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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).

raffaelesco deruta
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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Santa Fe Indian Market: Incredible Handmade Pottery and More

I ended up at Santa Fe’s incredible annual Indian Market just the other week purely by chance. But what a feast for the eyes! The entire plaza downtown was covered in booths with art ranging from ceramics to handweavings to paintings. Native American artists bring to the market truly incredible examples of their work, often from multiple generations.

New Mexico landscape

This was my first visit to New Mexico. It was much greener than I expected, thanks to recent rains. Santa Fe was full of cool spots, like the revitalized Santa Fe Railyard that now boasts cafes, restaurants, and weekly market events.

santa fe railyard

Walking towards the Plaza we passed a bunch of beautiful doorways, churches, and lots of hanging bunches of peppers. Apparently dried peppers are a New Mexico thing; they were everywhere. We got to the fringes of the market and suddenly there were rows and rows of artist’s booths. I have an unerring eye for locating silver jewelry that’s completely beyond my price range, but looking at the incredible, detailed earrings, I knew they were worth every penny.

santa fe church

The Indian Market covers 14 blocks, with more than 1,000 artists in over 600 booths. All that art plus all the people browsing made for quite a crowd. I saw ceramic artists with tables full of figurative pottery next to other artists who specialized in black glazed bowls and other decorative-looking vessels. Different pueblos have different clay available for their craft, the secrets of which have passed down from generations. I talked with a family who had an array of shiny, black glazed animal ceramics. The smallest pieces had been done by the 12-year-old daughter, larger pieces by the daughter in her 20’s, and then incredibly intricate, large figures made by their grandfather. It seemed that everything the mother had made was already sold. Lesson: if you got to the Santa Fe Indian Market, go on Saturday. And have cash or checks with you.

Unfortunately the batteries in my phone drained taking this video of a boy doing a traditional hoop dance, so I have no photos of the incredible array of handmade pottery that was there. He had incredible flair and verve; he also can’t be more than 5 years old.

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Although the Indian Market is only once a year, handmade ceramics abound year round. I saw talavera ceramics quite frequently, including these ceramic tiles on the wall outside of a shop.

ceramic tiles in santa fe
It’s like the red sports car phenomenon: when you have one, you can’t help but see them anywhere. Though in my case I can’t help but see majolica-style ceramics. It’s probably no surprise that much of the majolica I saw looks quite similar to traditional Mexican ceramics. After all, these ceramic traditions stretch back before today’s borders.

Have you been to Santa Fe’s Indian Market? What caught your eye? Maybe I’ll see you there next year!

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Our Favorite Handmade Handpainted Majolica

From leaves and flowers to frogs and ornate curlicues, handmade handpainted majolica spans a range of styles. Partly the differences have to do with changing fashions and artistic movements. For example, English Victorian-era majolica is much more vegetal in shape than Italian Renaissance pieces, as these examples show:

Victorian majolica

Victorian majolica

I think having a snake as the spout of your teapot (bottom shelf in the middle) is a bit over the top, which is probably why I’ve never really gotten into collecting this style of majolica. Many pieces in this style were also mass-produced instead of handmade and handpainted; I definitely prefer ceramics where you can tell they’ve been made by human hands. That said, these majolica serving platters are pretty impressive. Each plate depicts the food it’s designed to serve, though with the lead used in glazes in this period, I wouldn’t eat off of them.

majolica serving platters

Of course, three-dimensional ceramics are live and well today. Just look at these French serving platters, each with a different relief around the border.

French serving platterfrench serving platterHowever, contemporary majolica artists often leave their pieces smooth to really show off the intricacies of designs painted in glaze, like these Mexican serving platters.

Mexican serving platter

 

Display is a crucial aspect of any majolica collection. This kitchen uses a mixture of vintage-looking majolica plates and platters for a great focal point over the stove that doesn’t conflict with the ceiling pattern.

majolica plate displayWhat are your favorite examples of handmade handpainted majolica serving plates and platters?

English tea service images courtesy Martha Stewart Living, March 2005, via Martha Moments.

Green kitchen image courtesy Mendelson Group via Laura Casey Interiors.

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3 Reasons Why These Wine Cups Will Improve Your Summer

I have outdoor dining on the brain – blame it on the sunshine and rising temperatures. But decorative dinner plates are just the beginning; drinks are another vital part of any summer meal. Tired of plastic cups that fly away and glasses that shatter due to a guest miscalculating the distance between guest and deck railing? Enter Ceramica Valenciana‘s smart Spanish ceramic drinkware. Here are three reasons why these are the wine cups that will change your outdoor entertaining.

spanish ceramics from ceramica valenciana

1. The laws of physics. A lower center of gravity means these cups are less likely to tip, especially when compared to a traditional wine glass with stem.

spanish ceramic wine cups

2. Durable style. Because of the majolica firing process used to make these Spanish ceramics, if they tip over or drop a short distance, they probably won’t break (like glass would). Plus, their clean lines and simple designs are picnic-perfect chic.

3. Temperature control. Best of all, the solid ceramic helps keep your beverage cool on the hottest day, whether it’s a glass of sparkling water or homemade sangria.

spanish ceramics

Outdoor entertaining just got a lot easier. Looking to add more Spanish flair to your summer? Besides the cleverly labeled vino and aqua cups (helpful for telling your wine and water apart), I love Ceramica Valenciana’s serving dishes, pitchers, and platters. Causal and clean, these Spanish ceramics definitely stand out from the rest. Now that’s something worth raising a glass to!

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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.

Deruta patternDeruta pattern

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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Holiday Hours, New Arrivals, and Ginger Jars

Emilia Ceramics holiday hours

Christmas is next week, and our Boulder Showroom has been busy with people trying to find the perfect gift for people on their lists. Luckily I have a few gifts of my own for Emilia Ceramics customers: two brand new artists for the collection and some new arrivals from old favorites. Here’s the run down of what’s going on:

Holiday Hours

We have extended hours in our Boulder Showroom for easy holiday shopping. Stop by and check out new arrivals not yet on the website, unique non-ceramic gifts (including these gorgeous handmade ornaments from Mexico — 100% of the profits go to supporting the community from which they come), and plenty of gift ideas from ginger jars to serving platters to salt and pepper sets. If you’re not in Boulder, call us at 303.442.0180 before Friday for express shipping options so that gifts will arrive in time for Christmas.

New Artists

Ceramica Valenciana’s modern Spanish ceramics are already a hit, and I’ve been working hard at getting even more of their mugs, pitchers, ginger jars, and serving ware on the website.

white ginger jar
We also have a new artist from Italy, Ceramiche Gialletti Giulio, a third generation majolica studio in Deruta. Their unique jewelry boxes, table accessories, and serving platters are truly stunning with intricate patterns and an array of rich colors. Stay tuned as we add their elegant place settings to the website over the next few days! Again, there are even more pieces in our Boulder Showroom, so stop by and see these beautiful Italian ceramics in person before anyone else.

handmade Italian jewelry box

 Italian salt and pepper set

Ginger Jars

Talavera Vazquez fans are all-about this Mexican studio’s gorgeous ginger jars, but I’m in love with their smaller pieces this holiday season. The small round striped vases make a great gift, as do their candleholders.

Mexican candleholdersOf course, ginger jars large and small remain favorites for traditional and modern homes alike. Mexican ceramics are ideal for people who love to entertain with causal elegance, making the Vazquez and Gorky collections popular year round, not just for the holidays.

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The Pefect Gift: A Handmade Serving Platter


El Mar Serving Dish

I just had two very nice customers come into my little Boulder Showroom, looking for a gift idea for a special friend of theirs. We looked at and discussed all sorts of options… and through the process, I came to realize that I truly believe there is no better gift than a classic handmade, hand-painted serving platter. It can be hung on the wall for decoration or used to serve just about anything, depending on its size, depth, and shape. It is truly always more fun to serve a good meal from handcrafted serving platters, especially when they’re glazed beautifully and formed into a useful shape. Here are a few examples of my favorites. Some of these I’ve given as gifts before and I can attest to the fact that they’ve been much used and loved!

richard_platter_steakFrench Serving Platters
Richard Esteban has a knack for making serving platters that cry out to be used. This burnt-honey fish platter is one of my favorites and I gave it as a Christmas gift to my dad a few years ago. Since then, he has used it to serve salads and meat dishes, even a Thanksgiving turkey last year! Each of the fish platters by Richard Esteban has a unique size and an original decoration around the edge. I love the guarantee that each serving platter is an original — an equal cannot be found the world over. Talk about a one-of-a-kind gift!

I also love Richard’s petal platters. These have a bit more depth than the fish platters, making them perfect for serving dishes with sauce. Whether it’s a pork roast or a yummy pasta dish, the large petal platter is perfect for serving with style. The unique shape of the serving platter also makes it ideal for passing.
barn_red_petal_platterMexican Serving Platters
Gorky Gonzalez makes a few of my favorite serving platters… and they’re very affordable! Both the El Mar Platter and the Amor Platter have a great shape for serving all sorts of things, from cheese and crackers to veggies… and dessert! My brother loves making Caprese Salad on the Amor Platter I gave him last year. (Who said ceramics only make good gifts for women? I have a whole section of the website devoted to gifts for men!)

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I have also fallen in love with this blue and white serving platter by Talavera Vazquez. I love the vibrant blue and white design, which would look so amazing filled with an assortment of appetizers or on a buffet with delicious finger-foods. The holes on the back of this large plate also make it a tempting decoration for the kitchen wall. What a beautiful, unique, and meaningful gift idea?!
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IMG_4072Italian Serving Platters
Last, but most definitely not least, there are so many Italian serving platters that make great gifts. I think the question really comes down to color and shape when shopping for the perfect piece of handmade hand-painted Majolica. Traditionalists can usually be counted on to like Italian serving platters where blue and yellow play the lead role. For these folks, I’d suggest Tuscia’s Oval Serving Platter with Lemons or Square Platter with Pomegranates. Anyone who’s come to my house for cheese and crackers, knows these square serving plates are my go-to for appetizers. If you’re looking for an over-sized serving platter, you can’t go wrong with the large Blu Limoni Platter — it makes a big, fun, colorful Italian statement.

If a traditional cobalt blue isn’t what you’re looking for, I’d suggest the Limoni collection — these fresh, vibrant lemons, hand-painted on oval serving platters and square serving platters are sure to impress. Another fun favorite for serving is the Large Rooster Platter. This dish is colorful, unique, and looks great whether hanging on the wall to decorate the kitchen or on the counter serving a main course.

As you can see, I have a lot of holiday gift ideas — ones for young and old, traditional-types and more contemporary people, Italian-lovers, and those who prefer French Country. But I can guarantee that a handmade serving platter will always make a great gift. Everyone can use them… you can never have too many… and when each is an original, they can only bring a new and original happiness into your life! And isn’t that the point of a great gift? I think so.

Check out all of the Emilia Ceramics Serving Platters by Country:

 

 

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New Spanish Ceramics, Just in Time for the Holidays

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After all the wait, I’m thrilled to announce that the newest addition to the Emilia Ceramics collection has arrived just in time holiday gift-giving. These handmade Spanish ceramics from Ceramica Valenciana are playful and sophisticated, showcasing a stark simplicity with clean, modern lines. A family-owned business, Ceramica Valenciana is one of the reasons I started Emilia Ceramics years ago. We’re still unpacking the boxes, but here’s a quick look at what has been unwrapped so far.

blue and white mugsThe blue and white mugs are currently some of my favorites. With gently curved handles and handpainted blue glaze, the designs really stand out. I love how you can see the brush strokes on the blue and white checkered mug; the café mug and mug are perfect for anyone who loves coffee or tea first thing in the morning. And the labeled pots for coffee or tea help the caffeine flow all morning long.

coffee and tea mugs
ceramic coffee pot
Ceramica Valenciana has a whole collection of ceramics that are clearly labeled for easy identification; these coffee and tea sets are just the beginning. Anyone who loves wine will appreciate the vino cups with their rustic flair.

vino cupsThe aqua pitcher and cups round out the set, serving water in an equally stylish manner. Definitely these are great gifts for anyone who loves to entertain.

serving pitcherThe three canister styles are another example of practical Spanish ceramics. Labeled pastas, garbanzos, and arroz, these gently rounded canisters will keep anything looking good on your countertop (including pasta, beans, and rice). I think they would make excellent unexpected cookie jars too.

blue and white canisterWe’ll be getting even more serving pieces from Ceramica Valenciana on the website soon, so make sure and check back for updates as more Spanish ceramics appear over the coming weeks. Otherwise explore our holiday gift ideas as we count down the days until Christmas.

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Spanish Ceramics Coming Soon from Ceramica Valenciana

spanish ceramics from ceramica valenciana
I’ve gotten photos of my new Spanish ceramics from Mari Jose, the third-generation owner of Ceramica Valenciana. After months of waiting, the newest addition to the Emilia Ceramics collection is almost here! I’m incredibly excited and am hopeful that these beautiful Spanish ceramics will arrive before the end of 2013. Luckily, they’re worth the wait!

cocina spanish ceramic Spanish ceramic butter dish spanish ceramic bottlesAs many of you know, Ceramica Valenciana is one of the inspirations behind the founding of Emilia Ceramics. The studio’s full name is La Cerámica Valenciana de José Gimeno and it’s located near Valencia in Manises, Spain. This famous maker of Spanish ceramics has been in business since 1925 and is still family owned. Their work is the perfect combination of innovation and tradition with a uniquely Spanish spirit. Every time I visit their studio I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of patterns, colors, shapes, and unique ceramics that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It’s truly a wonderful place to spend time.

spanish ceramic salsa bowlsvino wine pitcherCeramica Valenciana is best known for reproductions of traditional ceramics and azulejos (tiles), crafted with love and expertise by their team of artists using traditional majolica techniques. Their modern line still is completely handmade and handpainted, with bowls, plates, serving pieces, canisters, and other Spanish ceramics that have a clean, understated feel. The upcoming arrivals are pictured below being packed up with care. I am trying to not obsessively email reminding them to over pack everything so that nothing breaks. These Spanish ceramics look so great it would be a shame to have them arrive in fragments… so here’s to the magic of good packing material and quality shipping companies. The pitchers and bowls alone are certainly worth waiting for. I can’t wait to share them all with you in the coming months!
packing Spanish ceramics
Spanish ceramics

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Last Stop: Italian Ceramics and the Amalfi Coast

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Since my last post I’ve spent some quality time on the Amalfi Coast, seen even more stunning ceramics, flown back to San Francisco, and started packing for my big move to Boulder, CO. It’s been a busy week to say the least.

This trip to Italy has been unlike previous ones since I got to explore new parts of Italy and meet lots of potential new artists to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection. Just like their French counterparts, Italian ceramic artists are deeply saturated in tradition yet also find new ways to use elements of their craft to create stunning, contemporary-feeling pieces. My last stop was in Vietri Sul Mare (not to be confused with Vietri ceramic), home to Ceramica Solimene. Solimene ceramics are bright and colorful, with an almost childlike appeal. I toured the factory and was amazed by the diversity of Italian style dinnerware and decorative pieces that Vietri Sul Mare is famous for. And it wasn’t just Ceramica Solimene that was busting with beautiful ceramics… the entire town of Vietri Sul Mare is full of ceramic shops, many with beautifully-painted tiles announcing their names out front. I must admit that after all the Italian ceramics I had seen in Florence, Orvieto, and Deruta, I was beginning to feel a touch of exhaustion.

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Thankfully, the gorgeous beaches of the Amalfi Coast were perfect for my over-saturated senses. A few days of rest and relaxation (including beach time and as many cappuccinos as I could handle) and I was ready to head back to San Francisco. With all these amazing new potential Italian ceramic artists, I’ll be taking some time figuring out what fits best with the current collection and the further logistics of orders in the coming months. Hopefully I’ll have new French and Italian pieces this fall… it seems a long ways away right now, but I know it’ll be here before I know it.

Now that I’m back stateside, it’s time for another round of packing my bags. I’m moving to Boulder and excited about the new Emilia Ceramics Showroom on Pearl Street. Once I get things unpacked I’ll share some photos of the new space. If you have any advice on what to do or where to go in Boulder, please leave a comment below. I’ll keep you posted on how the unpacking progresses.

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Majolica Madness in Deruta!!

drive_to_derutaAfter a few days in Florence, I was excited to get back to the country. It has been 5 years since I was in Italy last and I had forgotten just how beautiful Tuscany truly is! Especially this time of year — rolling green hills, red poppies everywhere, and little hill towns around every bend in the road. I spent 2 nights in beautiful Montepulciano and then headed even farther south, to the equally beautiful region of Umbria. orvieto_2The most visible difference between Umbria and Tuscany seems to be slightly steeper hills in Umbria… and a different name for the delicious local wine served at restaurants. I was staying in Orvieto, a town known best for its cathedral, its ceramics, and its Classico wine. I was of course there for the ceramics, but I also enjoyed time spent gazing at the cathedral and drinking the Classico.

But back to the real reason I was in Umbria: a visit to Deruta, a small town with a big ceramics industry. There are actually two parts of Deruta: the small old town up on the hill, which is quaint and full of ceramic stores, and the larger “new” area down below, which is a little faster-paced, but also full of ceramic stores (as well as workshops and showrooms). I started my day in the old section, enjoyed a cappuccino on the main square and then strolled around, doing a little window shopping to whet my appetite. Then I ventured down into the more modern town, where I went looking for old acquaintances and new ceramics for the Emilia Ceramics collection.majoliche

My first stop was visiting my uncle’s good friends Silvana and Marcello who have a small ceramics business at the outskirts of town. I interrupted Silvana in the midst of her work and explained in my best Italian: il zio mio e Gifford (my uncle is Gifford), which was all the introduction I needed. We had a fun catch-up session (which was repeated when Marcello arrived a few minutes later) in which I spoke my few words of Italian mixed with much more Spanish and they spoke Italian quickly with lots of hand gesturing to try to make me understand. In the end, Silvana suggested that I go visit a ceramics shop in town that I hadn’t heard of before. She offered to take me and introduce me to the nice people who worked there.

gialleti            sale_pepe
And that’s how I ended up at Ceramiche Gialletti Giulio, a beautiful shop packed with vases, lamps, plates, clocks, and lots of fun smaller pieces like salt & pepper grinders and oil & vinegar dispensers. I got the royal treatment from Michele—including a tour and explanation of the process (all in amazing English)—and found some great pieces. I am most excited about the colorful, yet sophisticated table settings I am hoping to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection!

My next stop was right nearby — I was meeting with Gerardo Ribigini whose shop Geribi (which I just realized is a combination of his first and last name : ) I visited 5 years ago. I spent quite a while walking around, looking at his beautifully painted pieces and asking about different patterns, styles, shapes, and designs. I’m definitely looking forward to adding some of his skilled work to the collection as well.

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womenThe final place I went in Deruta was another special visit suggested by my uncle Gifford. Over the years that he’s been visiting Deruta, he has befriended Carmen Monotti, an exceptional artist who creates various types of ceramic artwork. My favorites are her recreations of Klimt paintings (on vases, wall-hangings and necklace pendants — photo on the right)… And the tiles she paints, upon request, for the nearby church, La Chiesa Madonna dei Bagni (photo below). When “miracles” happen in peoples’ lives miracles_1(anything from surviving a car crash to having a healthy baby), those touched by the event commission Carmen to make a tile (in Italian called an ex voto) depicting the scene. The ex voto is hung in the church. I LOVE these tiles — there’s something about their soft colors and simplicity that is so charming.

I had a great time hanging out with Carmen, joking about my uncle, discussing my business, and looking at her artwork. On the way out of town I stopped at La Chiesa Madonna dei Bagni. It is a small church, with simple white walls that make the perfect backdrop for the tiles covering every wall. I would have taken more pictures, but my camera had run out of batteries after the long day filled with so many photogenic subjects! Below you’ll see one of Carmen’s most recent tiles that is hung in the church, followed by an older one done by another artist.

I’m off to the Amalfi Coast now for the final leg of my Italian adventure. I’m going to visit Vietri Sul Mare, another ceramic-centric town, where the well-known Ceramica Solimene is located. I’ll keep you posted!

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Off to France and Italy! What French and Italian Ceramics Will I Find?

TuscanyAs some of you already know, I’ve just gotten to France for the first leg of my June buying trip. Visiting Richard’s studio was stunning, as always, and I’ll write about all that I did there soon. But though I’m excited to be reconnecting with my French artists, I’m particularly looking forward to Italy since it’s been a few years since I’ve visited in person. I’ve done some research on things like Deruta patterns, Vietri dinnerware, and other types of Italian majolica pottery, but there’s really no substitute for actually being “on the ground” where these Italian ceramics are made.

There are three centers of Italian ceramics: Faenza, Deruta, and Montelupo Fiorentino. All three of these areas have access to the raw materials necessary for Italian majolica pottery as well as to major trade routes necessary for success in the Renaissance, making them ceramic centers for hundreds of years. Both Ceramiche Bartoloni and Ceramiche d’Arte Tuscia are in the Montelupo Fiorentino region, and I cannot get enough of their intricately hand painted dinner plates, servingware, mugs, and other Italian ceramics. Both studios are home to incredibly talented Italian ceramic artists and it’s always exciting to see the new ways they combine traditional and modern elements to create unique, personal ceramics.Italian ceramic platterhand painted Italian platter

But what about Italian earthenware or Italian pots? Vietri ceramics or Tuscan style dinnerware?Italian pots These Italian ceramics, along with the famous Deruta, are what I’m hoping to find. I have some leads on some studios that practice traditional methods with everything made by hand and hope to unearth some new gems to add to the Emilia Ceramics collection. I love the geometric shapes that make up Deruta patterns, resulting in breath-taking plates, bowls, and platters. And with all the possibilities for rustic Tuscan style dinnerware, I’m sure to find pieces that fit in with my existing collection. New artists are always a thrill and I can’t wait to start exploring.

Have any suggestions for Italian ceramics I should go after? Know of any artists that would be a good fit for the Emilia Ceramics collection? Leave a comment and I’ll see what I can do!

 

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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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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: 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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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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Ceramica Valenciana: Spanish Ceramics Update

Work schedules are very different in Europe and the United States, especially when it comes to vacation time. It’s very common for businesses to close for weeks in the summer or even the entire month of August. What does this have to do with Spanish ceramics? Well, let’s just say that due to vacation schedules, my order from Ceramica Valenciana (a famous maker of Spanish ceramics and one of the reasons I was inspired to start Emilia Ceramics in the first place) now looks like it will arrive in fall, not summer. (Who am I kidding… let’s just hope it’s here by Christmas!)

But even though I don’t have any pieces by Ceramica Valenciana in stock yet doesn’t mean I can’t give you a sneak peak at what to expect in a few months. The full name of Ceramica Valenciana is La Cerámica Valenciana de José Gimeno and it’s been in business since 1925. This family-run business makes a full range of Spanish ceramics. Most famous for tiles (known as Azulejos in Spain) and reproductions of traditional pieces from the 18th century, they also do many modern pieces, from lamps and canisters to dishes and bowls. What I love about their work is how it combines tradition, innovation, and a fun Spanish spirit.

The quality work at Ceramica Valenciana hasn’t gone unnoticed. They won the Manises “Qualitat i Disseny” award in 1994, 1997, and 2000; the Alfa Gold Award in 1980, 2000, and 2002; and the NOVA for craft (the highest award from the Generalitat Valenciana) in 2006. They also worked with architect D. Santiago Calatrava to construct two huge murals for the Palace of Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia. This dramatic performing arts space is truly stunning; check out their virtual tour and see if you can find the two murals inside.

But even with all these modern accolades, the artists at Ceramica Valenciana still stick to their traditional majolica methods. Pieces are all handmade and hand-painted, which gives every plate, bowl, jar, and vase a truly unique character. Archive footage from 1940 shows José Gimeno himself working on large pieces – check out this video (in Spanish) to see more for yourself. The film quality feels to me like a film noir, but covering Spanish ceramic production. (Fun fact: the factory in the film is the same building that Ceramica Valenciana still occupies today. I’ve been to visit 3 times and it is an old but absolutely stunning building housing endless amounts of ceramic masterpieces.)

http://video.google.es/videoplay?docid=3822281691113565574&hl=es

Even though technology has changed in so many ways, the methods to make these beautiful ceramics have remained the same for hundreds of years. Now that Ceramica Valenciana is almost back from vacation, I look forward to finalizing my order and being able to share their gorgeous Spanish ceramics with you in the near future. Here are a few of my favorite pieces to whet your appetite…

Images and video courtesy of La Cerámica Valenciana de José Gimeno.

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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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How Much is Too Much (Italian Ceramics)?

Recently, someone emailed me with a question about Italian ceramics. She has some old Raffaellesco pieces (like the goblet below) from her mother and wanted to buy new Italian ceramics to match. However, she was concerned about going overboard with the design of her table and ending up with way too much of a good thing. Some people might think that I’d never say you could have too much Italian ceramics. But, they’d be wrong. Especially when it comes to the typical Deruta patterns like Raffaellesco, I believe that too much is, in fact too much.

(On a side note, I imagine this is one reason that Vietri dinnerware has incorporated the more subtle single color look, to augment their busier designs. While Vietri pottery is in fact “made in Italy,” it is designed to sell in America which their Italian-style dinnerware patterns seem to do excellently.)

Deruta patterns vary quite a bit from bold floral motifs to the more detailed and geometric (I definitely consider the Raffaellesco dragon pattern one of the busiest). The collage of Deruta patterns pictured at the beginning of the post demonstrates this variety. While I agree that when seen en-mass they can be a little over-bearing, I think that setting your table with authentic Deruta patterns is a great way to celebrate true Italian style and pay tribute to real Italian ceramic artists.

On the other hand, if a full collection of Tuscan style dinnerware is not your goal and you merely want to incorporate the relaxed beauty of Italian earthenware into your home, I would suggest focusing on statement pieces: Italian vases, pitchers, platters, and lamps. Imagine a simply set table with beautifully-painted, conversation-starting Italian majolica pottery, like the Foglia e Frutta Footed Platter with Angel or the Large Limoni Bowl — both work great as a centerpiece or to serve pasta. I always use my Square Plate with Oranges to serve cheese and crackers because of it’s unusual shape and design. Other current favorites include the Large Pomegranate Pitcher for serving ice water and the Blue Fruit Lamp, just because I think it’s spectacular! As you can probably tell, the majolica designs that I am drawn to are much more relaxed than the formal Deruta designs. They are handmade and painted in Montelupo-Fiorentino and convey the more laid-back feeling of the Tuscan countryside right outside Florence.

I love Italian ceramics – all shapes, sizes, colors, designs, and traditions. But for my own everyday life, I prefer it to accent more relaxed pieces (like the Mexican Gogo plates or French polka-dot bowls), so that it can really stand out and make a statement.

What do you think? What’s your favorite way to incorporate Italian majolica pottery into the home? And can you ever have too much? Write a comment and let me 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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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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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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Italian Style, Italian Ceramics: 5 Top Tips

Italian style seems so effortless, from a relaxed afternoon sipping espresso in the piazza to zipping around town on a Vespa. I know that life in Italy isn’t all what we see in the movies, but there’s still an enviable charm about “la dolce vita.” It’s one of the reasons that Italian ceramics are consistently top sellers – people long for a way to incorporate some of this laid-back style into their own homes.

So how can you add a little Italian style into your home? Here are some tips I’ve picked up over the years when it comes to Italian ceramics:

1. Matchy matchy. Italian style dinnerware comes in many textures, colors, and sizes. Some people have a favorite Deruta pattern and only buy pieces from a particular artist or manufacturer (much like what my grandmother’s generation did with china patterns). I encourage mixing and matching various styles instead of becoming dependent on one specific Deruta pattern, which could stop being produced before your collection is complete or as soon as you break a few dinner plates. Ceramics that are painted by hand will always vary anyway, so why not embrace the variety!

2. Start small. All transformations take time, so gradually introducing Italian ceramics into your home with a piece or two is a smart way to go. An Italian earthenware utensil holder adds color and personality to your counter while keeping ladles, wooden spoons, whisks, and all your other kitchen tools in easy reach. Other options are perhaps an Italian ceramic centerpiece platter for your kitchen or dining room table, a spoon rest for your stovetop, or a handmade Italian ceramic vase in your living room.

3. Money doesn’t buy happiness. Sometimes a price tag can be informative… “made in Italy” on a platter that costs $19.99 for instance, probably means it was signed in Italy. However, that doesn’t mean you can always equate expense with quality. I think this assumption is one reason people spend so much money on Vietri dinnerware. While well-known for emulating Tuscan style, I think that Vietri ceramic fails to capture a truly handmade spirit. While quality is definitely worth paying for, a large price tag doesn’t guarantee quality. Skip Vietri dinnerware and find Italian ceramics that showcase the artist’s personality and match your aesthetic.

4. Color counts. Instead of trying to get the patterns of your Tuscan style dinnerware to all match, chose a few colors and build a collection around those. The variety will add depth and interest to your table, particularly when it comes to layering pieces. From Deruta patterns to Italian majolica pottery, you’re sure to find colors that work with your style. Warm yellows, soft greens, vivid blues, and rich reds are just the beginning.

5. Pack a design punch. Statement pieces are another quick way to transform a room or entire home. Instead of an entirely new collection of Italian style dinnerware, incorporate some stylish serving platters. Italian ceramic planters are another favorite as are wall plates or large Italian earthenware vases. Tuscany here you come!

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How to Avoid Breaking Your Favorite Mugs, Spoon Rests, and More

Gravity sometimes doesn’t feel like a friend when you drop a favorite mug only to have it lose a handle or shatter on your kitchen floor. I heard from a friend last month wanting to find a replacement for a pottery spoon rest she’d dropped and broken. Luckily I still had some that fit her pattern: problem solved.

But it got me thinking: what are the best ways to avoid breaking that favorite Italian hand painted mug or pottery spoon rest? Let’s look at some tips on how to avoid breakage and best care for your gorgeous ceramics.

AVOID: the dishwasher. Chances are if you use something often, it gets washed often. While all my pieces are dishwasher safe, the high temperatures will weaken your handmade Italian pottery spoon rest, plate, bowl, or other favorite pieces, particularly with repeated use. Take the 30 seconds to wash your pieces by hand – they’ll last for years as a result.

EMBRACE: the dishtowel. Dish drying racks are another place that spell doom for Italian hand painted mugs, particularly when you stack them with plates, platters, and bowls. Instead of tempting fate by leaving pieces in a drying rack, quickly wipe them and put them away for added protection.

AVOID: temperature shock. We all know what happens when you put a hot glass into contact with cold water – lots of glass shards to clean up. While Italian pottery holds up better than this, frequent quick temperature changes can result in small cracks in a spoon rest, pitcher, bowl, or other piece. Repeated use of your Italian hand painted mugs in the microwave should be avoided for this reason, even if they’re microwave safe.

EMBRACE: gradual change. The characteristic crazing that majolica develops over time comes as a result of shocks to the glaze. To minimize this effect and keep the integrity of a favorite ceramic piece, make temperature changes smooth. Never go directly from refrigerator to microwave, for example. A handy tip: run warm water in your Italian hand painted mugs before filling them with hot liquids. Your mug will gently warm and keep your drink warmer longer as a result.

AVOID: dropping. Accidents can happen, of course, but most majolica ceramics are quite sturdy. If you protect your pieces from weakening influences, chances are that your Italian pottery spoon rest might survive a small fall and grace your stovetop for years.

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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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New Tabletop Trend: Decorative Ceramic Plates

What’s trending on your tabletop? Do you love a massive centerpiece or a more subdued minimalist design? It’s probably no surprise that I’m a big fan of hand painted dinner plates blended with other personal accents to make a unique statement. And recently I’ve noticed that more and more restaurants are using decorative ceramic plates, vases, and colorful table linens to punch up the dining experience.

I recently read this great article on tabletop trends for restaurants at FE&S. Tabletops really set the tone for a restaurant, whether it’s bare wood and paper napkins or crisp white table clothes and polished silver utensils. More and more restaurants are moving to unique statements with decorative ceramic plates instead of boring white china. Ready to up your dinner party ante? Let’s look at some trends you can take from restaurant tables and put into your own home.

Prioritize Plateware. Presentation of food isn’t just how it’s arranged on the plate, but the plate itself. Restaurants are moving towards more playful and unique small plates for things like dessert or appetizers instead of sticking to a uniform (and boring) white. A natural artisan style is great for small plate restaurants like chef Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat in Chicago. Here they use hand painted plates to enhance both décor and food. In your home, choose decorative ceramic plates for both fun accents and main dishes; the durability of majolica means they’ll last for years to come.

Match Plates to Food. Restaurants want to amp up their “wow” factor when it comes to presentation and part of that is having the right size plate for the job. If you serve an individual appetizer on a full size dinner plate it will look lost and lonely. Think about large bowls, platters, and decorative ceramic plates for serving with style while small plates work great for salads or individual desserts. Layering hand painted ceramic plates is another great way to add texture to your table.

Shapes Matter. I love using plates and bowls that have a surprising shape. Visual interest is increased with variety, so mix decorative ceramic plates that are square, rectangular, and oval. Octagonal plates by Gorky Gonzalez are a great addition for serving a special dessert.

Less is More. A cluttered table can seem overwhelming. Minimal trends in restaurants like bare tables with textured placemats work great in the home, letting you focus on the details. Try bar towels for napkins, high quality silverware with striking design, and maybe a hand-painted pitcher of water or wine.

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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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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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Majolica: More than Just Italian Ceramics!

Even though majolica (or maiolica) has been around for over 500 years, the process remains the same in today’s manufacturing of Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian ceramics in this style. There are five basic steps to create majolica:spanish_artist at potter's wheel

  • Formation – The potter forms the piece by hand and/or with a potter’s wheel and lets it dry in the open air. Dried pieces usually are a light grey color.
  • First Firing – The dried pieces are loaded into a kiln and fired at 1890° Fahrenheit to reach the bisque stage, turning a terracotta red color. Care must be taken that temperatures don’t change too rapidly as they heat up or cool down as this causes the pieces to crack.
  • Glazing – Traditionally the bisque piece is dipped into a white powdery glaze that quickly dries. This provides an ideal surface for hand painting.
  • Painting – Here is where artistry is key. Artists paint the piece with mineral-based glazes that leave no margin for error. Once this glaze is applied it cannot be removed or covered over. An artist might paint freehand or follow a pattern, depending on the piece. Often the glaze colors look totally different than they will on the finished piece.

painting Majolica

  • Second Firing – Here again the kiln is loaded, though the temperature for this second step is only 1690° Fahrenheit. This firing can take up to 24 hours to give pieces 12 hours of constant heat. After cooling, you have gorgeous, vibrant majolica ceramics.

With a process so labor intensive, how has majolica remained popular for so many years? Long before it was transformed by the Renaissance and became synonymous for Italian ceramics, the majolica process was used in 9th century Baghdad and Mesopotamia. The technique made its way through trade routes and the port of Majorca to Spain and Italy, where it inspired local potters.

In the late 15th century and early 16th century fine Italian ceramics meant one thing only: majolica. The form was perfect for practical items like tableware and apothecary jars, mixing function and art with ease. Even more incredible was majolica’s role in social change: instead of people eating off common large wooden platters they now used individual dishes, often decorated with a family’s coat of arms. As you would imagine, dining customs and hygiene changed greatly as a result.

But majolica doesn’t stop there. Victorian majolica, manufactured in the 19th century in Britain and the United States, follows the same process, though the glaze is different. Wedgwood and Mintons were major manufacturers, creating whimsical, creative forms for both decorative and daily use — everything from tableware to umbrella stands and candlesticks. The International Majolica Society is devoted to collectors of this exuberant period of majolica ceramics.

And today? Majolica continues its popularity in Spanish, Mexican, French, and Italian ceramics, combining tradition and modernity, as well as functionality and beauty. In fact, modern majolica shares many common motifs with Italian antique ceramics and Victorian majolica. Rooted in the natural world, both traditional and modern designs often depict flower patterns or raised shapes of fruits and animals, regardless of where or when they are made. It seems clear that the timeless beauty and durability of majolica continues to make this painstaking process well worth the effort.

Victorian majolica fish image courtesy of Leon Brocard.

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Maiolica… or is that Majolica?! Three Historical Centers of Italian Hand Painted Ceramics

Is there a difference between Maiolica and Majolica? It’s a good question and the answer is, kind of. Both words describe the double-firing technique most often associated with hand painted ceramics from Italy. I’ve talked about the history of Majolica before and how this labor-intensive process moved across the world, its patterns and designs evolving from geometric shapes to elaborate images of people and animals. The result is the diverse collection of Mexican, French, Spanish, and Italian hand painted ceramics we know today. (As a side note, Faience, Delftware from Holland, and Staffordshire ware from England are all descendants of Majolica too.)

So back to the question about Maiolica versus Majolica… It turns out that Majolica is just the English version of the Italian Maiolica, though sometimes older and/or finer wares are referred to as Maiolica in English. Confused yet? Think of it this way: either term refers to hand painted Italian ceramics, probably from one of the three epicenters of production in Italy.

  • Faenza. Historically important, it’s no wonder that the International Museum of Ceramics in Faenza makes its home here. A leading city for ceramics from medieval times onward, Faenza was a natural crossroads for the Po valley and Tuscany as well as blessed by rich clay sources in the soil. The Renaissance was when things really got going for these Italian hand painted ceramics. Pieces were described as “faenza-faience,” expressing the elegant and complex style. I saw some marvelous ceramics when I visited the museum, like this one in their Italian-only newsletter. Padovani ceramics continues the long-standing techniques of these Italian hand painted ceramics; their decoration and motif timeline and complex, limited production creations are truly inspiring. These high-end plates take over 10 hours (one even 48 hours!), but the results are magnificent.
  • Deruta. If Faenza became known for its aristocratic style, Deruta is all about manufacture for popular demand. This is the region where lots of “typical” Italian hand painted ceramics come from; its central location in Umbria probably contributes to its ubiquity. Blue, yellow and orange are popular colors, along with strong geometric designs. Even Sur la Table has a “Deruta-style” line of dishes, though they’re obviously not hand made. When I was in Deruta, I met the owner of Geribi Deruta, a great artist that I’m hoping to work with in the future. His collection is definitely worth looking at if you’re interested in seeing more of this style of hand painted ceramics from Italy.
  • Montelupo Fiorentino. Outside of Florence in Tuscany, this is another historically important ceramics center. Florentine merchants helped popularize this Tuscan-influenced ware from the Renaissance onwards, while lots of high quality clay meant production could keep up with demand. This is where I get hand painted ceramics from Italy for the Emilia Ceramics collection; Ceramiche Bartoloni and Tuscia d’Arte both follow the traditions of the area while adding a personal and modern flair. The Museum of Montelupo has a great variety of tours (if you go there) as well as a helpful timeline about this region’s proud tradition of Majolica ceramics.

Deruta ceramics image courtesy of Zyance.

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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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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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Handmade Ceramics Become a “Hands On” Activity

As you all know, I’m slightly obsessed with handmade ceramics. The texture and feel are completely different than a manufactured piece as well as the knowledge that what you’re holding is truly one of a kind.

Reading about the Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City a few weeks ago I was struck by the prominent role of the Pottery Place. Collin Rosebrook, the owner of Paseo Pottery studio, offers people the chance to do the final steps of Raku pottery themselves, reports BAM’s Blog. He, along with students and apprentices, throw and fire thousands of pots in different sizes for months in preparation for the weekend’s festivities. Festival attendees young and old can buy these handmade ceramics, glaze them, and have them fired using the traditional Japanese Raku process.

Raku is similar to Majolica in that it uses mineral glazes and a multi-step firing process. In this case, the Pottery Place offered cobalt blue, dark green, and copper glazes, all of which change with the firing process. Something else that sets Raku apart is the removal of pieces when they’re red hot from the kiln to a reduction chamber (where oxygen reduction gives the glaze its sheen) and then plunged into water for the final cooling step.

With all handmade ceramics, there’s uncertainty and the fear that something might go wrong. But there’s also the joy when it all goes right. Kids especially love the artistic opportunity: “it’s fun seeing their faces. They’re in awe that they created something. I heard one kid say today, ‘I did that!’” said Tom Taylor, who was the area’s volunteer co-chairman.

Families make visiting the booth a yearly tradition. I love that it allows everyone from a toddler to a grandparent to make something so unique and beautiful. I’m sure there are now many new pots on display in these homes and artists (both kids and adults) who are proud of their new handmade ceramics. What a great way to start your own handmade ceramics collection – why not give it a shot?

Photo of raku firing courtesy of Martin Cathrae.

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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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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.