.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I realized Ceramiche Bartoloni paints the black rooster. I was ecstatic, both because of the Bartoloni brothers’ unmatched painting skill and because I’d finally have a black rooster for the Emilia Ceramics collection. After all, we’re not talking about any old Vietri pottery rooster, this is a proud black rooster with a story and tons of personality.

And the new black rooster plates from Ceramiche Bartoloni did not disappoint: The dynamic blue, white, and yellow border perfectly frames a proud black rooster getting ready to crow. It’s also the perfect counterpoint to Bartoloni’s colorful rooster ceramic serving platters, bowls, and mugs.

And now to the story about the black rooster, which goes back to the 1200s in Italy. Florence and Siena had debated for years over who had claim to the Chianti region, each wanting it as part of their territory. Finally, the legend goes, leaders decided to settle the matter by a competition. Two knights (or horsemen, depending on your source) would set out at cock’s crow in the morning, one from Florence and one from Siena. Wherever they met on the road would determine the southern border for each city’s claim over the disputed land.

Siena chose a well-fed white rooster as official timekeeper, while Florence picked a starving black rooster. Again, sources differ as to why the black rooster was starving; the Florentines might even have kept it in a box with no food for several days. In any case, when the day of big event came, the black rooster crowed before dawn while the white rooster slept in and only crowed at sunrise. Thus, the Florentine rider traveled much farther than his Sienese counterpart, and the two men met about 19 or 20 km outside of Siena, giving most of the Chianti region to Florence.

Whether or not this legend is true, the black rooster was branded in 1384 as the emblem for the winemaking League of Chianti and is an important and common symbol for the region. The next time you get a bottle of Chianti, look for the black rooster (gallo nero in Italian) on the seal around the neck of the bottle. Different background colors and borders also represent different kinds of wines, says Wine Trail Traveler.

Complete with a legend, I’m excited to offer these new rooster ceramics. Whether you use them as ceramic serving platters or as a unique wall decoration, these black rooster plates are perfect for anyone who loves rooster chic with handmade Italian charm.

Rooster wine bottle label image courtesy of Live from Italy.

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Is the Price Right for Italian Ceramics?

Have you ever watched “The Price is Right,” the game show where people guess how much things cost and then win them if they’re correct? After spending a few months in our pop-up shop explaining pricing to customers, I feel like I could be a big winner on that show, especially when it comes to Italian ceramics. People often ask – why are they so expensive, particularly when compared to pieces at big box stores like Sur la Table or Williams Sonoma?

There are many factors that go into the price of Italian ceramics, but the major ones are materials, the manufacturing method, and quantity of production, particularly for majolica style ceramics. Supplies for Italian ceramics include clay, glazes, and temper, as well as all the tools and equipment from kilns to potter’s wheels. Rising costs and inflation in recent times have affected ceramic artists just like they have everyone else (especially in Italy). When materials cost more, the product itself becomes more expensive. In fact, many of the larger Italian ceramic manufacturers have sadly gone out of business in the last 5 years.

Artists then face the tough choice between cutting costs and compromising on quality or raising prices and keeping to a high standard. It’s a phenomenon that’s not limited to Italian ceramics – designer clothes, handbags, even peanut butter have all seen rising material costs over the past few years.

Manufacturing method also makes a major difference in pricing. Handmade ceramics require skilled craftsmanship to create, whereas mass-produced pieces require workers to operate machines. I’ve talked about the difference in these Italian ceramic types before, particularly the trend of pieces being made somewhere else and only finished in Italy with a “Made in Italian” signature. There are lots of “Italian ceramics” on the market currently with dubious origins, often actually made in China or Portugal.

The last aspect of Italian ceramic pricing is quantity. At Emilia Ceramics, we work exclusively with small manufacturers, some of which are made up of a single artist. At Ceramiche Bartoloni, for instance, it is just the Bartoloni brothers (Patrizio and Stefano) who do all the ceramic artwork. And because our orders are selective, requesting one of a kind pieces with their own unique character and style, they are relatively small. Importing these small productions of handmade Italian ceramics means higher shipping costs than larger manufacturers sending over boat-loads of a manufactured product.

With all these factors in mind, I think it’s more important than ever to support artists that are continuing a craft that’s generations in the making. And I feel good about cutting out all the middlemen and paying my money directly to the hardworking and talented artists in Italy. While there might be ceramics “inspired by” Italian methods, nothing quite matches up with the real thing. And to me, that’s worth every penny.

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Historical Roots of Blue and White Mexican Pottery

Archeologists recently discovered a kiln more than 1,300 years old in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Used by the Zapotecs to make ceramics, it’s one of the best-preserved kilns found to date, says Mexico Today. Not surprisingly, a strong pottery tradition still exists right down the road from the discovery, and in fact, throughout this region of Mexico. From the all black pottery associated with Oaxacan artisans, to the multicolored and blue and white Talavera-style made in Puebla and Dolores-Hidalgo, Mexican pottery is definitely thriving. Modern day artists have put their own stamp on the craft, while adhering to some techniques the Zapotecs would have used over a thousand years ago.

This link between past and present in Mexico creates truly unique pieces, from serving dishes to pottery platters. Reading about this kiln made me think of Gorky Gonzalez pottery, which combines traditional Mexican techniques with Japanese, Spanish, and Italian influences. The resulting fusion is something unique, yet still invokes an ancient pottery past.

Of course, being tied to the past doesn’t need you mean to be stuck there. Nothing exemplifies this concept more than the Gogo line, created by and named for Gorky Gonzalez’s son. When it comes to blue and white Mexican pottery, Gogo serving pieces might not be what you expect. Sleek and modern, these contemporary pieces speak to a design aesthetic of today while staying true to techniques honed for hundreds of years.

But serving ware needs to have more than an interesting past. For me when it comes time to choose pottery platters or serving bowls, I’m concerned about how the piece will look and function with food on it. Blue and white consistently looks clean and sharp, making Mexican pottery in these colors great for showing off your favorite dishes.

Shape also matters when it comes to unique serving dishes. Round pottery platters are versatile; use them for main dishes, finger foods, or even as a charger to give your table a pop of color.

The length of this white platter is striking filled with fruits or snacks at a party. And an oval serving dish handles a roast or an array of cupcakes with equal ease. Having a variety of shapes is a simple solution that certainly packs a design punch.

By mixing blue and white Mexican pottery together, you’ll create a distinctive table or party spread perfect for so many occasions. Historic, stylish, and modern – now those are some unique serving dishes!

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What Sets Fine Italian Ceramics Apart?

There are many diehard lovers of Italian ceramics out there, and for good reason. Whether it’s Tuscan pottery or a piece from Sicily, there is just something about Italian ceramics that sets it apart from the other other forms of maiolica-type wares being made elsewhere.

The majolica technique itself still flourishes throughout the world, seen most often in Portuguese, French, Mexican, and Spanish pottery. While the majolica process varies little between countries and hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, there’s definitely a wide variety of results.

Both Spanish and Portuguese pottery have long been recognized for their gorgeous tiles, in addition to their tableware. Called azulejos, these glazed tiles decorate large swathes of Portuguese buildings from churches to houses to train stations and their use dates back to the 15th century. The geometric patterns and later figurative motifs create stunning mural-like decoration in the most unexpected places. Truly beautiful and useful, the tiles also help with temperature control.Igreja da Misericórdia de Tavira - Azulejos

The tradition behind both Portuguese and Spanish pottery (as well as most of the Mediterranean region) started when Arabs introduced the technique in 711. An important coastal town for centuries, Valencia remains a major center of Spanish pottery and I’m still hoping to start carrying pieces by some artists from there in the near future (stay tuned).

So how is Italian Majolica different? I believe it is a combination of excellent artists (many of whom have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting the craft) and the traditional designs which generations of Italians have enhanced, individualized, and improved upon. Tuscan pottery is what many people picture when it comes to fine Italian ceramics. From the noble tradition behind the wares made in Montelupo Fiorentino to more commonly found pieces from Deruta, the bright colors, practical shapes, and ineffable charm truly put Italian ceramics in a class of its own. Who can resist the cheerful lemons, proud roosters, and rustic flowers that decorate plates and other majolica dinnerware from Tuscia d’Arte and Ceramiche Bartoloni?

Italians are masters at blending art and function to create masterpieces that are beautiful and unique. But just as Italian ceramics stay near and dear to our hearts, there’s no reason to overlook the gorgeous producers of ceramics in Portugal, Spain, France and Mexico. Among all these individual traditions there’s sure to be a majolica-inspired pottery that’s just right for your home.

Azulejos image courtesy of Concierge.2C.

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Montelupo Fiorentino and the Tradition of Majolica

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, and not just because of the food. I love the family traditions that surround the day, even as they evolve with expanding and changing family structures. So as I reflect on Thursday’s feast of turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, I’m reminded of another place where family and tradition rule the day: Montelupo Fiorentino in Italy.

In world of Tuscan ceramics, Montelupo Fiorentino is famous for its quality majolica (it is one of a few major historical centers of Italian hand painted ceramics). Located on an important crossroads between the Florentine area, the Apennines, and the Tyrrhenian coast, Montelupo Fiorentino has the perfect access to clay, water, and transportation that ceramics needed to thrive in the Middle Ages. The Florentine Republic took over the area in 1204, enlarging the defensive castle (you can still visit its remains today). Construction of walls in the 14th century helped protect the town and the Priory of St. Lorenzo, and helped it grow into a thriving city and production center for Tuscan ceramics in the 15th and 16th centuries.

But none of this really explains why Montelupo Ceramics are so famous. The craze for majolica in the Renaissance brought in wealthy families who needed beautiful, sturdy dishware. Montelupo Fiorentino became the center of production for the Medicis (who built the Villa dell’Ambrogiana nearby) and other noble families.

The detail and craftsmanship of Montelupo ceramics led to its distribution around both the Mediterranean (Greece, Egypt, Morocco, Spain, and France) and the shipping lanes of the Atlantic (Southern England and Holland). Talk about being internationally renowned! You can see beautiful examples of Montelupo ceramics from this era at the Museum of Montelupo.

The production of Montelupo ceramics was hit hard by the plague that ravaged Italy in the 17th century — creating a shortage of labor and an economic recession. Luckily for us, there was a revival in the 19th century of the art form, and today Montelupo Fiorentino is once again a major center of beautiful, quality, handmade majolica combining innovation and modern style with the traditional techniques that originally made it famous.

Many consider Montelupo Fiorentino to be the best of Tuscan ceramics. You can celebrate the traditions of the region at the annual International Ceramics Festival, held on the last week of June. There you’ll find great examples of the art, as well as see masters at work, hear live music, and sample traditional Tuscan food. If you can’t get to Italy next summer, add a touch of Tuscan elegance to your home with gorgeous Montelupo ceramics by Ceramiche Bartoloni and Tuscia d’Arte.

Villa dell’Ambrogiana drawing image courtesy of Sailko.

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Blog Round Up: Ginger Jars

Why do so many people love ginger jars? Also called a ceramic urn or tibor (in Spanish), these timeless vessels have definitely been making a splash in the decorating world lately. I love the versatility of ginger jars with a lid when it comes to decorating possibilities: take off the lid and it’s a vase for a stunning bouquet; put the lid back on and it looks perfect on a shelf, end table, or in a favorite nook.

But I’m not the only one who loves ginger jars. Perusing recent posts on design blogs, I’m amazed how many people are talking about ginger jars — from antique Chinese ginger jars to modern tibores by Talavera Vazquez. Here’s a quick roundup of great ginger jar finds; it’s fantastic how they can really work with so many different kinds of home décor. What’s your favorite?

Color. Curated by Color and Love Design are into blue and white. Cooper Grey loves the striking qualities of black and white. Both these combinations feel clean and fresh, no matter the setting from living room to bathroom, entryway to kitchen (or even on the patio). Blue and white can be nautical or sophisticated, black and white minimalist or causal, and ginger jars blend into both of these arresting color schemes easily.

Shape. Is there a difference between temple jars or ginger jars? Houzz explains the subtle difference in these shapes as well as their various uses. What we often call ginger jars have been used to keep the ashes of loved ones, ginger, salt, and other spices. Seaside Style talks about her mother’s collection that started her own obsession with traditional ginger jars. She’s mixed a Chinese ginger jar with seashore-inspired accents as well as more modern piece with antique furniture. I’d also agree with Dressing Rooms about the “timeless elegance” of ginger jars both old and new.

Graphics. Stripes, zig-zags, chevrons, and other organic inspired designs makes for ginger jars that feel modern yet not too edgy or minimalist. Shop Sweet Things loves the variety of patterns available in modern ginger jars. California Home and Design adores chevrons and mentions pottery ginger jars as an easy way to incorporate this pattern into your home without being overwhelming. And Jen Ramos of Made By Girl keeps one on her office bookshelf as a stylish graphic counterpoint to her collection of bookends, vases, and other great art work. So many uses for ginger jars, so little time!

Look for more blog roundups as we finish up 2011, definitely a year of great design.

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The Value of Handmade

Here at Emilia Ceramics, we talk a lot about our pieces being individually handmade instead of coming off a mechanized factory-line. And I guess it’s just assumed that the label “handmade” means that a piece is special and should be valued accordingly. But why is that really? What makes handmade better, more special, and more valuable?

It’s the hands. They are not just hands after all, but the hands of creative and artistically-gifted people, who often come from a long line of artists and a culture known for its traditional artistry.

After a week of visiting, watching, and appreciating the work of local artists throughout Provence, I have been reminded that it really is the people, the artists, and their lives that give value to handmade ceramics. Here are two great examples:

Sylvie Duriez (throwing a pitcher in the photo here) was taught to throw pottery by her mother, who in turn had learned it from her father. Sylvie is famous in her small town for turning out one-of-a-kind plates, pitchers, and bowls that are expertly crafted and finished in her own unique style. She does the complete process herself: throwing and firing the clay, decorating it with fine lines and then painting it with a water-color-like fluidity. Her style is ever-evolving and she loves to play around with new techniques. What ties her work together is that each of her ceramic pieces is a product of Sylvie herself, as a daughter, mother, artist, and friend. They are original expressions of her life and her experiences, shaped into a plate, bowl, or pitcher with her own hands.

When you spend a little time with Richard Esteban (left), here’s what you learn: He is a playful father of three, a devoted husband, and an excellent cook. He loves to joke around, poke fun at his family and friends, and share good wine with guests. He has practically adopted Arnaud, a young artist who grew up without a father, married young and has two children he loves to brag about. He has worked as a sort of “apprentice” to Richard for the last 15 years. Then there’s Katia, who’s equally part of the family. She’s the godmother of Richard’s oldest child and has worked for him for 20 years. She manages the shop and helps decorate platters with intricate little designs — all with a smile and a cigarette!

It’s easy to appreciate the irresistible charm of Richard’s polka-dot bowls and rustic French pitchers. What’s more difficult is remembering what gives them that charm, that Provencial authenticity, that je ne sais quoi. It’s Richard himself. And Arnaud. And Katia. It’s their individual backgrounds and creative inspirations, their sensibilities and their experiences. Through their hands, each piece receives a touch of their personality, charm, warmth, and love.

And that’s the value of handmade. It’s visible in the finished product because of the people creating it. Their hands mold the clay, but their experiences and lives affect it as well. They craft each ceramic piece with love and attention, which we are then fortunate enough to enjoy on our tables, in our homes, over our family dinners and parties with friends. It is a transfer of one life to another which can only happen through human hands.

Now that I’m home from France I recognize that the importance of my buying trip was much more than just the “buying” I did. I am reminded yet again of the value of the handmade ceramics in my collection. It goes beyond a beautifully crafted vase, a functional bowl, or a perfectly glazed platter, to the story behind that piece. The artist, their life, family and history is what really gives it value.

Far left: Arnaud playing around on the wheel.

Right: Katia stocking the storeroom shelves.

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A Closer Look at Mexican Ceramic Art

There’s such a rich history of Mexican ceramic art: Like how Talavera Vázquez started a revolution that continues today, how Mata Ortiz pottery was first developed by Juan Quezada, and how Gorky Gonzalez revitalized the Mexican tradition of majolica. There’s always something more to learn about and while Mexican ceramic art has been around for thousands of years, you can see striking similarities between what archeologists have found and the ceramics being produced in Mexico today. Let’s take a closer look at some additional examples…

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Oaxaca

Located in the south of Mexico, Oaxaca ceramics are distinct because of the black clay found in the region. The “barro negro” (black clay) pieces have a beautiful black finish that started out matte but have been polished to an almost metallic sheen, a technique created by potter Doña Rosa in the 1950s. The other striking ceramics of this region are the green-glazed pieces from Santa María Atzompa, another tradition that started after the Spanish conquest.

Jalisco

This tradition of Mexican ceramic art also goes back thousands of years, but modern production uses high temperature firing techniques to create both ceramic and stoneware pieces. The Jalisco “bruñido” style is characterized by a piece that is burnished (rather than glazed) to make it shine. These are often jugs or jars with slender necks. Traditional designs are quite detailed and multicolored, though the antique pieces are faded because of not being fired after painting. Modern stoneware ceramics are brightly colored with a variety of global influences, making Jalisco another rich contributor to Mexican ceramic art.

Majolica

While not a region in Mexico like the others, this technique is widespread in the artistic cities of Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato, and San Miguel de Allende. A versatile form decorated with rich glazes, and continually incorporating modern influences, I think this is the most timeless of all Mexican ceramic art. The thick glaze looks and feels super inviting, whether it’s a vase or a coffee mug!

No matter the origin, Mexican ceramic art is traditionally made by hand, often in family-run workshops. The wide range of cultures and mix of traditions present in Mexico truly sets its ceramics apart. I believe it is an art form that is always worth further exploration.

Oaxaca image and Jalisco image both courtesy of AlejandroLinaresGarcia.