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Capelo’s Mexican Vases: High Impact Style

Mexican vases
Vibrant and colorful, Mexican vases are a favorite of many interior designers. But while the graphic designs of Talavera Vazquez are wonderfully modern, there’s something truly special about Capelo’s vases that draw me back again and again to his studio outside Guanajuato, Mexico.

Capelo Ceramics
Capelo
himself says that his glazes are distinct because they use all-natural ingredients. But the playful patterning and expert color combinations set these Mexican vases, pitchers, serving bowls, and other ceramics apart from the rest. Even an empty Capelo vase easily becomes a focal point for a room, whether on a sideboard, shelf, or tabletop. A Capelo vase filled with fresh flowers is even more compelling. The variety of motifs—vases adorned with interlocking circle and diamonds, a repeating fleur de lys pattern, or abstract flowers—highlight their one of a kind nature and makes them even more special. No matter the size, the interesting shapes and warm, inviting glazes just beg to be touched and used.

Mexican vase by CapeloThe laid-back vibe continues beyond Capelo’s Mexican vases. His rustic pitchers accent homes with ease on the table or as decor. For example, this large pitcher would be especially compelling used as a vase for long branches or dried grasses. The ribbon accent on the handle gives it the perfect finishing touch.

large pitcherEach of Capelo’s pieces tells its own story, which is what makes them so compelling. I like how the abstract patterns appeal to a wide range of styles, so they seem right at home in a variety of settings. I can’t wait to see what Capelo’s team creates by the next time I visit the studio! They’re sure to bring high style no matter where they end up.

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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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Behind the Scenes: Capelo’s One of a Kind 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 hand-painted ceramics come to life.Capelo

Whenever I visit Capelo’s studio and home on a hillside above Guanajuato, Mexico, I’m always struck by the beauty of the landscape. The rolling mountains with their winding roads are stunning. Capelo himself definitely appreciates the beautiful setting — he goes for almost daily horseback rides through the mountains to relax and enjoy!

hillsides around Guanajuato, Mexico

Capelo Capelo’s one of a kind ceramics are similarly stunning. They possess an unexpected, organic, and completely touchable quality that really sets them apart from other handmade ceramics. Capelo’s studio is one of the smaller ones that I work with at Emilia Ceramics, with only a handful of artists working alongside Capelo himself to create and paint these beautiful Mexican ceramics. Capelo is also a highly regarded architect and teaches classes at the University of Guanajuato, manages the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, and executes special commissions. On my visit last June he showed me the gold “key to Guanajuato” he made to present to the Pope. Capelo excels at oil painting and mixed-media sculpture; he is a true artist — always creating something new and exciting.

One of the most striking parts of Capelo’s ceramics is their unusual shape. He makes something as simple as a bowl or vase seem completely new with curves which are accentuated by the gorgeous hand-painting on each piece.

Capelo insists on using only natural glazes, which give his Mexican ceramics a truly special touchable quality. Like Sylvie Durez, all his ceramics are one of a kind, painted in a recognizable range of signature colors. I always have a hard time choosing pieces from all the gorgeous possibilities available and am sad to see them go (but, of course, glad when they find happy homes). The last buying trip yielded striking statement vases, a collection of serving bowls and planters, massive pitchers, and a set of plates that remind me of an ever-changing kaleidoscope. Just like the landscape around the studio, Capelo’s ceramics is a small slice of Mexico that is hard to forget. I can’t wait for my next trip since I’m sure to find a whole new range of Mexican ceramics to fall in love with and share with all of you.

Capelo statement vase

footed serving bowllittle blue plateCapelo Mexican ceramics

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Mother’s Day Gift Ideas

May is coming up fast and with it Mother’s Day, a time to celebrate the importance of moms everywhere. Stuck on gift ideas for that special lady and need some inspiration? Here are some handmade handpainted Majolica gift ideas that are just as special as she is.

If Mom likes…

Entertaining: Think about serving plates and platters. Unusually shaped pieces like the rounded rectangle Mexican serving platters will definitely stand out at her next event.

Cheerful polka dots or stripes make for whimsical French serving platters, while fruit and floral motifs characterize Mexican serving platters. Choose motifs or colors that already go with what’s in her kitchen to ensure she loves her gift.

Gardening: Help her plants shine with eye-catching planters and ceramic pots. Handmade handpainted Majolica works both indoors and out, decorating patios, porches, doorsteps, gardens, and windowsills with ease. Use a round planter as a cachepot for a blooming orchid or one of her favorite flowers or gift a larger planter with seeds and soil to start spring off right.

Drinking coffee: Then the right mug is a must. Consider the size of this large mug, big enough for an entire morning’s worth of coffee or tea. Or if she loves espresso, a colorful set of espresso cups might be just the thing she needs to start her day off right. Creamers, sugar bowls, and other coffee and tea accessories are also great gift ideas, especially if they make their first appearance on a tray for her indulgent Mother’s Day breakfast in bed.

Unique artwork: Consider one of a kind handmade, handpainted Majolica. Whether it’s a wall plate or serving platter, vase or pitcher, unique ceramics are sure to please. Majolica ceramics are elegant and sturdy, which is great for mothers of young children. She’ll love knowing that she has the only one in the world. I’d say she deserves nothing less.

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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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French Ceramics at Design Miami/Basel 2012

Did you make it to Design Miami/Basel 2012? This international forum on art took place in Basel, Switzerland June 12-17 with a whole host of furniture and other objects on display from almost 40 galleries, Design Talks, performances, and more. I was curious to note the strong presence of French ceramics in this year’s show and decided it was worth taking a closer look.

One of the things I like about Design Miami/Basel 2012 is that it’s not just about contemporary design, but pieces and movements from the 20th century to today. The strong French design presence with works by Jean Prouvé, Maria Pergay, and Roger Tallon (who designed Air France interiors, the French high-speed train TGV, and the Mexico City subway, among other major public commissions) really dominated this year, according to The New York Times. These iconic designers have an industrial feel that somehow also translates into timeless appeal. Pergay’s work with stainless steel is truly stunning, like her “flying carpet” daybed and other shiny furnishings – if you’re not familiar with her work (as is the case with many Americans), I recommend looking up her unique creations to see more for yourself.

But this design fair isn’t just about furniture. French ceramics were just some of the many smaller pieces on offer, with other ceramic work from places like Korea, Sweden, and Japan. On the last day of the fair there was even a talk called “Collecting 20th and 21st Century Ceramics” which discussed the evolution of the form and international ceramic styles.

As with other discussions around design and French ceramics, function and form come into question. Is this an art, a craft, or a combination of both? Looking at some of the pieces on offer, I am personally drawn to those that can be used. The delicate porcelain bowl, the smooth flowing vases with solid color glazes, and the stacked plates all are true highlights of this design fair in my opinion. They look great on display, but also in use.

Thus, inspired by all the great design of Design Miami/Basel 2012, I present you my own selection of French ceramics that fit into the aesthetics displayed there:

The simplicity of the celadon pitcher and fluted bowl by Poterie Ravel are definitely elegant, while cheerful yellow plates and bowls add unexpected fun to these appealing French ceramics.

Sylvie’s modern, minimalist Sunrise platter is a one of a kind gem that bridges that gap between form and function, looking beautiful on the wall or the table. In keeping with smooth glazes and solid colors, look no further than the burnt honey round vase, petal platter, and cheese plate by Richard Esteban. These French ceramics all have a touchable appeal and exude a real warmth.

With all these accessible, artistic French ceramics, it’s hard to decide on a “best in show” for French ceramics that fits in with the pieces on display at Design Miami/Basel 2012. But I think the winner would be the chalk white shallow dish by Patrice Voelkel (pictured at the top of this post). Stark and minimal, yet also inviting, it’s a piece worth collecting even if not displayed in a design fair tent.

What do you think of the offerings at Design Miami/Basel this year? Leave a comment and let us know!

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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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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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Vase Design Trends: Color, Size, and More

What’s your favorite vase like? Is it a tall ceramic vase? A colorful vase with a pattern or design? Is it glass, metal, ceramic, or some other kind of material? Did you buy it or make it? Looking at current trends in home design, vases are becoming more than just a receptacle for flowers but a way to make a design impact, whether empty or full.

I’ll not be so bold as to say these are THE vase design trends for 2012, but here are some vase types I’ve noticed recently in home design. Which of them fit your design aesthetic?

  • Unusual vessels. Mason jars were the start and now more containers (whether or not created expressly as a vase) are holding bouquets, branches, and buds. From a vase that is also a wireless router to hanging test tubes on the wall for single blooms, what counts as a vase is only limited by your imagination.
  • Glass. Clear glass vases can be dressed up with leaves, ribbons, or even jelly beans (like this colorful spring flower arrangement). But instead of sticking with transparent glass, why not choose unique and bold Murano glass vases or mercury glass vases? I love the silver sheen that mercury glass has, making it perfect for a centerpiece vase.
  • Unexpected places (and sizes). A miniature vase in the bathroom, on the kitchen counter, or even an end table of a bedroom can instantly bring some warmth to even the starkest space. This Stockholm apartment shows the power that a well-placed vase or planter can have. I also see more extreme sizes, particularly with huge, stunning tall ceramic vases that look perfect on a mantle or tabletop. The best part of these centerpiece vases is that they are still beautiful even when you leave them empty.
  • Colorful vases. This is where ceramic vases really shine. Solid colors from pastels to bold blue ceramic vases add a striking note to any room’s color scheme. Patterns like stripes, zig zags, or other motifs make for attention-grabbing graphic vases. Pictures, floral motifs, or other colorful vase designs make these pieces you’ll keep on display all the time.

What other vase trends have you noticed this year? What are your favorite vases like? Post a comment and let us know!

Test tube vase image courtesy of SOCIALisBETTER.

Mercury glass vases image courtesy of Design Darling.

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Blue and White Rooster? Red Rooster? Find the Right Rooster for You.

Not all roosters are equal when it comes to decorating, as any true rooster fanatic will tell you. Like other fun decorative accents, there is a range of rooster styles to choose from. A traditional motif for Mexican and Italian pottery, you can easily find roosters on everything ceramic: serving platters, cups, pitchers, and plates are just the beginning.

But where to find the right roosters? While Vietri pottery is well-known for its Italian pottery, I find their collection of roosters disappointing. Rustic rooster plates and cups should have personality, not look manufactured. But even though Vietri pottery might not be the rooster destination I desire, there are many other options out there. Here’s my quick list of some rooster styles and pieces suitable for a variety of homes:

Rustic Roosters

Straight from the barnyard, rustic roosters work well for homes with a hint of country. The blue and white rooster on Tuscia d’Arte’s utensil holder is playful and practical. The hand-painted aesthetic of Gorky Gonzalez’s roosters, like this rooster salad plate, adds color to the table.

Modern Roosters

A stylized rooster sculpture by Vietri pottery is a good example of a modern interpretation of ceramic roosters. Sleek, streamlined shapes and clean lines let the bird blend into any kind of minimalist décor with ease. Another great example is Gorky’s set of salt and pepper shakers, portraying wide-eyed and funky roosters, which definitely appeal to a more contemporary aesthetic. 

Blue and White Roosters

Yes, I love blue and white, and roosters are no exception. The simple color-combination lends a subdued, more sophisticated feeling to the rooster motif. A long-time favorite, El Gallo Azul (the blue rooster) looks great perched on a kitchen counter — adding a subtle, yet fun vibe to the everyday kitchen routine. Of course, blue and white rooster ceramic serving platters or bowls are another useful option.

Vintage Roosters

The timeless popularity of rooster ceramics make them a great addition to any vintage collection. A blue and white rooster plate like this one on Etsy adds charm with china. Try antique stores and flea markets for other one-of-a-kind finds.

Kitchen RoostersRealistic Roosters

Looking for a rooster that makes people do a double-take? Sculptural pieces are your best bet when it comes to ceramic roosters that look lifelike. A stand-alone piece works like El Gallo Azul as a striking accent to a table, counter, or shelf. You can also try something like this realistic rooster cachepot, perfect for your favorite flowers or plant.

Functional Roosters

Don’t use roosters just for decoration, but also practicality. Rooster salt & pepper shakers, rooster creamers, rooster sugar bowls, rooster mugs, and rooster pitchers are all excellent additions to the breakfast table, adding some real personality and flair.

Realistic roosters image courtesy of srqpix.

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Blog Round Up: Planters


Green thumbs unite! Ceramic planters are a favorite with so many gardeners and it’s easy to see why. Planters made from earthenware (aka ceramic planters) keep soil moist longer — perfect for those of us who forget to water. And they provide a sturdy base for our favorite plants, from ferns to flowers to vegetables. At Emilia Ceramics, we love ceramic planters for their decorative flair as well. But we’re not the only ones… Let’s check out why people love ceramic planters in 2011, for our last blog round up of the year.

Fresh American loves planters with style, indoor and out. Whether a zig zag planter or a huge cube for small shrubs and trees, it’s important to match your planter to its contents. Check to make sure there’s enough space for adequate roots when choosing a ceramic planter. It’s best to find a ceramic planter with a hole for drainage, but you can always add a layer of rocks or gravel to keep your roots from getting too wet. Other planter ideas range from DIY to statement pieces for your patio, porch, or even living room and kitchen.

Of course, you don’t have to use a zig zag planter for just plants. The Jet Set Gypsy thinks the oval striped planter pictured above would look great filled with limes for margarita making and I tend to agree. Ceramic planters are perfect places for fruits, mail, or even stylish office supply storage on a desk.

Of course, fun patterns are one of the reasons to love handmade ceramic planters. This Designers Palette loves chevron ginger jars, but I can see a similar design statement with a wonderfully graphic planter. Want something a little more warm or organic? This rustic Italian ceramic planter, like many others by Ceramiche Bartoloni, is gorgeous for either starting out seedlings or housing daffodils and other favorite flowers.

Let’s not forget wall planters either. For trailing vines or a decorative display of seasonal flowers, hanging ceramic planters are another colorful way to create a garden inside and out. Blue and white, polka dot, or multicolored planters make any wall space instantly more green in the summer and add interest during dreary winters.

It’s been an especially popular year for zig zag planters; In fact, at Emilia Ceramics we’ve recently sold out — who knew zig zag planters would be such popular gifts this holiday season?! More are on the way, but with stripes, prints, polka dots, fruits, and other motifs for ceramic planters, it’s easy to find one that matches your style as we transition from 2011 to 2012.

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Displaying Your Favorite Italian Plates

One of the best things about ceramics is their ability to combine function with art. A masterfully-painted design you can eat off! That said, there are some plates and platters you would rather just look at – I grew up with handpainted Italian plates like these on my parents’ walls. Wall plates are making a comeback in the decorating world. And there’s no law that says if you display your favorite Italian plates on the wall you can’t take them down to use them when the need arises.

There are many ways to display your favorite handpainted Italian plates (or really any plates you want to decorate with). Here are my quick tips for making your wall plates shine.

  • Use the Right Tools. A v-shaped hanger is best for delicate or antique plates, recommends Martha Stewart. Spring-loaded hangers are another option, but the best wall plates already have holes in them: that’s one of the things I love about these Italian plates from Tuscia d’Arte. You can use strong monofilament or wire for security and hang from a picture hook strong enough for your plates’ weight.
  • Go Beyond the Wall. Of course, you don’t have to display wall plates on a wall. Italian plates make a great addition to a sideboard, table, or cabinet when displayed upright on small plate easels. These little display helpers come in a variety of colors and sizes to match your style and plate size. Layer Italian plates with other objects like candles, pitchers, pictures, or other art for personalized decorating.
  • Be Creative in Groupings. A single plate can be beautiful, but a collection of Italian plates packs a decorative punch. Arrange wall plates in columns flanking a mirror, in clusters above a table, over a doorway, or on dedicated plate shelves or racks. Pick plate shelves (they have a groove in them that keeps plates from slipping) that compliment your existing décor and finishes as well as sets off the colors in your wall plates.
  • Think about Scale. A single tiny Italian plate over a fireplace looks lost, but a collection with multiple platters and plates fits the space nicely. Use smaller plates for smaller spaces, like this interestingly shaped Italian plate that compliments a houseplant on an end table. Large pieces need space around them to prevent a cluttered feeling.

  • Mix it Up. Rotate your hanging plates for a quick décor refresher, perhaps seasonally or whenever the fancy strikes. Don’t feel like your plates need to completely match either: groupings that have a common color, shape, or style make for even more attractive decoration.
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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.

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The Allure of the Majolica Plate

Originality is an important quality when it comes to all ceramics. But with the wide variety of majolica plates out there, I’m always looking for something that’s fresh and new. Not to say that I discount tradition – just look at examples of Italian ceramics from Umbria or Faenza Italian ceramics. (Faenza, by the way, is where we get the term faience for majolica ceramics.) These rich ceramic centers in Italy are hugely important historically as well as stylistically.

Underlining the importance of Faezna in the larger world of Italian ceramics is the city’s International Museum of Ceramics. I visited a few years ago and got a firsthand look at the majolica plates in their collection, which date from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Exquisite details are on these pieces that have been found through excavations and other acquisitions, dating to the 1400s. Obviously the allure of the majolica plate is nothing new.

But beyond its rich history, what draws people to majolica plates? Of course there’s the obvious explanation of function: plates are great for eating and serving meals. But majolica raises the bar on other functional plates. Let’s look at a few different examples to see how:

  • Design. The large flat surface of a plate is like a canvas. Majolica plates range from being a solid, simple landscape to detailed, complex works of art. Repeating motifs are common but plates became more complicated with scenes in the istoriato tradition. Introduced in the 16th century, this style literally means “with a story in it” and marked the transition of majolica plates from purely functional to decorative pieces. The harlequin plates are a great example of this tradition – the lifelike figures are uniquely Tuscan and so playful! I love the scene of the serenade with its story in progress (above right).
  • Shape. Majolica plates are often round because it’s an easy shape to make on a potter’s wheel. This serves to make other shapes all the more striking, like squares or rectangles. I love serving food on these obscure shapes, but they work equally well as colorful wall hangings. A personal favorite is the square plate with lemons; the lemons are so inviting, their blue background so rustic, and the pattern around the edge adds a light and whimsical feeling. Curious to know which Italian town is most famous for lemons and ceramics? So am I since it seems so many make the claim.
  • Unexpected Details. Going hand in hand with these other qualities of majolica plates is adding a little extra, like a foot. Footed platters literally elevate their contents, making them perfect for fruit or dessert, whether as a centerpiece or a gorgeous accent on your kitchen counter. As I mentioned in a recent post, Ceramiche Bartoloni’s Foglia e Frutta Footed Platter with Angel is a great example of this, as is Tuscia d’Arte’s Footed Platter with Tuscan Fruits. There’s always fruit in this bowl-like plate, even when it’s empty, creating a great mix of form and function.

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French Ceramics: Spotlight on Quimper

One thing I love about ceramics is its rich history and variety worldwide. French ceramics is a great example: From Provence to Brittany (Bretagne), French ceramics are as varied as the people and traditions that make them. Recently I came across my parents’ collection of hand painted plates from Quimper (pronounced kemper) and got inspired to find out more about this famous center of French ceramics for myself.

Artists in Quimper have been making pottery since the Roman times. Near four rivers there’s both an abundance of clay and an easy way to ship the finished product. But Quimper faience (remember, faience shares the same glazing methods as majolica) began around the start of the 18th century. Its history reads a bit like a soap opera: Jean Baptiste Bousquet moved to Locmaria (or Loc-Maria) in the 1690s, setting up production for useful items like pipes and tablewares. His son Pierre Bousquet came to help out later on. Pierre’s daughter married Pierre Clément Caussy, an artist trained in the multicolored glazing approach like that in Rouen. Before pieces had been blue and white, but now red, purple, green, and yellow began to be used as well.

The nobility clamored for faience for their tables (a trend that started when Louis XIV confiscated dinnerware made from precious metals as a fund-raising move, says Antiques Journal) since it was easier to get than porcelain from China. These antique hand painted French dinner plates are popular with some collectors today. Even with the link to nobility, Quimper ceramics survived the French Revolution by changing production to brown and reddish earthenware. In the early 1800s glazes using multiple colors reemerged and around 1880 the “petit Breton” motif appeared.

There are still many “Faïenceries” in Quimper, including Faïenceries H.B. Henriot started by the Bousquet family. They continue the tradition of handpainting without transfers, which is an impressive feat in itself. There’s also a Quimper Faience Museum you can visit and learn more about the methods of these famous French ceramics. If you start delving into more about Quimper ceramics on your own, be prepared: the best information is in French.

 

 

Image of Henriot faïencerie courtesy of Thesupermat.

Image of “petit Breton” courtesy of Patrick.charpiat.

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Function’s nice, but how ’bout some originality?

We talk a lot about a ceramic piece’s function: How a platter is perfect for appetizers or a vase is great for displaying cut flowers. But we all know there are millions of serving platters and ceramic vases that function well. Thanks to Ikea and Target, we can buy functional ceramic pieces for less than 10 bucks! And at Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table, we can get Italian-like ceramics for less than $50. So why spend $185 on Tuscia’s Oval Serving Platter with Lemons or $110 for Vazquez’s Large Paloma Vase? Sure they function well, but the real reason we love them is their originality.

When a piece of ceramics is handmade and hand-painted, it is intrinsically unique. It is one of a kind because a human hand crafted it and a human hand applied the glaze… not to mention the fact that a very imperfect firing process was also involved! All this to say that even if the same artist tries to recreate the same piece it will undoubtedly look different. Of course, pieces made simultaneously look the most similar, that’s why I encourage customers who want a whole set to special order it at the same time.

To some, these inconsistencies might seem inconvenient. But as far as I’m concerned, I wouldn’t want it any other way! I love that the artists I work with put their own human touch into each piece. Sure some days their lemons are larger or more ripe-looking than others. Some mugs have thin handles, while others are more thick. But isn’t that the fun of it all?! Knowing that when you pick out a particular plate or fall in love with a pitcher, you’ll be the only one in the world to have that plate or that pitcher? It’s a one of a kind… a complete original. The artist made it with love and now it’s on your table or serving appetizers at your party. That one piece is special and that’s what gives it value. Sure it also serves it’s function perfectly. But as appose to the platter that came off a factory line, it’s got just as much personality at it does functionality.

A great example is one of my favorite pieces by Ceramiche Bartoloni, the Foglia e Frutta Footed Platter with Angel (left). I have ordered this platter from the Bartoloni brothers many times and each one they send me is different: Sometimes the little angel has fruits in his hands, other times he has a musical instrument, a flower or a leaf. Each platter has its own personality and tells its own story, just as an original work of art should.

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My Obsession with Handmade Ceramic Pottery

I don’t know when exactly it started. On my first solo trip to visit my artist uncle in LA, I spent all day making clay models of his dog and trying to figure out the potter’s wheel; I proudly centered my first pot sometime around the second grade; And my mom hand-crafted and painted an entire set of miniature dishes for my doll… no kidding! I went on to take ceramics classes in school through my senior year of college, when my professor was so fixated on the foot of each piece (the ring of clay that protrudes at the base) that to this day I immediately flip a piece over to analyze its foot.

After college I moved to Spain and immediately sought out a ceramics class. I landed in Yoko’s workshop, where little Japanese Yoko and ten Spanish señoras gossiped every Wednesday night about their husbands and neighbors… while making ceramics of course!

Apart from my personal attempts at the craft, I grew up surrounded by the handmade ceramic pottery of real artists. It was normal for my parents to return from a trip with delicately painted Italian ceramic plates to hang on the wall or Mexican dishes for serving chips and salsa. Our home was full of Quimper faience, those simple French designs that capture your imagination and transport you to another era. I loved that these handpainted ceramic works of art could decorate your walls like paintings, your shelves like framed photographs, and your table as an actual dinner plate. Function and beauty together… I was hooked.

My obsession quickly moved from household names like Quimper and Deruta to the unexpected and original. Artists worldwide have adopted the timeless techniques of handmade ceramic pottery and made them their own. I find it fascinating to see how different cultures and moments in history have influenced the craft. For example, traditional artists like the Bartoloni brothers in Italy and Gorky Gonzalez in Mexico have created their own interpretation of timeless images like the rooster:

Meanwhile, individualists like Sylvie Duriez and Richard Esteban follow tradition only so far as their technique on the potter’s wheel. When it comes to glazing their handmade pottery, these artists exert their own unique creativity — resulting in handpainted ceramics that express the artist’s true personality and cannot be replicated.

Large Bowl by Sylvie Duriez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is this mixture of tradition, innovation, and originality that really draws me to handmade and hand-painted ceramic pottery. Each piece has its own unique story, which not only impacts its look and feel, but also its function. These are not just beautiful paintings by amazing artists that we hang on our walls to appreciate. They are also our everyday plates, our special occasion serving dishes, our favorite mugs, and the centerpieces on our tables. They are thrown by hand and expertly painted in order to be used, enjoyed, and passed on to future generations.

So yeah, I’m obsessed with handmade ceramic pottery, but at least I’m willing to admit it!

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Can You Identify Handpainted Ceramics?

While the beauty and function of a ceramic piece is important, its origin has equal value in my mind. That is why I get to know artists personally, visiting their workshops in small towns, watching them work and discussing the techniques, glazes, and firing styles they employ. For me, there is no substitute for the knowledge that a bowl or plate I’m using was lovingly crafted and painted by human hands.

But what is the real difference between handpainted ceramics and their mass-produced counterparts? When Italian authorities began investigations to fight against fake handmade and handpainted ceramics several years ago, they obviously thought it a difference worth noting. In 2010 they ended up seizing over 2000 pieces bearing the “Handpainted in Deruta” signature that was in fact a decal transfer, not handpainted at all, says That’s Arte. These ceramics were being sold to tourists as well as exported as authentic Italian handpainted ceramics. Clearly there is money to be made here.

Art fraud or really any replication of a luxury good is becoming even more popular. From paintings to watches to handbags, it’s important to know the signs of the genuine article before making a purchase. Here’s what to look for when it comes to ceramic hand painting:

  • Brushstrokes. Ceramic hand painting will always show its true colors with brushstrokes, even if they are small. Often these come in a series in areas of solid color, but look carefully for the slightly darker areas that show overlap. (Can you see them in the image below?) Sometimes fakes will have a hand-painted rim on a plate or cup, so inspect multiple areas. Manufactured printed pieces often have a pixelated look instead of the even brushstrokes created by a human hand.
  • Crazing. With majolica pottery, this is a sure sign of authenticity. Crazing is the effect by which little hairlines appear over time (like in this photo blow); it’s a natural part of the aging process, which means it is only apparent in older ceramics. Pieces with bright white backgrounds and no texture should be suspect; authentic majolica made with ceramic hand painting will have more of a creamy white color instead.
  • Texture. The complex firing process of majolica produces slightly raised lines where the ceramic hand painting occurs. This “fat glaze” gives it such a wonderful hand feel; something mass-produced will have a flat surface. Another test is to scratch the piece with a coin; the glaze shouldn’t be affected at all.

Of course, the surest way to confirm a piece’s authenticity is to get to know the artist. This guarantees that you are buying handpainted ceramics. I visit my artists’ studios as often as possible, seeing the entire process in motion. That way, I know that my collection represents high quality and one-hundred percent handcrafted work.

Crazing image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass.

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The Case for Handmade Ceramic Pottery

There’s nothing quite like holding well-crafted ceramics in your hand, whether a mug, bowl, plate, or large decorative vase. Yet some believe handmade crafts like painted ceramics are endangered, as stated on the Mexican Pottery and Crafts blog.

As with other artistic professions, a ceramic artisan is not focused on speedy production – there are machines now for that – but instead on creating quality work that follows long-standing tradition. The artists I work with at Emilia Ceramics have all chosen to follow a path that doesn’t bring easy money or involve mass production. For them it is a labor of love, aimed at giving satisfaction to both artist and customer alike. Each piece of painted ceramics is the result of hours of work, from beginning to end. So the question is, as our society becomes more and more streamlined, is there still a place for this kind of intensive labor?

I believe that there is value in the tradition and culture behind handmade ceramic pottery, which mass-produced pieces just don’t have. I love seeing a fingerprint or other slight “imperfection” on a piece — it is evidence that the bowl or plate was crafted by human hands. It is definitely true that you “can feel when there was a person with enthusiasm behind an object and not simply a machine.” That connection is completely different from the feelings engendered when you buy a piece off the shelf at a big box store.

The idea of being part of a long-standing tradition is also critical, as a culture’s values are often passed on through its artwork. I think about artists like Gorky Gonzalez, Richard Esteban, and even Juan Quezada of Mata Ortiz fame. These men chose to pursue and truly revitalize ceramic traditions that had either disappeared or were on the verge of disappearing. They are great examples of the genius that results from combining traditional craftsmanship with a new and creative modern aesthetic. These artists respect the past, but aren’t slaves to its forms or designs.

Just look at painted ceramics like a graceful vase, a simple bowl, or even something as basic as a mug. These gorgeous, practical examples of handmade ceramic pottery appeal to all the senses, invoking rich traditions and celebrating life’s simple pleasures. And for that reason alone, I think we’ll be able to keep the tradition of handmade artistry alive, even in an increasingly technological world.

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The “Science” Behind Buying for Business

Recently, a friend asked me how I decide which pieces to buy for the Emilia Ceramics Collection. I had trouble with a concrete answer because the reality is most of my decisions are based more on gut reactions than a set of rules. There are however, a few guidelines (listed below) that definitely impact my decisions. As with every part of my business, I am still learning… but lucky for me, traveling to meet artists and pick from their work is a pretty fantastic way to learn!

1. Classic Shapes. People gravitate to the shapes they are accustomed to seeing and using, such as oval serving platters, deep salad bowls, and full-bodied pitchers for drinks or flower arrangements. These classic ceramic pieces make fantastic gifts as they are universally useful and can be added to any existing collection. For that very reason I like buying these functional shapes in multiple color schemes and styles… so they can fit into any aesthetic.

2. Original Shapes. The counter-effect to classic shapes, these pieces surprise and challenge the norm… and that’s why I love them. Squared edges are a great way to add originality to a utilitarian piece. My favorites are pictured below: The square platter by Tuscia d’Arte is perfect for serving cheese and crackers, Gorky’s octagonal bowls inspire Mexican fiestas, and finally Vazquez’s square planter adds dimension to the garden or patio.

3. Blue and White. Simply put, people will always love this classic color combination. I definitely gravitate to other colors as well, like warm earth-tones and fresh greens and yellows. But when blue and white ceramics is an option, I buy it. It is the closest thing I’ve found to a sure thing.

4. Functionality. Probably my biggest buying mistakes have come when I just fall in love with a design or piece that is not actually functional. While it may be exceptional artwork, that’s not always enough. To appeal to a larger audience a piece needs to be both beautiful and functional. Examples? Vases that look just as stately with or without a floral arrangement, plates that can be hung on the wall or used to serve dinner, lamps that add color and sophistication to the bedside table, and of course, probably my best seller of all-time, Gorky’s darling salt and pepper shakers!

5. Pure je ne sais quoi. When I am lucky enough to come across an artist that is creating original works of art that are striking, fun, thought-provoking, and useful, I know I’ve hit the jackpot. Prime examples are Angélica Escarcega in Guanajuato and Sylvie Duriez in Provence. These two women are talented, creative artists who work in their own personal styles to craft artwork that is imbued with personality and character. There is no rhyme or reason behind my purchasing their work… it’s just something I know is right. And my customers seem to agree.

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Mata Ortiz Pots: What’s the Story behind this Phenomenon?

When a friend said I’d like Marta Ortiz pottery, I assumed it was an artist’s name. Google, however, proved my assumptions (and spelling) wrong. Mata Ortiz (not Marta Ortiz) pottery is a unique art form from a small village of that name in Mexico. Here a revival of an ancient art form has transformed a community and truly enriched contemporary art.

This pottery sensation began when Juan Quezada found pieces of ancient Casas Grandes pottery in the nearby ruins of Paquimé. The form and designs intrigued him so much he began experimenting to see if he could discover how to make this exceptional pottery. Using local clay and trying different techniques with ash, firing, and formation, these pots are made without a potter’s wheel. Instead, they are hand built using a traditional coiling method that is then burnished, sanded down, and painted with natural pigments. Every step relies on what is readily available, from the hair used for the brushes to the cow manure and wood that provide fuel for the firing. It took Juan at least 16 years to get each step right, and he still experiments to this day with techniques and forms.

So how did Mata Ortiz pots find international acclaim? In the mid 1970s anthropologist Spencer MacCallum found some pots in a store in Deming, New Mexico. Their design and quality struck him, but the owner didn’t know who had made them. So Spencer set out to find the potter and ended up meeting Juan Quezada and his family in Mata Ortiz. A partnership was struck and slowly but surely a market built up for these truly one of a kind creations, revitalizing the village as more and more residents became potters in this impressive tradition.

Today there are tons of dealers and galleries for Mata Ortiz pots, both in and out of Mexico. Because the pieces are one-of-a-kind, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what you are going to get though when buying from a dealer online.

For my own collection, I tend to be more drawn to ceramic artwork that is functional.  As much as I love the organic, swooping forms of Mata Ortiz pottery, as well as the history and elaborate process behind it, it’s not very practical for daily usage.

It is the convergence of local tradition, innovation, and functionality that continues to draw me to the work by Talavera Vázquez. This 4th generation, family-run studio in Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, experiments with forms and traditional designs to make contemporary, beautiful pieces that are truly sophisticated. A lamp or vase adds authentic Mexican flavor to any room, but does it in a functional way. I also love their small pieces like candle holders, tissue boxes, and spoon rests that offer handmade Mexican artistry that is actually useful… making it an easy way to incorporate unique ceramics into your everyday life.

Mata Ortiz pot images courtesy of Ant Ware.

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Richard Esteban: A French Ceramics Superstar

Richard Esteban is not only a fabulous ceramic artist; he’s also known throughout the small town where he lives as a kind, warm-hearted, and generous father, neighbor, and to top it all off, a great cook! His playful ceramics capture this spirit and have thus extended his fame beyond the locals in Aigues-Vives, making Richard Esteban a big deal in the larger world of French ceramics.

An apprentice at age 16, Richard learned to throw on a potter’s wheel at Foucard-Jourdan in Vallauris, the last traditional ceramic producer in a town famous for its ceramics. Perhaps his precision can be traced back to this time, as the owners would walk around to inspect the potters’ work. If they saw any mistakes, the work being done would be crushed by their walking sticks as they passed by.

Richard’s next step was apprenticing with Philippe Sourdive at Cliousclat Sourdive. Working so closely with one of the few potters maintaining the tradition of glazed pottery, Richard learned about glazes and firing in a wood oven. He also developed his unique, whimsical style that is the hallmark of his ceramics.

In 1979, Richard struck off on his own and la Poterie d’Aigues-Vives was born. Influenced by both his apprenticeships and his walks through regional museums, the studio is a harmonious blend of tradition and innovation. Richard’s method stays true to the old ways of Provencial pottery: from the rich red local clay to hand-throwing every piece to firing in an antique kiln. His workshop is small, but the work is painstaking and simply stunning.

Richard Esteban’s work definitely draws on influences from all over France, both in form and designs. In 2000 he even opened a museum to display his massive collection of glazed French pottery from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. He is certainly not a “copyist” though. Many of Richard’s original designs and pieces have garnered both national and international attention. If you read French, you should enjoy looking at the extensive press section on his website.

Obviously I’m a huge fan of Richard Esteban and his work. His playful polka dots, fantastic hanging lanterns, whimsical animal designs, and rustic glazes are just a few of the reasons I am so attracted to French pottery in general.

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How to Care for Your Hand Painted Ceramics: 5 Top Tips

Many of my customers worry about how to take care of their Majolica ceramics. It’s not complicated, I promise. Yes, your hand painted ceramics need a little TLC, but nothing too excessive.

Here are 5 top tips for keeping your hand made ceramics in top shape:

1. Don’t overheat. While the Majolica ceramics that I carry are all dishwasher and microwave safe, excess heat can lead to premature wear and potential breakage through weakening. If you must put them in the dishwasher or microwave, use low settings. But I recommend avoiding these heat sources as much as possible.

2. Avoid shocks. Have you ever accidentally put a hot glass dish into a sink with cold water? If it wasn’t Pyrex I’ll bet that it cracked or perhaps shattered spectacularly. Thankfully hand painted ceramics won’t explode if quickly moved from cold to hot, but again, they don’t like it and small cracks can occur. Never transfer a dish straight from the refrigerator to the microwave – make temperature changes as gradual as possible.

3. Crazing isn’t breakage. Over time Majolica ceramics may develop tiny lines or cracks in the glaze. This is a natural part of the aging process for these wonderful hand painted ceramics, not breakage. In fact, some people believe that it adds an antique charm to a piece’s look. If you want to minimize this effect, follow rule #2 assiduously. Run warm water over a plate or bowl before filling it with hot food or liquid, or use a metal spoon as a heat conductor when filling mugs.

4. Beware the drying rack. Hand made ceramics prefer hand washing – but you still need to be careful when it comes to drying. Breakage is easy when you pile plates and mugs or are clumsy with a dishtowel. Minimize stacking and placing pieces where they can be easily knocked over.

5. Use them! Sure the easiest way to keep your Majolica safe is to keep it hidden away… but where’s the fun in that? I believe that part of caring for these fabulous hand made ceramics is using them frequently.  After all, they were created with the intention of being used and loved. So have your morning coffee in that great mug, eat dinner off that beautiful plate, and keep that vase filled with flowers on the dining table. No sense in having Majolica or any other ceramics if you don’t enjoy them!

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Inspired Mexican Tile and Houseware

I’ll admit to occasionally surfing the web looking for inspiring pieces, like Mexican plates or Italian mugs. This week, hankering for some different Mexican painted ceramics, I stumbled upon Tierra Y Fuego. A company that stocks Mexican tile and housewares, I simply must share some of their products with you.

What first struck me were the sinks – one of my favorite examples of authentic Mexican painted ceramics. They offer a huge variety of styles and types: Round, oval, or rectangle, these pieces use Talavera designs in vibrant, bold colors. Why not make hand washing even more exciting with something handcrafted and unique? They add instant personality the bathroom.

Even cooler were the over the counter basin sinks that have hand painting inside and out, truly a visual delight. The hand forged iron stands compliment the rustic component of these Mexican painted ceramics, perfect for a second bathroom or decorative purposes. I dream of having a bathroom someday that incorporates one of these.

Perhaps for the wilder lovers of Mexican painted ceramics are the toilets. That’s right, as in commodes. I had never considered this use of Talavera – they even come with matching sinks for the full package! Definitely statement pieces for any home.

Talavera tile is hugely popular and Tierra Y Fuego certainly showcase a range of these Mexican painted ceramics, all made by hand. They have animals, traditional designs, and even almost Italian flower and flourish patterns. Of course, there’s a wide array of solid color to compliment any of their collection. With a variety of sizes and discounts on bulk orders, you can add color and personality to anywhere in a home from kitchen to bathroom or even a stairway. There’s even ceramic trim and molding – genius!

There are also a variety of Mexican plates in the Talavera style and other smaller items including floor tiles. Be sure to check out the step-by-step process these terra cotta pieces take (with pictures). Looking at their customer reviews, they seem to ship quickly and pack well, always something I look for in a ceramic company. Now, how to figure out how to justify one of those sinks…

All images courtesy of Tierra Y Fuego.

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The Best Place to Buy Italian Ceramics: It’s Closer than You Might Think

So you’re on a whirlwind vacation in Italy and want to buy some ceramics? Think again. I know what you’re thinking, while there are some things you can’t bring home – the espresso in the piazza, the incredible pizza, the sun glinting on canals – but beautifully-painted Italian ceramics seem like a great, tangible souvenir that will forever remind you of your Italian adventure. However, there are some solid reasons why importing Italian ceramics yourself is just not worth it.

I hear horror stories from customers all the time that go something like this:

“We visited a small town known for its ceramics and shopped around until we found the most interesting artist. We fell in love with the work – it was so unique and perfect for our home! After developing such a strong connection with the people at the workshop, we thought that splurging on an entire set of dishes would be the perfect souvenir.

“The seller told us they could ship directly to our home and that we would avoid paying VAT because of the customs regulations. It was definitely pricey, but we figured it must be cheaper than what we’d pay in the US; even when we found out the handling and shipping fees it still seemed worth it.

“Imagine our frustration when we received our package (a few months later) and found almost half of the pieces broken! I can’t even tell you how upset and disappointed we were.”

Besides the complicated dance that is getting an Italian VAT refund and paying duty at US customs, there’s nothing more upsetting than finding a box of broken shards after you’ve invested hundreds of dollars. Many people just don’t realize how well ceramics need to be packed to make the long journey. I know this from personal experience, you can be sure. I spend a lot of time (and money) researching packing and shipping methods so that everything arrives in one piece, wherever my artists may be located. I hate the idea of letting even one of these works of art break in transit.

Tuscia d'ArteSo what’s the answer? I recommend touring the workshops while in Italy, meeting the artists, gaining an appreciation for the craft, and identifying your favorite designs and styles. Then, once you’ve returned to the States, find a reliable place to buy Italian ceramics. Enjoy your Italian experience and then let someone else do all the legwork that goes into importing. You can buy Italian ceramics online from a reputable source – inquire about their shipping methods and policies before you buy. And think about bringing some less breakable souvenirs home from your next Italian vacation.

Photo of Grand Canal courtesy of Dennis Jarvis.

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The Story Behind Gorky Gonzalez Pottery

The story of Gorky Gonzalez has all the necessary ingredients to inspire an epic movie. Young man is inspired by antique artwork, takes a journey across the seas to learn from revered masters, meets his wife, returns to his homeland to rescue a forgotten craft, and passes his prosperous business on to his son. Gorky Gonzalez pottery is world-renowned and it’s easy to see why! Let’s take a deeper look at the story.

In the early 1960s, Gorky Gonzalez discovered an antique piece of pottery in the Majolica style.  The discovery set him on a course that would ultimately lead to the rescue of this forgotten craft, which had been abandoned because of its association with Spain and colonialism after Mexican independence in the 1820’s. In 1965, Gorky won a scholarship to study pottery in Japan under the artists Tsuji Seimei and Kei Fijiwara, considered two of Japan’s living treasures. There he learned the bizen and shigaraki techniques, expanding his ceramic repertoire.

Gorky returned from Japan with his wife Toshiko, who became an integral part of his new pottery business. Now, along with their son (known as Gogo), they have a bustling workshop that has preserved the original, traditional designs from the colonial period. Many say that their studio Alfareria Tradicional is the most important Majolica workshop in Mexico. In 1992, the President of Mexico awarded Gorky the National Award of Sciences and Arts in the field of Popular Art and Traditions for “his exceptional contribution to Mexican popular art.”

What makes Gorky Gonzalez pottery so unique? It melds fun characters with sophisticated techniques and brings together defining elements of Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Indigenous-Mexican roots. Pieces have appeared in publications and exhibitions worldwide, including a recent appearance at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Gogo has also created his own line of Gorky pottery in a more contemporary style.

Gorky pottery is handpainted and handmade, so no two pieces are ever exactly identical. They use clay from the nearby Sierra de Santa Rosa (as ceramists have been doing for centuries, even before the Spanish arrival in the 1500’s). I love how Gorky ceramics seamlessly blend traditional and contemporary techniques and styles to make something truly distinctive.

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Emilia Ceramics at the Gamble Garden Spring Tour

Last week, Emilia Ceramics was included in the Gamble Garden Spring Tour in Palo Alto. Gamble Garden is a non-profit horticultural foundation dedicated to community gardening. The property includes an historic home, carriage and tea house, and a beautiful, sprawling garden, all of which is open to the public every day of the year.

I was first introduced to Gamble Garden as an elementary school student, when my class went there once a week to learn the basics of gardening. Beyond giving us an excuse to get out of the classroom, it was a great introduction to harvesting your own vegetables and caring for flowers. My fond memories of those weekly trips made me eager to join this annual event.

The Gamble Garden Spring Tour is focused around visiting a small selection of well cared for private gardens in Palo Alto. With a donation of $45, participants gain access to these gardens, where they are inspired with new landscaping ideas and introduced to rare varieties of foliage.

Back at the Gamble Garden property itself, there is music, food, raffles, and shopping. Emilia Ceramics was one of a few vendors included in the weekend boutique.  The beautiful green, blue, and gold glazes were right at home in the garden. Here are a few photos of my table set-up:

Also included in the boutique were vendors selling beautiful scarves and tunics, colorful bags, and exotic jewelry.  A highlight of the shopping experience is the “Over the Garden Fence,” which sells lightly used home and garden decor donated to Gamble Garden.

It was a lovely weekend spent soaking up the sun and sharing my collection with admiring garden enthusiasts. As always, I really enjoyed discussing ceramic artists and cultural influences with well-traveled and artistic people. I gained some really nice new customers and got to visit with longtime friends who live in and around Palo Alto.

Not surprisingly, the plates, bowls, and pitchers by Sylvie Duriez were a big hit. I am down to only a few of her pieces, making another trip to Provence seem almost mandatory. People also loved Patrice’s beautiful blue-glazed bowls and Richard’s rustic pitchers.

Now that I think about it, there was definitely a French-theme to the weekend.  It makes sense, in that the relaxed, rustic elegance of my Provencal collection fits well in the low-maintenance and natural beauty of the Palo Alto garden scene.

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The Best Mexican Pottery: A Checklist for What to Buy

Contemporary, unexpected, modern, colorful – this is what I think of when it comes to buying Mexican pottery. Surprised? The garish stereotypical wares made to sell as souvenirs don’t stir my inner collector. But when it comes to Mexican imports there’s a huge array of exceptional, interesting pieces that I find myself drooling over when visiting artists in their workshops. So what do you need to start buying Mexican pottery yourself?

In terms of design, there are so many more choices than just the rustic or raw, unfinished look. Just look at the range within Talavera ceramics! Two-toned zigzags and stripes create a sleek, modern feel; bold colors and playful motifs add a bit of charm. Feeling more simplistic or just not into patterns? Solid color pieces accent any collection, from plates to planters.

Sometimes my customers are overwhelmed by the vibrant quality of Mexican import pottery. Remember: a little can go a long way. So why not start with a special platter or a few mugs to see how pieces can lift both your mood and the ambiance of your home?

Besides looking at how to choose the best handmade ceramics, be careful when buying pieces you intend to use for food. Verify that they have met FDA standards and are lead free. Even if a ceramic piece is dishwasher or microwave safe, try to use lower heat settings to prolong their life. They’re not just dishes, they’re also artwork.

Ready to start exploring what Mexican pottery you should buy? Here’s a non-exhaustive checklist to get you inspired:

Tibor: The Mexican word for ginger jar or urn shape (above right) is a classic Mexican import. Great for indoor and outdoor decoration, the tibor combines modern design with authentic Mexican charm and comes in various sizes. We liked them so much that we made them into lamps (above left), giving the tibor a more practical touch.

Vases: Don’t stop with the tibor, other vase shapes, from a large statement piece to a small touch of color, add instant artistic appeal to your home.

Candle holders & Tablewares: Both practical and decorative, these add flare to any table setting. Salt and pepper shakers never looked so good, especially by the soft glow of candlelight.
Dishes: For platters and plates, the various shapes and types of Mexican pottery make them ideal for serving and enjoying everything from tapas to main courses.

Drinkware: When you discover a handmade Mexican mug or cup and saucer that is beautifully crafted and lovingly painted, your coffee or tea really does taste better.

Bowls: Again, the range here goes from little bowls perfect for a tasty dessert to a huge salad bowl fit for a fiesta. I like to fill my soup bowls with pazole, but what’s your favorite?

Planters: Inside or out, give your plants a stylish home that keeps them moist and protected. Whether that means a pot on the patio or a single flower in the kitchen, you’ll smile every time you look at your plants.

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How to Choose the Best Handmade Ceramics

When looking at handmade ceramics, sometimes we fall instantly in love with a piece. But is it worth pulling out our wallet and bringing it home? Deciding whether or not to buy handmade ceramic pottery is definitely a subjective task, but here are the five things I look for when purchasing a piece for myself:

1.Individuality and originality. Is there something about the piece that is truly unique? That I’ve never seen before? When actually handmade, no two pieces of ceramic pottery are exactly the same. Furthermore, I love handmade ceramics with a shape and/or design that captures something about the artist or strikes a personal cord. I never regret investing in an original piece of ceramics to which I feel a strong personal connection.

2. Quantity. However, one-of-a-kind can be frustrating if you’re looking to get a matching set of 6 mugs. When picking out mugs (or any other tableware), find out if the artist reuses patterns or makes deliberate sets; some do. Others prefer a less structured approach and only create one-of-a-kind items or those with limited availability. Personally, I think mixing various mug or plate designs is a great way to add depth to the table.

3. Usefulness. If a vase can’t hold water or be thoroughly washed, it’s not much of a vase. Sometimes pieces are overly designed, adding aesthetics but taking away from the practical side of hand-painted ceramics. It’s important to remember that the best handmade ceramics were crafted with the intention of being used. If you find a platter you love and will use in your daily life (or at least more than once a year), it’s a sensible investment.

4. Durability. Will the handmade ceramics you love stand the test of time? Well-made artistic ceramics are actually much more durable than the cheaper, factory-made alternative.  But it is art and you will want to give it special attention, especially if you consider it an heirloom worth keeping forever and passing along to your kids.  The natural aging process for Majolica involves “crazing” (the appearance of minuscule lines in the glaze). While this doesn’t affect durability, it can alter the look of a piece, giving it an antiqued look that most collectors appreciate.

5. Craftsmanship and quality. Hand-painted ceramics are works of art, individually made and painted. Because of the precision involved, you’ll sometimes notice glazing variations, a smudge or even a fingerprint. I always inspect a piece closely to locate these inconsistencies, but I don’t necessarily rule a piece out because of them.  If the ceramics are made by an experienced artist who knows their craft, I consider these “mistakes” to be signs of authenticity, adding personality and value to the purchase.

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French Country Décor Finds A City Home

It’s amazing what a concerted design effort can do. I was so impressed by the redesign of a loft in a former factory building I saw on ParkslopePatch.com, inspired by French country decor . This family’s transformation of their living space makes it feel like anything but an urban environment! I particularly love the kitchen and dining area, as well as the use of salvaged materials to make a rustic and livable space.

Typically the rich colors of French country decor find inspiration from the mountains to the ocean and all the nature in between. Fibers, wood, and weathered stone inspire warm neutrals. Yellows become more golden; reds have a hint of orange; greens and blues are more mellow than vibrant, reflecting natural aging. There’s an approachability to it that I find truly irresistible.

Here, the weathered furniture and aged feel make this apartment look like a country cottage. Barnwood shelves, a rustic table, even antique tools and other accessories are all unique, yet come together seamlessly. Looking at the photos, I instantly thought about pieces by Sylvie Duriez and how her work would fit the space perfectly.

I love how ceramics from Provenca bring the warmth and brightness of the Mediterranean to the home year-round. Plates, bowls, platters, even jugs and vases keep sunshine present even on rainy days. Another element of Provenca (or Provence if you prefer) is a true connection to the rhythms of life. When there, I feel myself slowing down to match the dominant pace where a good life, not a fast one, is key.

Unique among ceramics from Provenca and what I particularly love about Sylvie Duriez’s work is the relaxed playfulness: Women reclining under trees, cats napping on armchairs, birds feasting on ripe fruit. She paints freely and no two pieces are ever alike, making them true functional works of art. This is quite different from traditional Majolica that follows specific, set designs. Since meeting Sylvie in 2007 I’ve seen her work evolve as she explores inspiring artistic avenues that combine beauty with function. Themes of women, flowers, birds, and other aspects of daily life capture moments to which everyone can relate. The result is pottery that adds warmth and personality to a typical meal – perhaps the best reflection of true Provenca attitude.

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Mexican Ceramics: A Rich History Worth Further Exploration

How can you not love Mexican ceramics? The vibrancy and colors make it perfect for a party; I particularly love how Mexican painted ceramics add zest and exuberance to any occasion. But what gives Mexican ceramics their unique charm? Like all pottery, it comes partially from the local traditions of its place of origin and partially from the contemporary influences of today’s artists. Let’s take a look back to get a better idea of the history behind modern Mexican ceramics.

Mexican pottery has a long history, beginning with the Olmec culture (1500 B.C. –800 A.D). The mother of the Mesoamerican cultures, ceramics played a major role in the lives of the Mexican people during this time. Archaeological ruins of ancient Olmec cities give us examples of Mexican ceramic vessels, figures, and utensils that were used in their daily life. Even here we see some primitive firing techniques and painted designs.

Jumping forward in time, the Aztecs (1325 A.D. – 1521 A.D.) made all kinds of ceramics including jugs, cups, pots, and plates, mostly with orange and red clay. In the north, the Casas Grandes culture (100 A.D. – 1360 A.D.) created beautiful multi-colored ceramics with painted geometric motifs. Through all these time periods and in each distinct culture, ceramics incorporated the independent creativity of each artist into local traditions of design and firing techniques.

Pottery (as with all aspects of daily life) changed dramatically when the Spanish arrived in Mexico in the 1500’s. The introduction of the potter’s wheel as well as Majolica glaze and firing techniques blended together to create something new in Mexican ceramics. Roman Catholic priests imported ceramics from Talavera de la Reina (in Spain) to their colonies in Mexico; then the local artists adopted the technique, adding their own flavor to it. Now Talavera pottery, particularly from Puebla, Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, is one of Mexico’s best-known exports.

It’s no wonder that modern Mexican ceramics are truly something special. The flair and methods are wide-ranging, but no matter what type appeals to you, it’ll be a unique blend of backgrounds that exists nowhere else in the world.

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Ceramiche Bartoloni

Patrizio and Stefano Bartoloni
Brothers Patrizio and Stefano Bartoloni in front of their workshop

Brothers Patrizio and Stefano Bartoloni started their ceramics business when they were 18 and 20 years old. 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.

Below is an old photo of the Bartoloni brothers and their father. Their parents have always worked with them and their dad still does some of the painting. Over the years they’ve hired a few other people to help run the business, but the Bartolonis still do all the artwork themselves.
Bartoloni Brothers With Their Dad
Bartoloni Brothers With Their Dad
The Bartolonis are located in Montelupo, which is a short train ride from Florence. Montelupo became became famous for their ceramics beginning in the 13th century, when Moorish traders traveling to Florence along the old Roman road, passed right through Montelupo with ceramic wares from Spain. Then, during the Renaissance, artisans in Montelupo began elaborating on the ceramic designs, adding realistic imagery and brighter colors – transforming it into the high art form it is today.
I’m including a few photos and links of my favorite Bartoloni pieces.  These are truly works of art – but art that was created to be used and enjoyed.  I love imagining how each of these pieces began as a piece of clay on a wheel in the Bartoloni studio… was handcrafted by this family with love and artistic passion… then painted following their traditional techniques… and finally, after a long trip, arrived here in the US, to be appreciated and used by a new family.  Nothing makes me happier than finding loving homes for these beautiful pieces.  Hope you like them!

Jessica Vases
Jessica Vases
Limoni Pitcher
The Limoni design is by far the most popular in my Bartoloni collection
Rooster Casserole Dish
Roosters are popular among Majolica designs in general, but I think the Bartolonis do them best!
Frutta Venezia Canisters
Frutta Venezia Canisters